The System Was Built This Way, But We Can Rebuild It

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This week, we look at how burnout is inevitable in a system set up to squeeze all the juice out of its workforce. Everyone’s suffering. Does it have to be this way? We don’t think so. Listen to find hope in a burned-out world: for you, for all of us.

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Chris Smalls, Amelia Nagoski, Rashawn Ray, Tema Okun, Tiana Clark, Chase Strangio, Connor Franta, Rhonda McGee, Dr. Madison, Shannon, Sinikiwe Dhliwayo, Dr. Kali Cyrus, Dr. Gabor Maté

Connor Franta  00:00

This episode contains sensitive content, including racism, White supremacy and violence.

Chase Strangio  00:08

I’ve been to ACLU for a little over nine years, and work on a lot of our lobbying work to try to stop anti trans bills in the States. There are times when I’m incredibly stressed out by deadlines or the state of the world. And that I think contributes to bodily experiences of stress, whether that pain or exhaustion or disassociation, those things are all happening all the time. We sued Texas officials in court And the last, actually, almost a month now, but definitely the last three weeks have just been, you know, sort of as relentless litigation but also managing the emotional trauma that so many families are experiencing. And so it’s been hectic and troubling and exhausting, which thankfully resulted in some really amazing legal outcomes that we’re continuing to try to defend in court. And I am a parent. And it’s been, you know, two years of a pandemic. So there is a cumulative exhaustion, I think that we experience in these moments.

Connor Franta  02:07

This is Chase Strangio. He’s the Deputy Director for transgender justice at the ACLU, LGBT and HIV project. And as a trans non binary person, he’s been fighting against the criminalization of his very own existence.

Chase Strangio  02:22

I also thrive in it I on some level, because this is what I’ve always done, and I can I am making a choice to continue to do these things. And I think it can feel really empowering to feel like, well, I have tools that I can use when I see something in the world that is upsetting me, I am doing something that energizes me and makes me feel like I am pushing back on systems that I find troubling.

Connor Franta  03:06

In addition to the burnout, that comes from a hectic job, it also takes a very personal emotional toll.

Chase Strangio  03:13

And so I think that balance is always sort of in play and sort of asking myself, well, am I leaning too far into this? And what is it doing to me and my body?

Connor Franta  03:26

He’s constantly asking himself, am I okay? Am I burnt out? Is this burnout? Yeah, this is Burnout. And I’m your host, Connor Franta. Last week on the show, we talked about how our cultural messages wiggle their way deep into our psyches to make us feel like we’re never good enough or worthy enough, until we’ve hustled our way into a deep blackened pit of burnt out despair. But that self-imposed compulsion to hustle is only one part of the burnout story. Because what’s happened over the centuries, generations upon generations living inside of that you’ll never be good enough dream. We’ve externalized it, made it concrete, codified it into actual systems of inequality. Or as physician and writer, Gabor Mate says,

Dr. Gabor Maté  04:23

so this society burns a lot of people just by the inequality, which has been increasing as we all know, now the person who’s doing three jobs, a single mom that has to commute two hours a day each way to work leaving her child in some poor daycare. She’s not choosing to be that way. She just forced to be that way by the system.

Connor Franta  04:42

The unequal social structure. That’s the system I’m talking about. And it’s getting real, because this week, the final week of the series, we’re pulling the curtain all the way back. We’re looking at the system, the systems of social inequality that are not only leading us to burnout, but are literally killing people. And it’s not just the proverbial unemployed single mother who gets battered about by the system. If people in marginalized communities, trans people, Black and Brown people, poor people, disabled people, women who face burnout at a greater level because of the systemic forces working against them. And on top of everything else we’ve already talked about in previous episodes. We’re being sold this ideal person, but like the American dream, it’s unequal, unfair and impossible to achieve. And that constant irritating misfit that most people feel in the context of our unequal social system causes unending stress, it makes us sick, and burns us out. Most of us feel this on some level, like we’re forced to be away that we don’t want to be. So what does that look like? Well, ever seen a baby play with one of those shapes, sorting games, they’ve got this little hammer thing, and they have to find the right block that fits in the right hole and pound that shape right through. It makes a lot of noise. Parents love it. Trust me. Babies are really great at pounding, so good at it, even before they understand shapes. So now you’re looking at a hexagon being forced to fit into a circle. That’s better. Now you and I know that hexagon, it’s never gonna fit in the circle. But that doesn’t stop the baby from trying. It doesn’t stop them from making a ton of noise and causing a lot of friction trying to force it. So cute. Until you realize that we are the hexagons, and ovals and stars and rectangles, I definitely know a few squares. And this analogy, the hole is always round, no matter the shape of the block. And that social stress kicks off when that baby picks us up and the slobbery little fingers and starts wailing away at our heads. Hey, knock it off kid.

