When We “Muscle Through”

The expression “muscle through” asserts an attitude and approach to action that is direct, deliberate, and persistent. It’s often invoked in times of crisis as a call for intense, time-limited effort to avert a setback. As a special-situation, it makes a claim on us to go above and beyond. It’s not a sustainable way of functioning. But that’s the issue. All too often it becomes a norm. 

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Muscle Through to Burnout

I recently found myself working with a talented early-career professional who was reporting symptoms of burnout. She had been recruited by a former boss to join a start-up. She was attracted by the promise of being a part of building something, having a seat at the table. Alas, it turned out that what he wanted most was her “work ethic,” which to him meant her capacity for doing good work, but also a capacity for self-sacrifice. 

He got what he wanted from her. But she soon discovered that her willingness to muscle through tight time requirements had become a norm. Constantly on the road, away from friends and her significant other, there were no signs of change on the horizon. Meanwhile, her boss seemed to be opting for a different norm, 4 to 6-hour work days, unexplained absences. 

She felt exploited, resentful, betrayed. She was ready to leave, and the recruiters were calling. Her boss responded with apparent puzzlement when she gave her notice. Others in the firm piled on with even less sensitivity: “How could she?” 

Could this have really been a surprise to her boss and others? Or had they banked on her “whatever-it-takes” will to work as a given? Was she a person whose feelings, thoughts, desires, and goals they cared about? Or had she been objectified as a “resource”? 

And what about her role in all of this? Had she noticed and voiced her concerns as they arose? Even more basic, had she clarified what was expected of her in advance? And perhaps most important, was she able to learn something from this experience? 

The Coaching Dialogue

We would explore all these questions in time, but first we chose to take an in-depth look at her as a person. It was not for purposes of finding her flaws and fixing her. Rather, it was about freeing her to see her life and career as it really is, and to do this in an unrushed relationship that allows her experience to “speak for itself” and to be heard and understood. 

This involved a semi-structured conversation about her personal history, from childhood to adulthood, including career choices and experience, up to and including her current life, relationships, and work situation. But we also used some assessment instruments, and we jointly interpreted the results in the context of her life, personal tendencies, and career experience. 

How could we not come to greater insight when addressing our questions in this richer context of mutual awareness? I’m a psychologist with a good deal of business experience, but it was she who most often saw the threads of meaning that were of greatest practical consequence. My job was to be the Socratic “nuisance” who prompted reflection and encouraged her to speak from her heart. 

As Albert Schweitzer observed over 100 years ago, we only needed to activate the “doctor within.” As this subjective center of insight and thought was catalyzed and freed to speak, she came home to herself again for the first time. The external locus of control, including her habit of looking outside for answers and approval, lost its grip. Her confidence and capacity for wisdom and judgment grew. 

When We Muscle Through

When we muscle through, we immerse ourselves in a course of action for a purpose. Be prudent, even fussy, about how frequently you indulge this immersion. Be critical when examining why these calls to action are arising too frequently. When succumbing to these dysfunctional patterns, we sacrifice more than a few hours or days. We sacrifice our mindful awareness and our freedom to function as persons.