Trade Imbalance Burnout

Have you ever wondered what might be causing you to feel tinges of burnout?  Your life’s going well.  You just got a promotion at work.  The kids are succeeding in school and sports.  But there’s something wrong that you can’t put your finger on.  Perhaps the cause of your burnout isn’t that things aren’t going well, but you’re instead making investments into people and projects, and you’re just not seeing the returns you expect.  Sometimes the cause of burnout can be as simple as fixing a trade imbalance.

Trade Imbalance

Sometimes, the things you do for other people generate massive value.  If you’re an electrician and you help a friend fix an outlet, you’ve generated a relatively large amount of positive value from a simple interaction.  It might have only taken you five or ten minutes to help solve the problem, but to your friend, the problem was either unsolvable or meant a $150 service call from an electrician.  Here, there’s a “trade imbalance” – but a positive one.  It’s a small amount of your effort for a large return for them.  The key learning here is that the value the other person places on something you do isn’t related to the effort on your part.  Instead, it’s about the value they get from it.

All is good when you put in little effort, and the friend or colleague gets a large return.  However, what happens when the tables are turned, and you put in a lot of effort, but the other person doesn’t value it – or doesn’t value it in the same way?  Parents may be familiar with this, when they work hard to produce a healthy and delicious meal that their children turn their noses up at.  Just because the dish is more difficult to make doesn’t mean a three-year-old will value it more.  The simple palates of young children are more interested in spaghetti than sushi.  Here, a negative trade imbalance exists, because the effort to create the meal is greater than the value everyone obtains from it.

Looking for Negative Trade Imbalances

When we’re feeling burned out, we can sometimes trace it back to situations and relations where we feel like we’re giving more than we’re getting.  The first places to look are where we feel like we’re using a large amount of energy and see if that energy is being returned.  If not, we need to decide whether to disengage from that trade all together or change the way we go about it.  If your children don’t value the meals you’re putting together, perhaps you can make something simpler that they’ll like just as much or more, and you’ll reduce the trade imbalance.

The second source of trade imbalances are those places where reactions are always or nearly always negative.  Even if you’re not putting that much into something, to have someone constantly tell you it’s not good enough is draining.  If you find the other person doesn’t appreciate what you’re doing, then perhaps it’s time to stop.

Finally, another place to locate trade imbalances is in those things that you do “just because.”  Some of these “just because” items are really your self-care.  They’re what you do because they fill you up.  However, even these can become a burden when you’re no longer enjoying them.  Sometimes, the trade imbalance is with yourself: you expect these things will bring you joy because used to, but you no longer enjoy them.  If that’s the case, then just stop.

Balanced Trade Agreements

It’s time to enter into a balanced trade agreement with yourself.  If you can’t – in sum – have a balanced agreement, where you’re getting out of things what you’re putting into them, then you’re putting yourself on the road to burnout.  If you want to avoid the road to burnout, build more positive trade imbalances and limit or remove the negative trade imbalances, even those with yourself.

Trapped in Victimhood on the Road to Burnout

Have you ever been to a tourist trap?  The kind of mini-museum that promises oddities or a comprehensive look at medieval torture devices that you won’t believe?  You know, at some level, that you’re not going to be entering a life-changing experience.  It’s something that’s amusing enough to kill an hour or so and separate you from a moderate amount of money.  These places are fine places to visit occasionally, but it’s not like you would want to spend your whole life there.

Victimhood – the very real and palpable sense that we’re a victim – is similarly a fine place to visit when it’s appropriate but an awful place to take up permanent residence.

What’s Wrong with Being a Victim?

Nothing’s wrong with being a victim per se – if you really are one.  When someone pulls the rug out from under you, it’s appropriate to feel victimized.  However, being a victim doesn’t help you grow.  Being a victim can teach you to be more vigilant in the future for similar kinds of situations where you might be taken advantage of.  But, by and large, being a victim doesn’t motivate you to action.

As humans, we learn from our mistakes – or at least we should – so considering and reviewing the situation that led us to being victimized can help us to prevent it from happening again.  This is a natural, healthy, normal response.  The problem isn’t that we take the time to reflect, the problem is when we get stuck in our reflection – or, rather, we transition into rumination.


If remembering and reflecting are good, then why can’t rumination be OK?  The problem is that rumination doesn’t teach us anything or free us from burdens but instead layers more and more onto the situation, making it harder for us to free ourselves.

Have you ever seen a candle being made?  Traditional tapered candles are made by repeatedly dipping string into hot wax and lifting it enough to cool and harden it.  Each time the wick – eventually, the candle – is dipped, more wax sticks to it and it gets larger, making even more wax stick the next time.  The process of rumination is like this: the situation gets larger and larger until it’s difficult to break free.

The difference between reflection and rumination is that, in reflection, you seek to prevent future hurts.  In rumination, you relive the event.  You play it in your mind like an endless loop.

Breaking Burnout

Burnout is about feeling you’re ineffective.  You can’t feel effective if you’re caught in an endless loop of victimization by ruminating over when you’ve been victimized.  Escaping burnout is as simple – and difficult – as breaking the cycle of rumination.  Instead of focusing on what happened, you can focus on what you’re going to do to prevent it from happening again – or, perhaps more importantly, preventing it from hurting you like it did.