Amelia Nagoski  07:18

Everybody’s got something about their life, their experience, their physical being that makes them fail to conform to the very narrow, socially constructed ideal.

Connor Franta  07:30

We know Amelia Nagoski, we’ve heard from her before way back in episode one. She’s the researcher and author who walked us through the evolutionary origins of the stress cycle. She also happens to be a classically trained orchestra conductor. And to hear Amelia describe it, the world of classical music turns out to be a pretty stubbornly determined baby toting a particularly punishing hammer.

Amelia Nagoski  07:57

Classical music is Bach, Brahms and Beethoven, right? We celebrate dead German men mostly. And the idea of this masculine ideal exists, whether these men are consciously aware of it or not. And therefore the kind of implicit association between masculinity and academic success is built into everything they think and say.

Connor Franta  08:21

Amelia isn’t always a pretty amazing human. She’s very well rounded, but around block, she is not see what I did there. That’s the sound of Amelia as classical music doctorate program going to town on her head. That’s a lot of dissonance for one woman to absorb the dissonance manifested as friction and the friction manifested as stress and the stress built up and built up and up until you know it. Burnout.

Amelia Nagoski  08:54

And the stress of it the lack of fit between me and the program, the friction between who I am and who they expected me to be, was such that I ended up in the hospital.

Connor Franta  09:12

That brush with extreme burnout left Amelia with a lot of questions. Where on God’s green earth that this damn circle come from? Why was her doctor programs so intent on pounding her into it? No one had a good answer to her questions. So she went on to discover it herself. She researched and read and put two and two and two and two together and eventually came up with an extremely frustrating answer.

Amelia Nagoski  09:39

Just because, you know, misogyny, history, patriarchy.

Connor Franta  09:44

That circle has a name. Patriarchy.

Amelia Nagoski  09:49

Somewhere along the way in society, men were the ones who were in charge.

Connor Franta  09:53

We’re talking about straight White men here. straight White men in charge.

Amelia Nagoski  09:59

I mean, how far back does that go 1000s of years.

Connor Franta  10:03

And so for 1000s of years, the world has been built by straight White men, for straight White men. I might not be straight, but I am definitely a White man. And even I can see it clearly. And if we’re precise, let’s be precise, precise. I’m talking about a particular type of straight white man, the ideal straight white man. Able bodied, good looking, unemotional, autonomous, supremely confident. The thing is, I don’t think there is a single person that actually fits into that circle. That archetype of a straight white, competent, good looking successful, manly man who is also happy. So it impacts all of us in a negative way. But the amount it impacts us is unequal based upon our race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, religion, the list goes on. Gabor Mate, says there’s a way to connect the dots between those unequal social systems and physical burnout. Because chronic stress leaves behind physical traces a trail of breadcrumbs in the body.

Connor Franta  10:05

The mind can’t be separate from the body. Stress is a physiological event.

Connor Franta  11:14

So if we find those breadcrumbs, we can draw a map of chronic stress where and who and how bad. Remember all the way back in the first episode? When we learned that stress is a cycle that happens in your body, and how it involves chemicals and hormones sloshing around your bloodstream. Frenemy hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are the absolute best when it comes to outrunning lions. But those same hormones become toxic backstabbers, when they hang around in your body for too long. And it’s those lingering chemicals that drop the breadcrumbs

Dr. Gabor Maté  11:52

In the long term adrenaline and can elevate your blood pressure, narrow your blood vessels, increase clotting and cause cardiovascular disease. In the long term, cortisol can make you diabetic, put fat on your belly so that you’re more prone to get heart disease, thin your bones, suppress your immune system, make you depressed, and also raise your intestines. So chronic stress is a major cause of chronic illness in a society.

Connor Franta  12:25

Look for the chronic illness, find the chronic stress. Okay, here’s the fact, in the US, 80% of people with autoimmune disease are women.

Dr. Gabor Maté  12:38

That’s because of the stress that’s laid on women in a patriarchal culture where they have to suppress their own needs and look after other people. That’s a stressful situation to be in. That stress shows up in the body.

