It is not work that burns us out
Updated: Apr 18
Burnout is an indisputable boundary of epic proportions. Examining the root causes is the best way to slow or prevent it.
By breaking burnout down into its component parts, we can begin to see that it is rarely ‘work’ itself that burns us out. Here are the main culprits I come across in my coaching practice:
If we are disconnected (from our body/vitality/people/work) we lack the capacity to make sound judgments because we can’t experience the impact of our decisions. We can’t hear our gut/inner voice. We can’t answer questions because we can't even think to ask them. This can both lead to burnout and compound it.
What to do:
Reconnecting requires gentle regular guided action. Learning to listen to our bodies again, gently exploring and noticing what gives us energy and what drains it. Giving ourselves permission to take our time, and the compassion to find our way step by step and rest when we need to.
Not only do humans walk around with a zillion expectations and assumptions, gifted to them by society, family and friends etc - they also walk around thrusting them on others, as well as being thrust upon. Ask yourself…
What are my expectations of myself in this situation?
What are the expectations being placed upon me?
What assumptions have been made here about my capacity/energy/resources?
Are these expectations and assumptions realistic, fair and achievable?
If not, what can I agree/commit to that is realistic, fair and achievable?
Does this match up with what is required in this situation?
If not, can I realistically (and do I want to) grow my capacity to match the requirements?
You will be amazed at what you unearth if you follow this process.
Lack of boundaries (shame)
We weren’t born burnt out - so If we are burnt out now it means that somewhere along the line we became invisible to ourselves. Our immediate needs (energy, body, life) were forgotten in the face of our emotional needs. These emotional needs include attention, acceptance, approval, validation, significance, connection, love, growth, contribution, variety, certainty. So often people believe their emotional needs are only really attainable by “performing” well (thank you capitalism).
Some people will be kind and tell us to take a break (i.e. THEY insert a boundary), but ultimately that is our job and responsibility. It is much easier for us to neglect that job than to do it well for many reasons. Aside from societal programming around selflessness being a virtue, these could include: not feeling deserving of care (shame), feeling we are not being a team player (people pleasing), already being so exhausted that trying to insert a boundary would feel too big an ask (being disconnected), being worried about appearing weak or incapable if we need to ask for a break (unhealthy expectations), genuinely not believing it is possible for things to work without our input (control/saviour complex/inability to accept that work never ends!).
What to do:
Accept and appreciate that everyone has needs and is constantly trying to meet them.
Ask yourself - how has burning out been meeting my needs and what is the impact?
Find healthy and sustainable ways to meet your needs that do not involve burning out
Burnout as a boundary
When we feel powerless to say no, we end up relying on our body to create the ultimate boundary - burnout.
Believe it or not, I recently realised that one of my clients (a CEO who came to me burning out) had actually been using burnout as a boundary. Burnout was their only operative way of saying ‘no’ to doing more. That is a very exhausting and painful way to say no, so I definitely would not recommend it as a strategy.
There is a lot more to say on boundaries, but for now I do hope that this article finds you in good energetic spirits. If you are not feeling that way I encourage you to take some time to answer the questions I have shared above. Let me know how you go.
I love to connect - please do leave a comment or share with someone you think this might benefit.