This isn’t an invitation to close down emotionally or to never speak with anyone again.  It’s an invitation to explore how your choices to make yourself vulnerable need to be considered for their value and not just assumed that you must always – or never – be vulnerable.  Evaluate what you can do so that someone victimizing you again won’t be so impactful.  The truth is that we need to trust others, which means sometimes our trust will be betrayed.  The key is understanding how to live with this reality.  Understanding this can break the rumination loop and keep us out of burnout.

Courage to Confront Burnout

It takes courage to confront burnout.  It takes courage to acknowledge that you’re in it and to confront the factors that are keeping you in it.  If you’re in burnout, finding or creating the courage to confront it may seem impossible, but it isn’t.  Creating the courage to confront burnout is not only possible for anyone but it’s possible for you.

What is Courage?

There is some confusion about what courage even is.  Many folks believe that courage is the absence of fear.  However, nothing is further from the truth.  If there is no fear, there’s no need for courage.  Courage shows its power only when it conquers fear.  So, courage is going forward not without fear but despite fear.

Knowing that you don’t have to eliminate fear to be courageous is the first step in being able to take the steps necessary to confront and ultimately conquer burnout.

Do What?

The challenging part isn’t that courage can overcome the confines of burnout, it’s realizing what the burnout is being caused by and where the courage is needed.  Like anything else, there is a source to burnout.  When we realize burnout is caused by our belief that we can’t be effective, we can look to those places where we feel the most ineffective.

Whether it’s a relationship with our parents or peers that we don’t feel is right or a recognition that we feel we deserve in the form of a promotion, there is almost always at least one specific cause of burnout that can be tackled.  So, the courage we need isn’t to say some magical, anti-burnout chant.  The courage we need is to break through some barrier that we feel exists in our world and in our capabilities.

Invisible Walls

It seems silly now, but in early 1954, everyone believed that no human could possibly run a mile in less than 4 minutes.  There were many who had tried, but in the eight years since someone ran their 4:01 time, no one could best the record.  Somehow, everyone had become convinced that a man who ran a mile in less than four minutes would keel over dead.  That is, until one man did it, Roger Bannister, and then he was followed by dozens more.  All it took was for one man to run the mile in less than four minutes and then suddenly (in evolutionary terms) everyone was doing it.

What happened was an invisible wall.  It was a wall that prevented runners from breaking the 4:01 record for just shy of a decade.  It wasn’t a result of human physiology but instead a result of human psychology.

Searching with Sonar

With courage at the ready, we escape burnout by finding those hidden barriers that we don’t even realize are there.  With friends, we ping ideas about how to get unstuck and how to use our courage to demonstrate our efficacy.  Our friends may even respond with ideas that would have never occurred to us alone, creating the opportunity for us to step into that space and attempt ideas we would have never thought of.

When we leverage others’ perspectives, we can sometimes get a different sounding of the hidden barriers that are blocking us.  Then all we need to do is apply our courage in that direction to push through the wall that we didn’t realize was blocking us.  Eventually, with enough attempts, we’ll find a way to move forward instead of feeling stuck in burnout.


Will you pass gas in front of your friends and loved ones?  For some the answer is a squeamish no, for others the question is met with a shrug and a timid “sure”, and occasionally you’ll get an enthusiastic “yes!”  The question may seem odd or innocuous, but it may indicate something larger.  It may be a pointer to whether you accept yourself – all of yourself – or not.  There are certain social norms that we’re not supposed to violate, but we know that we all do.  No one wants to admit their farts stink – but everyone’s has some stench.

Somewhere in the shrug is the acknowledgement that not everything about a person can be bright and rosy.  Every person has good and bad in them.  It’s easy to say that everyone has things that they don’t like about themselves.  It’s much harder to say this is a part of me that I don’t like about myself.  It might be a lack of exercise, lack of motivation, a feeling of shyness in certain situations or one of a few hundred other things that most of us struggle with from time to time.

A lack – or, rather, a low level – of self-acceptance leads to burnout because of our missed expectations.  We expect perfection, because we believe we see it in others.  Though celebrities are in the news with their drug and legal problems, there are many celebrities who aren’t in this category.  We see only their new, multi-million-dollar contracts and wonder what it takes to get one of our own.  We see our friends through Facebook having great vacations, promotions at work, and children who are off saving the rainforests or becoming the youngest CEO to ever reforest an entire country.  Whatever metric we use, we can find someone doing it better – and therefore there’s a part of us that doesn’t measure up to the unrealistically high standard.

Sometimes our level of self-acceptance is lower than that.  Sometimes we treat ourselves with a degree of self-loathing that we would never allow anyone else to say to a friend in our presence.  We believe that other humans are worthy of respect and decency but not us.  Somehow there’s some aspect of us that invalidates our right to be included with the rest of humanity.  The truth is there’s nothing that we can do to separate us from our humanity.  No matter what we’ve been told or even what we’ve done, we remain human and deserve the same level of care, grace, and acceptance that we would afford to a stranger.

By quieting the negative voices of self-loathing and moving towards more self-accepting self-talk, we create a greater opportunity to resist the pit of burnout.  We may feel sucked in by circumstances or feeling like we’re not meeting the expectations we have for ourselves, but if we can approach ourselves with self-acceptance, we can float over these depressing times and arrive at the other side fully intact.