Exhaustion As a Status Symbol

Why is being exhausted a status symbol?

It is an interesting question that has become more and more prevalent during the past century. Exhaustion is what led to Pope Benedict XVI retiring in 2013, the first pope to give up the title voluntarily in more than 700 years. A new book aims to look at the history of being exhausted and what it means and why being exhausted means you are better than everyone else.

Today, exhaustion still hints at status, but of a different sort. To say that you’re exhausted is to telegraph that you’re important, in demand, and successful. It’s akin to the humblebrag of ruefully describing yourself as “so busy”—naturally, since exhaustion follows from busyness. In Schaffner’s telling, the associations of exhaustion with prestige have crystallized in the form of burnout. First used in the 1970s to describe exhaustion suffered by workers in the social sector, “burnout” was characterized by increased cynicism and apathy, and a decreased sense of personal accomplishment. Since then, its application has widened to include all worn down, overburdened workers, especially in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, where burnout is a subject of regular media debate. Burnout, caused by workplace conditions rather than by a worker’s mental and physical composition, is depression’s more palatable, more prestigious cousin. As the German journalist Sebastian Beck puts it: “Only losers become depressive. Burnout is a diagnosis for winners, or, more specifically: for former winners.”

The book tries to differentiate between exhaustion and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a psychological disease that has physical symptoms.

In writing about CFS, Schaffner returns to an idea she first mentions in her introduction, borrowed from the medical historian Edward Shorter: that patients, absorbing the medical and cultural discourses of their time, unconsciously display the psychosomatic symptoms that doctors will take seriously. Shorter is convinced that CFS is all in the mind, a twentieth-century version of hysteria with subjective symptoms (fatigue, muscle pain) both impossible to disprove and in line with what “doctors under the influence of the central-nervous paradigm [expect] to see”.

Being exhausted has been around for centuries, and it now seen as a badge of honor for someone who is trying to accomplish more than what is expected. But exhaustion leads to a number of physical problems and is not an ideal state for being productive.

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