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  • Writer's pictureQuique Autrey

Metacognitive Therapy In The Burnout Society

The Burnout Society

We live in what Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han calls the burnout society. Many of us feel overwhelmed, cognitively fried and highly anxious. Another way to think about our collective burnout is to suggest that we have transitioned into an achievement society.

Han distinguishes the disciplinary society from our current achievement society. In the disciplinary society, the powers that be utilized negative prohibitions to control people. The modal verb of the disciplinary society was "should" or "must". A man should be strong and not cry. A woman must not work and stay home and raise the children. Think of the prohibitions of organized religion.

According to Han, "unlimited can is the positive modal verb of achievement society." You can accomplish anything with the right mindset! You can have it all; meaningful work, family, success! We have moved from negative prohibition to endless possibility.

The transition into the achievement society has not resulted in greater freedom and well-being. In fact, for many of us, it has resulted in the exact opposite. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (AADA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, affecting 40 million adults (19.1 % of the population) age 18 and older every year.

In the disciplinary society, a force from the outside wielded power and sought to control the person. In our achievement society, we have learned to exploit and control ourselves.

I see this tendency toward self-exploitation in the "gym" culture of Instagram and TikTok. Young men are encouraged to push themselves to their absolute limit. Often beyond it. You can always pursue the next personal record! There's always something more you can accomplish. While lifting weights can be a healthy outlet, I've witnessed how it can lead to physical injury and body dysmorphia in the achievement society.

I'm especially prone to the tyranny of the "can" when it comes to staying digitally connected to work. With a supercomputer in my pocket, I can always send another email, write another blog or schedule another appointment. It's hard to escape even on vacation. When my wife and I drove out of the city to escape our daily grind, Apple Maps continued to redirect all of our excursions back to my office!

Rumination in The Digital World

Rumination is a form of repetitive thinking or dwelling on negative content and feelings. According to the American Psychiatric Association, "the repetitive, negative aspect of rumination can contribute to the development of depression or anxiety and can worsen existing conditions."

I think rumination and anxiety disorders are a big problem in our digital, achievement society. With the call to achieve more and more, we are bound to feel overwhelmed and exhausted. Which one of us does not ruminate over our failure to keep up with the endless "achievements" of influencers on Instagram? Rumination, fueled by our constant exposure to the digital, has exacerbated our collective burnout and anxiety.

I don't see an easy solution on the horizon. I am discouraged by the systemic realities that would need to change to make a drastic difference. That said, I am not without hope. As a psychotherapist, I do believe there are alternative ways to exist in the world that don't lead to the same levels of burnout and anxiety.

Metacognitive Therapy

One of the therapeutic modalities I utilize with clients is metacognitive therapy (MCT). MCT is a psychotherapy approach that links mental illness to unhelpful thinking patterns like worry and rumination. The goal of MCT is to help reduce worry and rumination through a change in metacognitive beliefs and the practice of detached mindfulness.

MCT was created by Adrian Wells, professor of clinical and experimental psychopathology at the University of Manchester. MCT emerged out of the research of Wells and others on information processing models. MCT is now considered an evidence-based treatment modality.

Like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT), MCT is a type of cognitive therapy. Cognitive therapies emphasize irrational beliefs or "cognitive distortions" as the root cause of psychological disturbance. MCT affirms the notion that cognition is at the root of psychological disturbance, but with a very important caveat that distinguishes it from other types of cognitive therapy.

Whereas CBT and REBT highlight cognitive distortions (e.g., black and white thinking) as the root of psychological distress, MCT focuses on our cognitive attentional syndrome (CAS). According to Wells, CAS, "is marked by engaging in excessive amounts of sustained verbal thinking and dwelling in the form of worry and rumination. This is accompanied by a specific attentional bias in which attention is locked onto threat."

Another way to distinguish MCT from other cognitive therapies is to say that while CBT and REBT are interested in targeting ordinary cognitions concerning the world and the social and the physical self, MCT focuses on our beliefs about thinking (i.e., metacognitive beliefs).

Metacognitive Beliefs

Metacognition refers to our capacity to think about our thinking. Metacognitive beliefs are beliefs about our beliefs. According to MCT, we tend to have beliefs about our thoughts and feelings which carry negative and positive judgements about how we should respond to such thoughts and feelings.

