Julia Vaughan Smith


I have been rereading Joan Halifax’s book ‘Standing at the Edge’. In it she explores what she calls ‘edge states’ within six virtues (altruism, respect, empathy, integrity, engagement and compassion). She looks at the positive and negative expressions of them; the edge is the point where tipping into the negative is possible.

In her section on ‘engagement’ she talks of burnout, which she puts under the heading of ‘falling over the edge’. While having known about burnout for many years, I realised, with shame, that I had never looked into who identified and named it.  From Halifax I learnt that it was Herbert  Freudenberger, a mentee of Maslow (of hierarchy of needs fame). Freudenberger had been born into a Jewish family seven years before Hitler and the National Socialists came to power and, following his family having all their assets taken, was able to get to the USA on his own, aged 12.  He was neglected by his step-aunt and had to find ways to survive on his own, including living on the streets. He was, apparently, a ‘driven man who worked 14 – 15 hour days until he died’.  Halifax quotes his son “His early years, unfortunately, never left him. He was a complicated man and deeply conflicted because of his upbringing. He was a survivor

Those who are trauma-aware, will recognise signs of trauma. How wonderful though that this deeply conflicted and driven man brought understanding to the world about a condition that is widespread. I fear it is possible that Covid-19 may see more cases of burnout in those who are in people-facing occupations, dealing with low staff numbers and increased pressure, while wanting to bring compassion and care to those served.

Freudenberger described burnout as being, I quote from Halifax,  “…a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life” and “…the extinction of motivation and incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results .”

Beneath the potential for getting burnout are our own issues concerning ourselves. These might arise from our own trauma and be linked with wanting to feel valued, wanting to rescue (what Halifax terms pathological altruism), an identification with our profession and an inability to create and maintain healthy boundaries.  Where this is the case, there are always occupational areas willing to drive these people hard and expose them to enhanced stress. I read today that some NHS staff are working 36 hour shifts; they do so from their commitment to their patients and their profession and the system demands it of them. Halifax reminds us that it can be beneficial for some workplaces to burn us out as a way of subduing us; while rewarding us for ‘drinking the very poison of work stress’. Emotive words but I welcomed her stating the reality.

Halifax, again talking of Freudenberger’s work with his colleague Gail North, describes the story line they described that leads to burnout:

  • We feel compelled to prove our value by giving work 100%. I read this as that we don’t feel we are enough in ourselves our value comes from the extent of our commitment to a cause.
  • We work so hard that it conflicts with family members and colleagues. Here is the driven quality that Ruppert associates with identity trauma and survival strategies.
  • We make mistakes due to lack of sleep. The ability to rest and relax leaves us.
  • Hard work becomes our new value system.
  • As our perspective narrows, we deny our emerging problem. Denial being a survival strategy.
  • Others see the situation, but we don’t.
  • We withdraw from our loved ones and become more and more socially isolated.
  • We feel apathetic and depersonalised.
  • To fill our emptiness inside we may turn to addictive behaviours. Another survival strategy.
  • We feel depressed, may express mental and physical collapse and in the extreme may also consider suicide.

With the inefficiency that inevitably travels with emerging burnout, we feel we are failing at what we set out to achieve and that is a step away from the work coming to seem meaningless.  The issue, using survival language, is our entanglement with it.

Maybe we need to be super-aware of the potential for burnout in some of our clients, especially those who are in the NHS, education and social care.   I recognise that, as burnout is so common, many of you will be very familiar with its signs and maybe with its treatment. I remember a coaching demonstration at a UK Conference many years ago, where a very well respected coach was coaching someone with burnout. Many of those watching, said it was therapy and not coaching. The coach was robust in his view that he was coaching; I think the exchange was an example of how sometimes coaching pushes things away as being about ‘therapy’ rather than engaging with what the coaching contribution is to this client’s situation. Sometimes, of course, coaching may not the be best intervention, or we the coach might not be the best person, but that is something for us in supervision.

Joan Halifax writes from the Buddhist perspective, a compassionate and inclusive approach. While there are a few elements that I take a different perspective on, I recommend her book for understanding these key virtues and navigating our way to ensure we don’t trip into the negative expression (her term) or into survival strategies (mine). The negative is harmful to us and to those we seek to help.


Julia Vaughan Smith

November 2020

Halifax J (2018) Standing at the Edge : Finding Freedom where Fear and Courage Meet. Flatiron Books, NY