Connor Franta  12:52

But Amelia Nagoski says all is not lost. Patriarchy isn’t inevitable.

Amelia Nagoski  12:58

It’s not innate in human society. Because there are matriarchal societies.

Connor Franta  13:04

Indeed there are, and now I’m feeling inspired and curious. I hope you packed your lunch and a snack because we’re going on a field trip. And it’s going to be a long one destination southwest China, we’ll hop planes to the Regional Airport, and then it’s only another day’s drive up a winding mountain road to a Horseshoe Lake with stunning vibrant blue water. Oh my god. It’s beautiful. The Mosuo people live there. They’re a Chinese ethnic minority where women are dominant. The Mosuo are matrilineal.

Dr. Madison  13:49

A matrilineal society is one in which individuals send inheritance through the female line.

Connor Franta  13:58

Dr. Shavon Madison is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of New Mexico. And she spent most of her career studying the Mosuo. Technically speaking, matrilineal is about who inherits the stuff. But Shavon says that when it comes to the Mosuo, the stuff is only the beginning.

Dr. Madison  14:17

I also see women in very powerful positions there and often making decisions on behalf of their families. And not just that, but also on behalf of their communities, serving in roles like townhead, and things like that.

Connor Franta  14:30

Women are at the center of Mosuo society, they’re winning the bread, they’re taking care of the kids managing the household finances, they’re making the decisions and wearing the proverbial pants.

Dr. Madison  14:43

That doesn’t mean that there’s no role for men there is men are really important at certain key times of the year. So like when we need to, you know, yoke the cattle

Connor Franta  14:56

So, Shavon thought, cool, matriliny, I wonder how that’s working for the ladies. And thanks to those breadcrumbs that stress leaves behind in the body, she was able to find out.

Dr. Madison  15:08

We looked at something called CRPC reactive protein. If you ever go to the hospital for an ER visit, they’ll probably check that because it’s a marker of inflammation. We look at that and we look at hypertension, just using blood pressure cuffs.

Connor Franta  15:21

Inflammation and hypertension are both biomarkers of stress. She looked for those biomarkers and Mosuo men and women not only in the main matrilineal community, but also in a small patrilineal subculture of Mosuo.

Dr. Madison  15:35

In both cases, we found that the levels of inflammation and hypertension for women were less in matriliny than they were in patriliny. And that matters, right? Because in the long run, if you have high CRP, you have high inflammation, you have high blood pressure, your risk of cardiovascular disease is also a lot higher. Like we know these are really important risk factors for things down the line.

Connor Franta  15:59

Interestingly, the story was different for men, their biomarkers for stress stayed about the same whether they lived in the main matrilineal group or the patrilineal subculture. So it’s not like the men suffered and matrilineal the bottom line is nothing changed for the men. And the women in this female dominated culture, they fare way better when it comes to stress. And Shavon has her theories about why.

Dr. Madison  16:24

Maybe there’s less overt discrimination of women that would lower your stress too, or women have better access to resources, we think that might be true, because actually household heads head, lower CRP still.

Connor Franta  16:36

And then there’s the matter of social networks. Now, not Facebook, silly. I’m talking about actual IRL networks of friendships and family. In the Mosuo’s, matrilineal society, women’s social networks were larger and more powerful.

Dr. Madison  16:54

The fact that they have these larger networks might tell you something about you know, them being able to really Marshal support when they need to, in a way that they often wouldn’t be if they were in a more patrilineal context, the social support that they could leverage that might lead them feeling less stressed, and less inflamed, and less hypertensive as a result.

Connor Franta  17:17

Shivon’s research is cutting edge. It’s the first hard data that explicitly points to the stress toll that patriarchy takes on women. And if strong social networks are a big part of what makes life better for women and matrilineal that is something worth paying attention to. We’ve talked about patriarchy forcing all the beautiful and unique shapes of humanity into the same rigid, boring hole. But all that sorting of shapes does something else to us. Sorted shapes are divided in shapes. When we’re divided, we can’t marshal resources. When we’re divided, we can help each other heal. When we’re divided, we are easier to oppress. When we reconnect, whether that means joining forces or just enjoying a good laugh together, we push back, connection is resistance. And it’s no coincidence that Amelia Nagoski says connection is also one of the best ways to complete the stress cycle.