We have positive and negative metacognitive beliefs about our rumination and worry. Positive metacognitive beliefs concern the usefulness of worry, rumination, threat monitoring or unhelpful coping strategies. Examples include:

"If I worry I will be prepared"

"Focusing on danger will keep me safe"

"If I analyze why I feel this way I'll find answers"

"Avoiding this situation will help me overcome my issue"

Negative metacognitive beliefs concern the negative significance of our internal cognitive styles of processing. The two subtypes of negative metacognitive beliefs are uncontrollability and danger beliefs. Examples of uncontrollability metacognitive beliefs are:

"I do not control my worry/rumination"

"I can't control my attention"

Examples of danger metacognitive beliefs are:

Psychological distress can make me lose my mind.”

Bad thoughts have the power to make me do bad things.”

According to MCT, metacognitive beliefs influence what we focus on and the strategies we employ to manage unwanted thoughts and feelings. Unhealthy metacognitive beliefs can result in anxiety disorders since they encourage excessive worry and rumination.

Profound Boredom

Before introducing MCT's primary therapeutic intervention, I want to return to Byung-Chul Han and The Burnout Society.

We are addicted to our screens and spend hours a day scrolling through social media. We exploit ourselves through endless achievement and staying tethered to our jobs. The negative thoughts and emotions that emerge out of our nonstop digital connection coalesce into patterns of worry and rumination that lead to anxiety, depression and burnout.

What is Han's remedy for our collective burnout? Han is no prophet of self-help or simplistic formulas. He is not interested in promoting another capitalist gimmick that will line the pockets of the next influencer or "expert." Han's solution to our collective burnout is to experience profound boredom.

Han writes, "If sleep represents the high point of bodily relaxation, deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation." Han is calling us to disconnect from our screens, go for a walk in nature and learn to tolerate the uncomfortable irritation of boredom. In boredom there is nothing to achieve. There is no modal verb commanding us to experience the next novel dopamine hit. Boredom is a settling into the way things are, a state of being rather than doing or having (Fromm).

Han's understanding of boredom makes sense within the larger framework of what he calls the vita contemplativa (the contemplative life). Later this month, Han's book Vita Contemplativa: In Praise of Inactivity comes out in English. I'm anticipating that he'll elaborate on some of these themes broached in The Burnout Society.

Detached Mindfulness in The Burnout Society

Throughout this blog, I've tried to connect the philosophy of Byung-Chu lHan with MCT. In this final section, I want to imagine Han's call to a state of deep boredom or contemplative lingering in a way that correspond's to MCT's primary intervention.

Detached mindfulness is a MCT intervention that encourages one to become aware of a thought (mindfulness) and doing nothing with that thought (detached). Think of a beachball (negative thoughts or emotions) that you carry around with you. You don't kick the ball out of sight or shove it down under the water. The goal is to walk around your day with the ball gently tucked under your arm.

According to Shang Jul Rasul Olsen, detached mindfulness, "means to co-exist with thoughts as one would co-exist with background noise." Mindfulness encourages awareness of thoughts while detachment requires that we not engage, avoid or suppress these thoughts.

It's important to distinguish detached mindfulness in MCT from other common understandings of mindfulness in the world of psychotherapy. Detached mindfulness is not a technique to stop negative thoughts or reduce discomfort. According to Olsen, detached mindfulness is:

  • not a tool 

  • not a way to get rid of negative thoughts

  • not a way to get rid of negative feelings

  • not a way to feel calm 

  • not a tool to have a blank mind

  • not a meditation or mindfulness technique

  • not a thought transformation technique

  • not a philosophy 

  • not an active strategy

Detached mindfulness is not a way to get rid of negative thoughts. It is not a way to feel calm or develop a blank mind. As counterintuitive as this sounds, detached mindfulness is a do-nothing strategy.

Detached mindfulness is a cognitive strategy that is the antithesis of rumination, worry, and thought suppression. Detached mindfulness is about letting our thoughts be in our awareness without pushing them away.

For Olsen, "When you practice detached mindfulness correctly, you feel mentally relaxed because you are not exerting effort to transform thoughts. In fact, if you feel lazy, you are doing detached mindfulness right." I would argue, with Han in mind, that if you feel bored, you are doing detached mindfulness right.

It's time to challenge our metacognitive beliefs about the utility of rumination. The research suggests rumination is not an effective cognitive strategy to solve problems or regulate emotional distress. After modifying our metacognitive beliefs about rumination and worry, the call is to practice detached mindfulness with no ulterior motive in mind. We don't have to accomplish anything or achieve greater enlightenment. It's ok to exist in this difficult world in a state of boredom and contemplative lingering. While it may not sound like the most exciting prospect, it sure beats the frenetic insanity that has resulted in our burnout society.

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