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The benefits of doing nothing

Lessons from Freud on Covid-19 burnout

20 04 20.cohen.ata

The death drive is not the opposition of our life drive. It's the inevitable consequence of an unchecked life drive, both in individuals and in society. Amid the enforced inactivity of the Covid-19 lockdown we have a chance to reflect on who we are and who we want to be. 

I’m writing this from my youngest child’s bedroom, requisitioned for the period of lockdown as a makeshift daytime office. It faces the garden, from which a daily chorus of birdsong, no longer muffled by the noise of busy roads and skies, is ringing out with a startling new clarity.

When I venture outside, the visibility of White City’s new tower blocks and the street’s trademark notes of spring flowers and marijuana have been sharpened by weeks of dramatically reduced traffic pollution. My enhanced sense of smell brings new intensity in turn to the taste of food. Even the sense of touch seems charged by my restrictive caution towards almost everyone and everything outside my own home.

That this feeling of aliveness in myself and the world around me should be the consequence of a deathly pandemic is a painfully bitter paradox.

Having thus far been fortunate enough not to have been afflicted by either illness or loss of livelihood, I’ve been free to enjoy this recharging of the senses. But I’ve also been unsettled by it. That this feeling of aliveness in myself and the world around me should be the consequence of a deathly pandemic is a painfully bitter paradox.

I’m hardly alone in noticing this jarring juxtaposition, on which so much commentary of the last few weeks has been focused. Alongside the palpable revitalization of our social and emotional bonds, we witness irruptions of anxiety and depression, all too audible in my virtual consulting room, as men and women are gripped by fear for their own and their families’ physical health, for their financial survival, for the sheer uncertainty of the future.

Signs of vital human and ecological renewal, in other words are arising in the shadow of mass death and suffering. I’ve spent much of these last weeks thinking about what this means from the perspective of psychoanalysis, whose major theorists have returned insistently to the fundamental forces of life, death and the relationship between them.

The very force that drives us forward, they suggested, can also be the very thing that causes us to get stuck and grind to a halt.

Towards the end of his life, Freud gave the name of Eros, or life drive, to what he had earlier called the sexual drive. It is the force that expresses itself in our individual and collective impulses to create what he called ‘ever larger unities’, the drive to build, expand and conquer, to master both the natural and human worlds.

But Freud also insisted, particularly in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, that the death drive coexists intimately with the life drive. The death drive is not in opposition to the life drive, rather it operates by insinuating itself imperceptibly into the life drive.

Environmental catastrophe, for example, doesn’t originate in some purely death-driven Bond villain’s nefarious scheme to despoil the world; it is much more the unintended consequence of our life-driven ambitions for the world – to increase material prosperity, to shorten local and global distances, to heat and light and shelter and feed an exponentially expanding global population. And yet the achievement of these apparently laudable aims has resulted in the exploitation, enslavement and destruction of innumerable human beings, species and natural resources.

French psychoanalysts such as Jacques Lacan and Jean Laplanche took Freud’s argument that the life and death drives intimately coexist a little further, arguing that the death drive was less some discrete biological or metaphysical entity, and more an aspect of the life drive, or libido, itself. The very force that drives us forward, they suggested, can also be the very thing that causes us to get stuck and grind to a halt.

Burnout is the moment libidinal energy becomes sluggish, blocking the engine of activity rather than fuelling it, causing it to sputter out.

Freud seemed to hint at this possibility himself when, in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), he speculated on what he memorably called the ‘sluggishness’ of the libido. Insofar as we tend to think of libido as a kind of motor fuel for life, powering our journey through the world, the notion of its ‘sluggishness’ seems oddly counterintuitive. Freud gives the striking example here of two people falling in love. Their ‘fixation’ on one another becomes a kind of complacent satisfaction, a lazy unwillingness to look for interest anywhere else. The spell cast by love is one way the libido can stop us in our tracks rather than propel us forward.

In my own clinical work, I’ve identified another common modern experience that can be placed under this heading of libidinal sluggishness. Burnout, a term first coined in a psychotherapeutic context by the German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, is ‘physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress’.