Amelia Nagoski  18:20

Connection helps us manage stress connection is unnecessary nutrient for human survival. When we experience loneliness, for example, that’s starvation. It is depriving us of a nutrient we need, that nutrient is connection with other humans.

Connor Franta  18:37

I love this. There’s nothing more fulfilling than a good talk with a good friend. And yet, patriarchy has a tendency to get in the way.

Amelia Nagoski  18:48

You know, having a good talk with your friends, is sort of considered a girly thing to do. It’s kind of a weakness. We think that if you need other people, then you have failed as an individual. So it’s a little bit shameful for some people to connect with their friends in this way because it’s a girly thing. The philosophical systemic misunderstanding about the role of individuals in the world is a real and practical barrier between people and the things that are going to be good for their well-being.

Connor Franta  19:28

Gabor Mate says this is especially pronounced for men and masculine identifying people. He says even the people with the toughest exteriors risk burnout in a society that runs on oppression.

Dr. Gabor Maté  19:40

For men also, patriarchy forbids vulnerability.

Connor Franta  19:45

Patriarchy. It’s also hammering most men. And yes, even though straight White ones into an ill-fitting hole.

Dr. Gabor Maté  19:54

Men have to see themselves as the strong ones and the breadwinners and the powerful ones that’s got a devastating impact.

Connor Franta  20:04

But when there’s absolutely no room to show any of that very human vulnerability, it ends up elbowing into your life in other ways.

Rashawn Ray  20:14

Because the expectation for men is that they should be in paid work, and that they should be the main or sole provider, the hit to their masculinity that hit to their identity is so strong, that it leads to a very high level of stress, a very high level of burnout, and less engagement in the home and leads to a much higher levels of depression and anxiety.

Connor Franta  20:38

Rashawn Ray studies racial and social inequality. And he says, if you’re a man from a marginalized community, specifically a Black man, the way you process stress is a whole lot different. After the break, we need to talk about the partner of patriarchy, White supremacy.

Rashawn Ray  21:15

I mean, physical activity is of course, one of the best ways to deal with stress, it’s one of the best ways to deal with burnout is to incorporating regularly, being in shape, whatever we want to consider that to be.

Connor Franta  21:28

That’s Rashawn Ray again, who you heard from right before the break. He’s a sociology professor at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Rashawn Ray  21:38

There’s this perception that predominantly White neighborhoods have more resources and that they’re safer, less crime, more green spaces, more gyms, more lights, all the things that we know that should increase physical activity. I found that Black people, particularly Black men, who lived in predominantly White neighborhoods, were significantly less likely to be physically active because they experienced overcriminalization. People perceive that you’re a criminal when you’re not.

Connor Franta  22:07

He calls this drop in physical activity among upwardly mobile black men, the Ahmaud Arbery effect.

Rashawn Ray  22:14

The Ahmaud Arbery effects impacts physical health now think about this. college educated Black people good jobs, did everything society told them to do, go to school, stay out of trouble, get a good job, have a family moving to a nice neighborhood, buy a house, you feel like you have reached the American dream. And now all of a sudden going for running your neighborhood can be dangerous. So when they’re going for a jog, a person might call the police on them. Or a person might walk across the street, they might shut the door, they might sic their dog on them. One of the primary ways to control stress is to feel like you control your life. And there’s nothing potentially worse than society telling you to do all these things, stay out of trouble, go to school, get a good job, buy a house, get married, have a family, have kids do all those things, and still feel like you can’t go for a jog in your neighborhood and send your kid down the street. That is one of the main ways that systemic racism manifests in society.

Connor Franta  23:20

It’s really ugly stuff. But where does it come from? systemic racism is born out of White supremacy. And white supremacy is the belief that whiteness is superior and should be dominant in society. And that means if you’re not White, you find yourself constantly working against the system.

Dr. Kali Cyrus  23:39

You can’t walk into a space without like sizing up and knowing where you stand because of all of the messages that you get that you are lesser than or you are not enough.

Connor Franta  23:52

Dr. Kali Cyrus is a psychiatrist in Washington, DC who specializes in issues surrounding race and identity.

Dr. Kali Cyrus  23:59

You feel out of place or have this stress response. It’s like a toxic stress.

Connor Franta  24:05

As a psychiatrist, Kali has a very clear understanding of how systemic oppression burns people out from a medical perspective, especially people of color. I learned so much from her when we talked. We’ve heard a lot of voices talking about Black burnout, and the particular stresses and pressures from people of color experiencing a systemic racism. And I’m curious about sort of like the clinical toll of systemic racism, and how it affects people’s mental health.

