Rebuilding the Fire: From Burnout to Break Out
Rebuilding the Fire. Creative Burnout. Images of the paradoxical phoenix - the mythological bird soaring to new heights upon being consumed by its own destructive flames. For me, a personal symbol of rebirth and liberation:

For the phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire.

A Poignant Paradox of Peak Performance

In my role as America Online's "Online Psychohumorist,"™ I received a compelling email from a reader concerned that his ambitious fire and desire were going out. He was grappling with questions of burnout - a symbolic psychic death - and with setting new goals, that is, rising once again. But the reader provided an ironic twist. He now felt trapped by his peak performance. T. had achieved a status of martial arts champion at the Taekwando World Championships. In his field of business, he was one of the top leaders in his state. (I must admit, I'm experiencing some envy as I write this.) He had climbed to the top of more than one mountain, deservedly basking in glorified and rarefied heights. Yet, T. is left asking, "Have I reached a level of burnout due to...'what's next!?' What could I possibly achieve next?"

Our reader has an advantage over many: "(He) will not be terrified of future success or failure." And he knows "there are many goals out there." But ironically, this last piece of knowledge may contribute to his being stuck. And it may also be the key to discovering the pass in the impasse.

Mid-Life/Career Passage: Three Keys

Many undergo a "mid-life" or "mid-career" crisis. (And some who are precocious may start it prematurely.) Like our email protagonist, these individuals feel a sense of ennui; something's lacking. Their life does not feel genuine; the career no longer fits their professional and personal skin. Does one risk shedding a once bright coat of armor?

These folks may be experiencing a fate similar to Bjorn Borg, the late '70s-early '80s tennis great. Borg, after a nearly invincible five-year run, dramatically burned out on the circuit. Perhaps one can only win the French and Wimbledon Championships back to back so many times. Maybe it's the endless hours of practice repetition. Or does the large ego bruise easily because you can't beat "Mac the Brat" at the US Open? Whatever the combination of factors, despite the money, travel and glory...there's the Bjorn Bored Syndrome: When Mastery times Monotony provides an index of MISERY!

Your niche of success has you now feeling stuck in the ditch of excess. It's definitely a critical crossroad, if not a "crisis." And as the Chinese symbol visually affirmed long ago, crisis is double-edged: you are enveloped in "danger" yet "opportunity." So here are three crisis keys for descending from the peak, retreating into your passionate shadows - in the most spiritually profound sense - and preparing for a renewed transformational journey.

  1. Pursuing Life from the Inside Out. I suspect some of our reader's dilemma stems from a desire to fall back on a familiar problem-solving strategy -- "looking for the many goals out there" that he can master. Sometimes a personal inner search must precede passionate seeking and goal setting.

    Gail Sheehy, in her bestseller, Passages, about transitions throughout the life cycle, had a chapter on "The Mid-Life Crisis." She posed four vital questions for assessing vulnerability and the intensity of the need to engage this mid-life, multidimensional maelstrom:
    a) Ideal vs. Real Self. How wide is the gap between self-aspiration and self-definition? And is this discrepancy a window for motivation or a black hole of depression?
    b) Security vs. Danger. What's the ratio between the predictable and the unexpected in your life? Does security yield confidence or ennui? Does danger mean challenging excitement or anxious despair or rigid constriction?
    c) Time Sense. Is time running out or does the horizon seem limitless? Of course, the former can propel you into goal-seeking while the latter may induce languorous inertia or dilettantism.
    d) Aliveness or Stagnation. This is a global measure, an existential indicator of one's heart and gut. Do you look forward to getting up in the morning? Do you have a genuine or, even better, a passionate connection with the people and projects, with the overall path, of your life?

    Though sometimes we first must reach out to go deep inside. Seeking counseling or a coach, as T. did, is a wise move.

  2. Passion Play. How does one rebuild the motivational fire or "keep it alive" to quote our existential subject. I believe, first, one must let go and acknowledge the loss. An image comes to mind of the professional athlete, caught by aging, slowed reflexes and, often, injury still fighting against time and diminished productivity. The stars who linger past their prime. They try to deny their mortality; dread losing the limelight and entering the uncertain, real world shadows. They do not want to grieve the end of their run. However, when encountering a major transition, we all need to confront what I call, "The Four 'F's of Loss": 1) loss of a familiar past, 2) loss of a predictable future, 3) loss of face, and 4) loss of a focus.

