Burned Out? 6 Sources—and 1 Solution Burnout isn’t the problem; it’s about the choices you make.

Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.

Posted Oct 12, 2018

“I’m burned out, but isn’t everybody burned out?”

Actually, no…

While some would argue that burnout is part and parcel of our high-working, high-striving American culture, we can’t lay it all on that doorstep. Here are the 6 common individual sources of burnout:

#1. Working too much

You’re the newbie at the law firm, the start-up; you have 2 kids under the age of 3. Do you get burned out? Sure – the 80+-hour work-weeks, the middle of the night breastfeeding and running around all day leave you whooped, you’re chronically tired. Okay, this burnout is for real; you do the best you can.

#2. You’re into control

Actually, your husband has said many times that he’s fine with hiring someone to help clean the house or find a babysitter so you can have a break. Or your supervisor says, don’t worry about handling all of the project, you can hand some of it off to a coworker. But you don’t look for cleaning help, you can’t find that perfect babysitter, the coworker doesn’t really understand the project and will probably screw it up.

This is about control, and control is about anxiety, and often anxiety is about not trusting others, always expecting the worst to happen, a fear of “mistakes” and needing a certain level of perfection at all times. You can’t let go, let others help, can’t delegate because…you get anxious, because bad things will happen. If you do it all, you don’t have to worry, but the price you pay for controlling it is the price of wearing yourself out.

#3. You can’t say no

Okay, maybe you can delegate or get the babysitter, but part of your 80+ hours is because you can’t say no — need a volunteer for that new task force? Your hand goes up. Need someone to help with the bake sale at church — ditto. Have another kid? Sure, I guess, why not…

Sometimes this is about being strategic and realistic — you don’t say no to working the weekend the second week on the job at the law firm or start up. But the bake sale? Another baby? This may be about you and your personality, the always-agreeable, always-accommodating, want-to-make-everyone-happy, avoid-conflict-at-all-cost personality.

This is your Achilles heel, your psychological fatal flaw that will eventually do you in. It’s not about the bake sale or even about having more kids, it’s about learning to step out of the accommodating, don’t want to get anyone upset mentality that worked when you were a child, but will no longer work as an adult. This is a big one, something you need to take seriously and work on — on your own, in therapy — or you’re at perpetual risk of burnout.

#4. Your identity is one of being the martyr

This is “can’t say no” solidified into an identity. You still have the twinge of anxiety about saying no at times, but it passes quickly. Usually you feel none of that, you go on autopilot, you raise that hand no longer even aware of whether you want to do something or not. It’s you. What the you get are compliments and admiration of others for your hardworking, always-sacrificing self. You’re loved. This keeps you going. And, as an extra bonus, by marching along this path, you never have deal with that self-criticism in your head that is always ready to pounce.

And when burnout eventually comes, you feel it is earned. A brief collapse, which, of course, everyone understands and is sympathetic about, before you’re back on the horse.

#5. Your job is your life

The job may be the start-up, the parenting, running the never-ending Sunday bake sales. Just as your identity may be the martyr, here your identity is… the job. It is you, filling up 97.5 % of who you are and you hold onto like it is a psychological life-raft because it is. Without it you worry you are nothing. Again, you get the kudos from others to keep you going, as well as the underlying and perpetual fear that God-forbid something happens that takes this all away.

So, you throw yourself into this 24 / 7, and as a bonus you have that powerful sense of control and domain. You burnout, but again a relatively small price to pay to avoid non-existence. Retirement? Don’t even think about it.

#6. You’re trying to escape / avoid

This is the close cousin of the #5. Here work the 80 hours even after you’re a partner in the firm, even after the start-up has gone public, even after the kids are teens and more independent because…. It may be fear of non-existence, but it may be more concrete like you don’t want deal with your stale or dead intimate relationship, or you need to escape the chaos and drama at home. You develop a fine-tuned tunnel vision, the blinders are always on, you can use “you’re tired” or “working late” as an excuse for everything under the sun that you don’t know how to face.

This becomes another driver in your life that leads to burnout because it is really a bad solution to all these other problems. You’re reluctant to give it up when you feel you don’t have other options.

The one solution

Running through all these combination of sources is the notion that burnout is not the problem, but a consequence, a bad solution to a life poorly run. But more so it is about a life that has lost any notion of choice. It is a life running on auto-pilot: You do what you do because you do it.

The way out is simple but difficult. You need to get off the treadmill by realizing that you have a choice, that there are options, that you don’t have to do what you do, but that you can take a breather, step back and make different decisions. That’s the simple part.

The hard part is putting the options that seem viable, that appeal to that part of your life that has withered or been forgotten, into concrete action. Here you experiment with saying no and find out that nothing bad happens. You get help from others and find out it turns out okay-enough and maybe you can begin to trust others and not be so isolated. You tackle not your control, but the underlying anxiety that is driving it so that it is driving you less. You diversify and deliberately expand your self-image and identity so you don’t have all in one ever-teetering basket. You stop and try (gulp) to approach those problems that you have tried so hard to avoid. Hard but doable, and you can get help to do so.

So, if you want to get off that burnout train, step back, see and make a new choice. You being you is ultimately you being who you want to be. Not merely accepting what you get.

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