Dr. Kali Cyrus  24:38

That’s what systemic oppression does, and has been doing, probably to, like a Black person from the moment they were aware of their race. It’s like you carry it. It’s more of the accumulation of all of that. And in combination with having to live in a world in a system where it wasn’t good. ReIated for people like you actively people like you were used as machines to build that. And you still gotta go to work, you still gotta get on train, you gotta listen to all these people and you like, you have to push that away and not think about it, or find a way to cope with it without having your anger, your sadness, having your whatever overrun you. Unless you’re taught how to acknowledge and recognize these feelings, you just tried to get over them. So then your emotional and an endocrine system and body just gets hijacked. So it’s not like panic attacks every day. But it might be like a little noise, a little noise, a little noise, that then adds up. And that still elevates your cortisol still elevates your heart rate still has you on edge and feeling like, am I protected, and am I safe?

Connor Franta  25:47

That constant noise, constant stress of living in a world that is hostile to your existence, it has the same effect as all the pebbles in your shoe that we heard about in episode one, the constant dribble of stressors big and small, that keep those fight or flight hormones pumping with no end. Until finally, you’re burned out. Except that for people experiencing the brunt of systemic racism, you can’t shake those pebbles by finding a job that’s a better fit, or negotiating a better contract. The pebbles are the whole world.

Dr. Kali Cyrus  26:23

I also think there is this other side of things that people don’t talk about often, which is, if you’re so over traumatized, and just trying to survive. I think a lot of people wonder, do you have time to stop and talk about all of your problems? Do you just have to keep going because you’re just in fight or flight. And I think that’s the case for so many people. And that’s also sort of part of brown burnout is that you are used to getting through it. And you have to just keep going, there’s no sense and stopping to like, cry, because what is that going to do? And I think there’s an overall lack of value around how actually acknowledging and processing your feelings. And even if you can’t quit your job that day, is there something you can do that day that helps you feel more powerful, or have more control over your situation. And you can’t go through that process unless you stop and actually think about it.

Connor Franta  27:17

Crying, processing your feelings, talking about them connecting. Those are ways that we complete distress cycle. But the very same forces that put the pebbles in your shoe also prevent you from shaking them out. If you don’t fit into the circle of straight White male, you might not get the luxury of completing that stress cycle. And it gets harder for you, the more different you are. This is the inescapable system of White supremacy.

Connor Franta  27:46

President Joe Biden just call that White supremacy by name in the wake of the mass shooting at a supermarket in a predominantly black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York. But it’s a system that has always been with us.

Tema Okun  28:14

White supremacy is an ideology with a belief system, based on the belief that White people and whiteness is both normal and better.

Connor Franta  28:29

That’s Tema Okun. For over 30 years, Tema has been a facilitator and coach focused on racial justice and equity. She also co leads the teaching for equity Fellows Program at Duke University. And she says it’s misguided to think about White supremacy as just skinheads and tiki torches.

Tema Okun  28:48

This ideology that White people and Whiteness are better is absolutely the water that we’re all swimming in every day.

Connor Franta  28:56

ideology is a tricky thing. It’s really good at camouflage. So good that sometimes it can be hard to see if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. But there’s a handy Field Guide to white supremacy culture that can help you see it. Tema first helped write it back in 1999. And Sad to say, nearly 25 years later, it’s still as relevant as ever. The Field Guide can be a great tool to help you start to recognize where white supremacy is at play. So you can call it out even when it’s coming from inside you. So how do you know the telltale signs of white supremacy include individualism.

Tema Okun  29:35

Individualism is more important than collectivity.

Connor Franta  29:39


Tema Okun  29:40

It has to be perfect without ever encouraging us to ask who decides what perfect is. Not understanding power, something to share? Everything has to be done. No, no, no, no, no. The idea that progress is always more quantity over quality,

Connor Franta  29:59

Individualism, perfectionism, power hoarding, urgency, greed. Those are all attitudes that feed White supremacy. And as you’ve heard throughout the series, they are also the attitudes that tend to feed burnout. Let’s test this out. Remember my old buddy Shannon, from episode three?

Shannon  30:20

I was sitting at my computer all day, if I stepped away for a minute, the world ended.

Connor Franta  30:26

Shannon got burned out from responding to a constant sense of extreme urgency. Where did that urgency come from? And then there’s Chris Smalls, we heard his story about working in an Amazon warehouse in Episode Two.