    For we must let go to feel fully the pain, to tap into constructive discontent, to break open the box and discover anew our furies and passions. Especially passions based on our emotional and spiritual sides. Passion goes beyond the sexual realm. A good dictionary often pairs "passion" and "suffering" in "The Passion Play": the sufferings of Jesus or more generically the sufferings of a martyr. (Imagine all this time I never knew my Jewish mother was such a passionate woman! ;-)

    Suffering and Its Creative Discontents

    And the clean suffering of passion, feeling and seeing purely, in an unclouded almost childlike way, has been often linked to psychic death and creative rebirth. Pablo Picasso, the 20th c. artistic giant, who often spoke of striving for childlike perception, observed: "Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction." We must break down old unchallenged habits of mind and senses, scrub psychic flotsam and jetsam, that confound our psychological, sensual and spiritual clarity. The fires of passion purify illusions and pair humility and conviction; righteous pride flames grandiosities. True suffering calms critical voices, soothes and releases us from dreaded fears. And, if we can meander awhile, accept our aloneness, blazing suffering sheds light on "the dark night of the soul."

    As French philosopher, Albert Camus, observed: “Once we have accepted the fact of loss, we understand that the loved one [or loved position, achievement, etc.] obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky washed by rain.” And how do we accept the fact of loss? As I have penned: "Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion, each deserves the respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time. In mystical fashion, like Spring upon Winter, the seeds of disillusion bear fruitful renewal." So my friend, grieve and celebrate the descent from the peak. There are truly new and revolutionary inner mountains to climb, caves to descend or, perhaps, rivers and swamps to navigate.

  3. Exploring the Shadow Side. Once you are living and letting go from the inside out and are diving into your passionate pool of are ready for the final exploration: discovering your shadow side. Carl Jung, a pioneering psychoanalyst and theoretician, saw "the shadow" as primal dimensions of the psyche, presently beyond our consciousness; part of our collective unconscious. Many are not comfortable acknowledging, let alone experiencing, these dimensions. For example, Jung believes we all have masculine and feminine sides. The shadow influences our persona - the face, if not the mask, we present to the outer world.

    And the nature of the shadow/mask is colored, if not molded by the critical, shaming, self-doubting interactions from the past. We internalize hurtful and invalidating communication. Also, we absorb and defend against - consciously and unconsciously - the degree of humiliation, anxiety, rage, depression, emptiness, etc. of our early significant others. (Not to mention the biochemical gifts and vulnerabilities we inherit.) These painful messages and introjects (e.g., believing that you are bad or unworthy when an authority figure accuses you of being selfish for wanting to express genuine needs or feelings of upset) become the psychic albatross we carry on our journey.

    Only by embracing our shadow side can we lighten - both illuminate and unburden - our emotional load. Only by courageously exploring can we discover the seeds of vitality and genuine identity embedded and disguised in the threatening shadows, masks and old voices.

    The Wonders of Wandering and Communing

    It takes time and quiet to wander meaningfully. Character, it is said, develops in interaction with others. Integrity is forged in solitude. One must have the strength to be vulnerable and be alone, to meander in the desert, to descend into the cave; to encounter the primal oasis and pool where the opposites of life, where both shadow and light, where that complex yet cohesive integrity, dwells. Here one discovers the expansive spirit.

    Exploring and integrating our introvertish and extravertish natures is a profound mid-life task. And this is the final truth: To transform and rejuvenate a path means uniting our overt personality strengths and covert, suppressed shadow; it means building an uncommon, synergistic bond between our outer environment and our inner self; it means embracing the primal past, allowing it to breathe and dance, to laugh and cry...right now. And then come back from the desert, from the mountain top, from the subterranean nether world, and share your insights with others.
I will close with a favorite passage forged by the intense, persistent friction of profound self-doubt and determination: Errors of judgment or design rarely consign one to incompetence; they more likely reveal inexperience or immaturity, perhaps even boldness. Our so-called failures may be channeled as guiding streams (sometimes raging rivers) of opportunity and experience that widen and deepen the risk-taking passage. If we can just immerse ourselves in these unpredictably rejuvenating waters.

Until then, of course...Practice Safe Stress!