Photo credit: Paul Specht
The world is a terrible mess and I, like you, am trying to fix it. But I get tired. Don’t you get tired? And overwhelmed? When we’re overwhelmed or exhausted as we resist, persist, etc., what do we do? What helps?
While we were writing our book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle
, my twin sister and I read a bunch of research, and you know what it said would help us?
I know. I was disappointed too, and don’t worry, there are at least a dozen other answers in our book. Some of the answers are simple (if not always easy): move your body, sleep, connect. Some are not simple: smash the patriarchy a little each day, protect yourself from the Bikini Industrial Complex, and consider something we call “Human Giver Syndrome.” All of our answers are as deeply rooted in scientific evidence as they are in the pragmatics of 21st-century life.
But for real: gratitude.
For years, I tried and failed to “practice gratitude.” I think I saw an episode of Oprah
in the early aughts that said gratitude was good for me, so I started writing daily lists of 10 things I was grateful for.
It was not for me. This kind of list-making helps some people, but for me it was terrible. It made me miserable, in at least two ways:
Misery One: Shame
“I am grateful to have food in my cupboard and a roof over my head, and now I feel like an asshole for having to stop and take time to remember how lucky I am not to be homeless and starving. How shallow of me, that I spend time hating my body and trying to change it, when I should be grateful for my health. What a jerk I am, to take it for granted that my parents will let me in if I knock on their door and my professors listen to me when I ask questions. What a selfish shitbox I must be, if I can’t sustain a constant sense of wonder that I am allowed to learn, but I just feel overwhelmed by the workload, the student loans, and the humiliating pains of transitioning from adolescence into adulthood while still a student. How dare I want a reward, more than I want to say thank you? Bad Emily! Bad!”
Misery Two: Rage
“I’m grateful for the roof… No, you know what, screw gratitude. The world is a terrible mess! Sexual violence, intimate partner violence, the pay gap, double jeopardy for women of color, rabidly exploitative capitalism, on and on! ‘Practicing gratitude’ for things every human on earth is born entitled to — shelter and food and safe drinking water and basic bodily autonomy — is neoliberal, late capitalist propaganda to distract us from demanding these rights for everyone. Instead of spending this time working to help other people gain access to those rights, I’m supposed to sit here and think about how good I have it, just because I am not being denied basic human rights! Screw that, I’ll be grateful when the world isn’t a raw, bleeding chasm of need!”
That was my experience of “gratitude practice.” Shame and rage. Cool.
So I brought a heavy dose of skepticism to the research on gratitude — when I finally read it.
But the research told me I had been doing gratitude wrong.
Writing a list of things you’re grateful for isn’t what the science tells us to do. There are two strategies the science says are effective; both are in the book, but here I’ll just talk about one: the “gratitude letter.” Quite simply, you write a letter to someone you’re grateful to have in your life. If you want a super-boost of well-being, read your letter to the person.
As an example, here’s my letter to my sister, with whom I wrote Burnout
Thank you for writing this book with me.
When we began this project almost four years ago, there was an infinitely high wall between us, made of family secrets, of silence and fear and the isolation necessary to survive in a family like ours. I didn’t know, when I asked you to write the book with me and you said yes, that we were picking up sledgehammers. But the science we read and the sentences we wrote together took hard swings at that wall, so that by the end of the first draft, it came crashing down between us in a pile of rubble and dust. And instead of running away or rebuilding the wall, we wrote the second draft and cleared away that rubble, catching our first glimpses of each other over the crumbled remains of four decades of fear and isolation. And with the third draft, we stood in front of each other, undefended and present, for the first time in our lives.
So when I say thank you for writing this book with me, what I mean is: thank you for becoming my sister.
Why does the gratitude letter help burnout?
Because it isn’t “self-care.”
You see, Amelia and I didn’t write this book because we’re awesome at wellness and never get overwhelmed or exhausted. We wrote it because we’re just as bad at it as every other woman we know, but all we could find to help us were platitudes (“Put on your own oxygen mask first!” “Self-care isn’t selfish!”) or else screeds on the social, political, and economic systems that trap women — like the recent wave of think pieces about how burnout is caused by capitalism, so the only cure is revolution. We knew the answer to our exhaustion wasn’t “self-care” — self-care is the fallout shelter you build in your basement because the government says it’s your responsibility, not theirs, to protect yourself from nuclear war. And revolution? We couldn’t wait for a revolution; we needed help now.
So we read the research. And it turned out the answer to our exhaustion was not “self
-care” or revolution, but all of us caring for each other. Oh hell, oh geez, can you believe we read all this affective neuroscience and computational biology, and it turns out the answer is love?
The world is a mess. My letter doesn’t fix that. Yours won’t either. Write one anyway.
March, too, when you can. Protest too. Call your representative, volunteer, donate when you can. The problems are big, the causes complex, so the solutions will be multifaceted. Part of the solution is noticing our ties of love and speaking them aloud
. Write a gratitude letter to someone who was kind to you, whom you never properly thanked.
As I write this, Burnout
has not yet been published. We hope it changes readers’ lives. But even if disaster strikes and not a single copy hits bookshelves, it has already changed my life. Because we wrote this book, I have a sister now — not just someone I happened to grow up with, but someone I would choose to grow old with. And it turns out that’s what I need most; it’s what the research tells us (and, deep down, our hearts already know) we all need when we’re exhausted from the resisting and persisting. The answer is not self-care. It’s sisterhood. And Burnout
is our invitation to each other and to you to join that sisterhood.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life
. She has a PhD in health behavior with a minor in human sexuality from Indiana University, and a MS in counseling, also from IU, including a clinical internship at the Kinsey Institute sexual health clinic. She has been a sex educator for 20 years. Her most recent book is Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle
, with Amelia Nagoski.
holds a conductor with a DMA in conducting from the University of Connecticut. An assistant professor and coordinator of music at Western New England University, she regularly presents educational sessions discussing the application of communications science and psychological research for audiences of other professional musicians, including “Beyond Burnout Prevention: Embodied Wellness for Conductors.”