Chris Smalls  30:39

As a picker, we’re supposed to pick them at a rate of 400 an hour.

Connor Franta  30:44

Chris got burned out in a job that tried to suck every last drop of value out of him. Where did that greed come from? And then there’s Tiana Clark, the poet we met in the very first episode.

Tiana Clark  30:57

I couldn’t afford to break down in my life, for my students, for myself, for my career, and all the pressures that are on my shoulders of coming out of poverty.

Connor Franta  31:07

Tiana got burned out trying to live up to standards of perfection, until she finally realized she didn’t subscribe to those standards. Where did those standards of perfection come from?

Tiana Clark  31:19

You know, this is what Black burnout feels like. It’s very akin to what the black experience in America feels like a cousin to racism, a cousin to oppression, a cousin to the effects of empire.

Connor Franta  31:32

The truth is, it’s everywhere. And all of us are a part of it. That feels really uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable, I feel it physically, I feel it in my hands, I feel it in my stomach, I feel it in my head. I don’t want to have anything to do with white supremacy. And I know I’m a part of it. I just have to let both of those things be true. But oh, God, it is so uncomfortable. And it’s necessary. But here’s the deal. Once you start carrying the field guide around in your back pocket, you can’t forget what you’ve learned. You start to see the system everywhere. You recognize that it’s all around you. And it’s always been there. I asked Dr. Kali Cyrus about how she copes in the face of all the stress, all the friction, all the burnout.

Dr. Kali Cyrus  32:32

Sometimes I actually just go to bed really early, which is I think the bare minimum of like a coping strategy is like you don’t have anything else to implement. But you at some point, like I’m going to call it quits, I’m just gonna go to sleep. It’s 8:30. And then I also like taking hot showers. I don’t watch a ton of television. But if I do, it’s like a 30 minute TV show. That’s a comedy. This point, I can’t take really serious shows because I think the world is already like a drama. Or I call someone who makes me laugh.

Connor Franta  33:03

There’s that connection again. It should be the most simple and natural thing in the world. But when the system gets its way, connection is weak. And individualism is strong. Separation is the norm. And we are burdens to each other.

Dr. Kali Cyrus  33:22

People in general are hesitant to call or chat or ask for help in this way. Because their assumption is that they’re bothering someone, no one has time. Everyone is going through something, why am I complaining? I have it so much better than someone else. So I think that is another part of this whole thing is that we’re more disconnected and not reaching out to people in a way that maybe we typically would based on how I don’t know communal living people say that we used to do that as Americans like that kind of thing. But I just don’t think we have that society anymore.

Connor Franta  33:59

Definitely. I always like to end my calls with my friends. If they have called me for a similar reason. If they say anything like you know, I’m sorry that I took up your day or I didn’t want to be a burden. I always say listen, You filled my day you brought me joy, you are great compartments of the state. Call me back anytime. You’re not a burden. We’ve all been there. How often do you apologize for calling a friend or taking up their time? Do you ever feel ashamed about needing them for support? Have you ever talked yourself out of making that call you really needed in the first place? It’s because we’re part of a system that works its ass off first to divide us and then to convince us that every person for themselves is the right and proper way to be. But none of that is inevitable, because I’ve got this field guide here in my back pocket to recognize when these behaviors are at play within me and to stop them in their tracks. And I know there are people who are steps ahead. People who belong communities where togetherness and connection are ways of life.

Sinikiwe Dhliwayo  35:04

As someone who is African born in Zimbabwe, my culture is how are we caring for community. And the well-being of our community also impacts the well-being of us as individuals.

Connor Franta  35:17

More on the idea of wellness as a community commitment after the break. You are a beautifully Evolved Human being someone who really does their best to be right with the world, you tend to your friendships, you hydrate, you finally found a job that suits you. You’ve done all the things, good on you. But you still live in an oppressive system that’s contorting you into a shape that’s never going to work. despite your best efforts, that constant friction surges through your body and eventually burns you out. So, how do we care for ourselves in a White supremacist culture, a culture where as a Black person, it can be dangerous to go for a run in your own neighborhood, a culture where even wellness is sometimes exclusionary.

Sinikiwe Dhliwayo  36:36

Wellness as it currently is, is an agent of uplifting Whiteness and White supremacy.

