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The season of giving can be…a lot. As much as you want to do all the things (buy all the presents, go to all the light displays, attend all the parties), if you do, you risk burn out. In addition, you are likely doing a lot of things for others, often, (but not always) if you are a female. “Human-giver syndrome,” a term coined by Amelia and Emily Nagowski in their life-changing book, Burnout, is a subset of burnout you are particularly susceptible to this time of year. Here’s how to spot it and avoid it so you can enjoy your family and friends without exhausting yourself in the process.

How does giving cause burnout?

Doing unto others is good, of course, but constant caretaking and giving of yourself is a recipe for burnout. The problem is when people think that helping others is a way to move through their stress cycle. Instead of taking care of themselves, you’re taking care of everyone else to your own detriment.

You’re helping out at the kids’ holiday party at school. You’re organizing the toy donation fair. You’re doing the Christmas shopping for your immediate family, plus you’re doing it on behalf of your kids, and, oh yeah, for your partner, too. In the episode about Human Giver Syndrome for their podcast Feminist Survival Project, Emily Nagowski says, “If we had set out to design a system to burn out half the population with emotional exhaustion, we could not have invented anything more efficient.”

When you finish all these holiday tasks, your job is still there, the house is a mess, and, oh yeah, there’s still a pandemic going on. Also, family stress might be higher than normal this time of year. You know what burnout feels like by now, likely. You’re setting yourself up to be cranky, tired, and even unhealthy, more likely to get sick yourself.

How to avoid holiday burnout

Noticing the signs in yourself is the first way to survive the holidays and avoid burnout. The Nagowski sisters say you need to keep track of how it feels when you give to someone who supports you and gives back, not just someone who, as Emily says in the podcast, “the more you give to them, the more entitled they feel to take from you.” Obviously, children are going to fall into the category of people who don’t really give back, but your fellow adults need to be giving, not just taking from you.

If they’re not, you should either let them go or communicate to them in no uncertain terms that they need to help or expect less. I suggest, if this person is your partner, reading the book Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live) by Eve Rodsky. But if it’s the PTA, your friends, your boss, or an extended family member, you can do the hard thing and practice saying “no,” “I am unable to do this at this time,” or even simply making yourself unavailable.

As a freelance writer, I very technically could have volunteered more during the last two weeks before winter break. However, with several deadlines, Christmas shopping, and my mental health needing a little bit of attention this time of year (and generally), I had to block off my calendar and, when they asked for more volunteers, I didn’t respond. Personally, I call this, “triage.” When there’s a lot going on, I streamline my “to-do” list and start getting rid of things that can wait. I can volunteer again in January, but I do need to work in December.

Combatting human-giver syndrome

The last survival skill the Nagowskis say you need when you are a victim of human-giver syndrome is to “celebrate others’ rest and joy.” They say we often feel not only that we have to do everything ourselves but we begin to feel resentful of anyone who isn’t doing as much as we.

Instead of sarcastically saying, “must be nice” when your friend tells you they’re skipping their family’s chaotic holiday meal in favor of a quiet night at home, thinking to yourself that you’d love to do that but you “just can’t” and resenting them for being able to take the easy way out, be happy for your friend for taking a rest when they clearly need it. Maybe consider leaving your family’s celebration early so you can get the kids to bed before they meltdown and make you regret every life decision you’ve ever made.

Instead of feeling jealous that your childless sister is spending New Year’s at a concert, be happy for her. Try to take some of that comfort and joy for yourself, unapologetically, without anyone asking you for anything or making you feel guilty about it. Snuggle up and watch a funny movie. Talk a walk in the cold night air and look at the stars. Or just scream into the abyss.



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