Freudenberger noticed burnout becoming particularly prevalent in the caring professions, manifesting there as a weary indifference to the sensitivities and needs of co-workers and clients. Drained by exhaustion of their positive commitment to their own role, burnt-out workers seemed to be running on empty, depleted of all but the most minimal internal resources.

It is an affliction not of the idle or the slobbish, but on the contrary, of the overactive. Burnout, we might say, is the moment libidinal energy becomes sluggish, blocking the engine of activity rather than fuelling it, causing it to sputter out. Patients often describe it as an intense yearning for a state of rest that can’t be attained, so that the will to stop and the will to start again effectively cancel each other out. Burnout is a kind of enervated exhaustion that leaves us helplessly suspended between rest and motion. In economic terms, we might say it is an expenditure of energy that we didn’t really have to spare.

It is hard not to notice Covid-19 has made burnout the universal condition of our lives. We may wish to get out and work and engage once more in ordinary social contact, but external restrictions and internal fears prevent us from doing so.

But is this move from the consulting room to the world at large too loosely metaphorical, an over-hasty grafting of the personal onto the collective? I would argue otherwise. Freud insisted that the psychoanalytic study of the individual was always simultaneously the study of the broader social context in which she lives. And at this moment, it seems especially difficult to isolate an individual experience of burnout from the shared experience of lockdown.

Covid-19 has blocked human productivity and purpose, putting a spoke in its wheels rather than driving them forward. Environmental scientists are now suggesting that Covid-19 is an effect of the disruption of previously undisturbed species’ habitats by human activities – logging, mining, road building – whereby viruses are shaken loose from their natural animal hosts and transferred onto new human ones. The virus is at once an effect of our relentless forward expansion into new territories, and the cause of a radical contraction of our activity and movement.

Left to its own devices, the life drive’s logic of expansion and aggrandizement threatens the burnout of ever larger units, from individuals to communities to the planet itself.

What does this contraction imply for psychoanalytic thinking? In his later formulations of the life and death drives, Freud would at times present them as separate forces in a relation of Manichean opposition. This tendency has spilled over into the subsequent history of psychoanalysis; the life drive is affirmed as the basis of health, love and creativity, while the death drive is the harbinger of destructiveness and hate.

Burnout hints at the need for a more subtle and complex conception of the drives and their relationship. Left to its own devices, the life drive’s logic of expansion and aggrandizement threatens the burnout of ever larger units, from individuals to communities to the planet itself. What we call the death drive, meanwhile, is rooted in the fundamental need of every organism to stop, to reduce the burden of stimulus and activity imposed on it.

If we think of the death drive not as some discrete force at war with the life drive, but an element inside it, its value to life and health begin to come into focus. The death drive is a name for that dimension of life that refuses activity and purpose, that is oriented towards stopping rather than motion. The so-called death drive, in other words, is revealing an unmistakably preservative function.

Global capitalism, with its imperative of productivity and growth, cannot recognise this dimension of life. From its perspective, time and resources that cannot be dedicated to these aims are considered wasted. The burnt-out individual has become ill from identifying completely with this imperative, from a kind of manic compulsion to activity and a corresponding contempt for rest and reflection.

The clinical approach to burnout involves cultivating a curiosity about this neglected dimension of the mind, a willingness to listen to the mind and body’s need for a pause in the flow of active life, rather than continually overriding it. Chris, a man I saw for some months and subsequently wrote about, arrived in my consulting room following an episode of chronic nervous exhaustion, which had seen him wake up one morning and decide to withdraw entirely from work and every other aspect of external life. He had been holed up in his flat for weeks binge-eating donuts and binge-watching box-sets.

Chris’s restoration to himself began when he allowed himself to think about the kind of life he wanted to live and the kind of person he wanted to be. It meant nurturing in himself an impulse to aimless drift, which manifested itself for the first time in his going for a walk for some hours without any notion of where he was going.

With the prospect of a return to life as it was before Covid-19 now vanishingly distant, we are all of us citizens of a burnt-out world, burdened and gifted with the questions of what kind of lives we want to live and what kind of world we want to live them in. Might this period of enforced social withdrawal and reduced activity, and the time and space it affords for listening to ourselves and to each other, help us begin to imagine the answers to those questions?

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