Connor Franta  36:43

Sinikiwe Dhliwayo is an entrepreneur and educator who makes yoga and meditation more accessible and equitable. She makes a distinction between a commodified exclusionary wellness industry and the genuine mindfulness practice.

Sinikiwe Dhliwayo  36:59

Wellness, especially if you think of things like self-care is marketed to a certain type of person, right? That person is generally able bodied, is generally White, generally has money.

Connor Franta  37:13

On the other hand, genuine mindfulness is not something you can buy, it’s innate, we all have what we need to be mindful, we just need help learning how to become aware of it, and to practice it. That’s where teachers come in. Teachers are there to create safe spaces to help us connect with others. But we have to tap into ourselves to truly be mindful and push back against the systems that harm us.

Sinikiwe Dhliwayo  37:41

Who are you learning from? How are they teaching you? Right? If someone is teaching you, meditation, in a context that falls outside of learning to work with your mind, right? That’s what meditation is, is you’re learning to work with the thoughts that arise in your mind. And by nature of working with those thoughts, you then become more compassionate for yourself. And also others, like me, becoming more compassionate for myself, because I practice meditation also means that anyone that I interact with, I’m going to have a little more grace, and I’m going to have a little bit more compassion for that person. If you’re being taught meditation in order to be more productive in a work setting. Maybe that’s a problem. Because why would you need to be more productive, if not to serve capitalism?

Connor Franta  38:36

Sinikiwe has no interest in being a servant to capitalism. For her wellness looks like something else entirely.

Sinikiwe Dhliwayo  38:44

In order to be well, we have to have some degree of agency in our lives and also access, whether that be financial access, or access to time to even really look into our physical and mental well-being.

Connor Franta  39:02

Agency is something you can share. And it’s so important to our collective well-being that we should think about wellness through agency as a community project. If you have some space for freedom in the oppressive system we live in, how can you provide that for someone else? Because that space for freedom, it’s a privilege. And if we want our communities to have agency, you got to share the wealth. That might mean by literally donating money, or maybe sharing resources, whatever it looks like. Mindfulness can help you figure it out. And that’s why Sinikiwe way doesn’t cultivate mindfulness to supercharge her own functioning. She does it to show up better for her community. When she’s in a place of rest and fullness. She can be the best version of herself for the people around her.

Rhonda McGee  39:53

Underlying mindfulness is this sort of ethical commitment.

Connor Franta  39:58

Rhonda McGee is a law professor You’re at the University of San Francisco and a mindfulness teacher.

Rhonda McGee  40:04

It’s really about being aware that our actions matter. And being aware that therefore, if we are to enhance our own well-being, start selfishly, we must attend to the fact that we live in a world with others. So what we do impacts others. And therefore, the wises foundation for mindfulness is a commitment to minimizing harm to ourselves and to others.

Connor Franta  40:30

It’s called socially engaged mindfulness. She says, the idea of social responsibility is fundamental to genuine mindfulness, which is rooted in ancient eastern and Buddhist philosophy.

Rhonda McGee  40:41

Traditionally, mindfulness has always included paying attention, what’s happening inside, but also what is the temperature outside, and what’s the social temperature, how are people being treated, we know, again, who has access to resources for wellbeing, the basic teachings of mindfulness are embedded in a multi-dimensional commitment to recognizing our own experience, but that experience in relationships with others,

Connor Franta  41:11

over time, certain parts of the wellness industry picked up on the idea of mindfulness,

Rhonda McGee  41:17

we have kind of secularized those teachings or adapted them extracted, what money capitalism kind of really wants to run on, we’ve really just focused on the internal peace, you know, the peace that can support us in focusing and being more productive at work. And we’ve tended not to focus on the ever present in the underlying teachings peace, that’s about being aware and being present. Two, the aspects of our existence, that are embedded in the social realm, and embedded in our relationship to the planet. It’s all there. And the underlying teachings, it’s just that again, we’ve extracted out the part that sells the rest.

Connor Franta  42:04

That marketable version of wellness gets so twisted, that the part we need the most social responsibility is impossible to find. If you notice that happening, you know, you’re dealing with a corrupt version of mindfulness, and not the real deal.

Rhonda McGee  42:22

Mindfulness itself could be part of that burnout culture, because what’s lacking is a remembering that we are always connected to each other, that we’re always connected to communities, and always embedded in this world. Mindfulness is an invitation for us to be well together, to start with what is well within, but also then attune to what as well, and what isn’t, like outside of our own bodies and beings. And to see that mindfulness is an invitation for us for the rest of our lives, to attend to how we are together, and to maximize the ability for all of us to thrive.

Connor Franta  43:05

Rhonda McGee says nearly endless potential in that hypothetical world.

Rhonda McGee  43:09

I really do think mindfulness can completely wake us up to Yes, we live in a world where we’ve inherited ideas about race and gender.

Connor Franta  43:19

She sees potential in mindfulness as a tool for dismantling systems of patriarchy, and White supremacy. True mindfulness can help us see the fabric of our interconnection, it’s hard work, it’s disruptive work, and it attunes us to the wellness of the community.

Rhonda McGee  43:36

It’s important for us to be present to what that is doing in the world, but not to see the limits that we’ve been trained to believe are true for each of us around race and sex and this and that. They’re not fully who we are, they’re not does the limits that we’ve learned do not really reflect the potential for the miracle of being alive. And so when I speak of the transformative potential of mindfulness is that potential to help us wake up to the things that we are doing individually, but we’re doing in systems that are harmful. Mindfulness has been shown to protect people against the everyday slings and arrows of all of the ways that we can harm each other in the social realm, including those that show up around the legacies of white supremacy.

Connor Franta  44:29

Dismantling white supremacy, ending social stress and chronic disease, reconnecting or frayed and divided society giving burnout the boot. We’re putting a lot on mindfulness here. But if you think back on everything we’ve talked about over these four episodes, we’ve been leading up to the same idea the whole time. We’re all human. We’re all interconnected, radically interdependent. mindfulness can help us see this and mindfulness can help us act accordingly,

Chase Strangio  45:01

I have a responsibility to be pushing back because I can. And I think that is something that that I feel on a deep, you know, visceral level.

Connor Franta  45:10

Remember, Chase, the ACLU attorney, we talked with the beginning of this episode, he says we have to lift each other up, especially right now, when it feels like the world around us is falling apart, when you know, there’s an unprecedented surge of anti-trans legislation pioneered by the one, the only, the patriarchy.

Chase Strangio  45:32

there are days that feel really hard, I’m not gonna say I never internalized the messages, or there aren’t things that feel painful. If I’m like, oh, work is stressful, or Life is stressful, I’m holding a lot. I do try to create outlets for myself, that feels sustaining that connect me to my humanity, and like it, especially in an embodied sense, you know, with connecting with other creatures, whether it’s a cat or my child, or my community, that has been really important to me, being a human, I feel very committed to that. But I think the grounding comes through the reminder that I actually really worked really hard to be exactly who I am to be comfortable with who I am. And that is a gift. And so that’s something I want for everyone and I love our community, and so they can say what they’re gonna say, and I’m gonna fight to make sure they don’t win.

Connor Franta  46:32

And we can all push for what we believe in to reduce burnout, to simply be human. And that is how change happens. it ripples out when we heal ourselves, and one another. Maybe it looks like questioning the narrow ideals were expected to conform to. Maybe it looks like calling out white supremacy. Maybe it looks like creating powerful real world social networks. Or maybe it looks like taking a nap. Because we’re all really frickin tired, and we deserve it. Think about it like this. Taking care of yourself, and taking care of your community. It’s a gorgeous, beautiful, radical act of resistance. Burnout is a product of oppression. Let’s all get together collectively, and put out those flames.

Connor Franta  47:47

Burnout is a production of Lemonada and Mindful. Ray Solomon, Rachel Lightner and Claire Jones produced this episode with help from Kristen Lepore. Isaura Aceves is our associate producer. Mixing and Sound Design by Rachel Lightner. Music is by Hannis Brown, additional music by APM. Melinda Wright is our story consultant. Our VP of narrative content is Jackie Danziger. Executive Producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs. Special shoutouts, to therapists, all the amazing therapists of the world you are doing God’s work. You can find Lemonada on all social platforms at @LemonadaMedia. And you can find me Connor Franta at @ConnorFranta across all social platforms. You can also get bonus content and behind the scenes material by subscribing to Lemonada Premium on Apple podcasts. Burnout is created in collaboration with mindful.org. Mindful is a public benefit organization dedicated to sharing the gifts of mindfulness through content, training, courses, and coaching. Visit www.mindful.org/burnout to find a curated collection of Mindfulness Based meditations courses and resources to help you prevent and work through burnout in your life and work. I’m Connor Franta.

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