Burnout Fireman

Burnout is all around you.  What are you going to do about it?  How can you be a part of the fire brigade that eliminates the burnout in others?  The same skills that have freed you from burnout can be used to help others escape burnout as well.

Fire Safety

There are two factors that will help others come to you when they’re experiencing burnout.  The first is for them to see you as safe, and the second is for them to see you as fireproof.  People are safe if they’re non-reactive and it feels like they’ve gone through the same thing.  The more you can share your experience, including how you were in burnout and how you’ve overcome it, the greater that people perceive you’ll be safe.  Coupled with a general sense of being safe, most people will reach out for help.

Being perceived as fireproof is a bit more difficult.  Others don’t want to make things worse by pulling you into burnout instead of you pulling them out of it.  They want to know that you can share their load if they bring it to you – instead of adding to it.  However, being fireproof doesn’t mean the fires will never come, and you won’t occasionally succumb to them.  Fireproof means that you can resist a degree of fire for a time.  Fireproof doesn’t mean you’ll never experience burnout again.

Making it clear to everyone that you’re able to accept a degree of their burnout without becoming cynical yourself goes a long way towards improving how safe you seem and making it possible for them to come to you.

Putting Out the Fire

Just as a fire department has tools for putting out fires, you also have tools to stop burnout.  Having learned that burnout is driven by a lack of personal agency, you can help others realize their personal agency.  Because you’re there to help them get out of burnout, you’re already filling their capacity with the support you’re providing.  More than that, your willingness to step in reinforces that their requests for support from others may be accepted as well.

You can’t completely resolve burnout in someone else by just being present and supportive – though it’s a good start.  You’ll also want to share your third-party feedback about all the things they’re getting accomplished.  By helping them more appropriately appraise their real results and helping them set realistic expectations, you can provide invaluable support for their belief in their own personal agency.

If self-care regimens are a part of your burnout recovery journey, you can share what you do to take care of yourself.  From the simple things like getting good sleep and staying hydrated to the more complex exercise and diet regimens, your experience helps them see what may work.  Even if they don’t accept your self-care approaches, the idea that everyone does self-care normalizes it and makes it more reasonable and possible for others to find a way to take care of themselves.

Last, but not least, you can share how you manage your demands and your realization that many of the demands that you feel are ones that you’ve placed on yourself – they’re not coming from other people.  It’s a difficult lesson to realize that, often, the standards we hold ourselves to for deliverables are higher than what our managers or peers expect.  Teaching this reality gives them an opportunity to calibrate their perception of the demands on them to what is really being asked for – and learn when to push back when the external demands aren’t reasonable.

You may not be able to help everyone escape the fires of burnout, but you can be of help to many people.

Defining Success to Avoid Burnout

Who do you believe is successful?  Whose success would you most like to model?  The first question may be hard, but the second one is harder.  Most people could point to successful people – actors, presidents, captains of industry, startup entrepreneurial successes, etc. – but that’s not an answer about your beliefs or what success looks like for you.  It’s a generic statement and an ability to reflect what society says success is.  The harder question is what success means to you.  If you can’t define clearly what success means to you, you may find that you end up burned out instead of successful.

Success Measures

For some, money is how they measure success.  While many people will tell you that money doesn’t buy happiness – and it’s true – that doesn’t mean some measure of success can’t be found in making money.  (By the way, money will make you a hell of a deal on a long-term lease of happiness, if you do it right.)  Money is likely to be an aspect of the way you want to measure your success – however, it’s probably not the only measure.

Fame is another candidate for a success measure, but it’s fickle.  One moment, you’re on a nationally syndicated television show, and the next, you’re scraping by and trying to figure out how to make a living.  Some icons of fame have sustained their popularity – but very, very few.  Many of the candid interviews with famous people have them lamenting the stalkers, the paparazzi, or the industry for making them conform instead of being allowed to be themselves.

Happiness is a great success measure, except few people know how to achieve it.  We are, in fact, lousy at predicting the things that will bring us happiness and lasting joy.  So, while it’s great in concept, we often marvel at the people we see who are happy but whose happiness we can find no way to replicate.  Often, we find reasons why the life they have – that they’re happy with – isn’t one we’d like to lead.

The Moving Goal

Without a specific, targeted measure of success, we’re likely to move the goal post.  Money is easy.  If you’re like most people, you want to make just a little more money to be happy.  The problem is that when you get that next raise or that little bit more money, you’ll want just a bit more.  Think about how much money you wanted to make when you first got out of school.  You’re likely making much more than that now – and are still looking to make more, just like the rest of us.

Fame can follow a similar trajectory.  If you have a hundred followers, you’d love a thousand.  If you have a thousand, you’d love to have ten thousand.  If you’ve got ten thousand followers, you’d love to have a hundred thousand.  You’re never famous enough.  There’s always someone more famous than you and some opportunity that wasn’t offered to you – no matter what the source of your fame is.

The thing we’ve got to do is nail down what we personally mean by success, so we can prevent burnout.

Defining Burnout

Burnout is typically defined as exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  The key to burnout is the feelings of inefficacy – that there is no way to get free from your current situation.  It leads to exhaustion and the question of why you’re bothering to try.  It also leads to cynicism, because people are cynical about the things they can’t change.

The problem with failing to define what success means is we keep moving those goals and therefore never reach them.  We feel like we’re a failure or simply not able to get to our goals, because we never see ourselves achieving our goals.

Defining Success and Preventing Burnout

When you can define what success means to you in clear and concrete terms, you’ll give yourself something to measure and a way to show that you are indeed making progress, and that will help to prevent burnout.

When you’re defining what success looks like, I’d encourage you to look not at your finances or the neighborhood you live in but instead about how you spend your time.

  • Do you get the choice of what to do – or do you have to do things to make money, support an appearance, or remain in good social graces?
  • How much do you get to do the things you enjoy?
  • How are you impacting others and improving their lives?

If you can answer these questions – and adjust your expectations as situations change – you may find that you’re already on your way to success.

Holiday Burnout

It’s not the holiday music.  It’s not the sappy movies with predictable endings.  It might be the endless running from shop to shop (or site to site), but it feels like more than that.  It’s the emptiness you feel when you leave your extended family, and you realize that you just don’t like them.  You know you or your spouse are related to them, but you’re not sure how.  It’s that nagging feeling that you can’t be you.

Burnout is defined as exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, and of these, the inefficacy criterion is key.  When you feel like you don’t have any control, and you can’t make it better, you’re going to feel ineffective.  You’re never more keenly aware of that than when you’re under stress.


Stressors come at you from many angles during the holidays.  There’s the financial impact of the added expenses.  There’s the time impact of shopping for everyone.  More than that, there’s the stress of being around family.  Though evolution designed stress for situations where our survival was threatened, as humans, we’ve adapted it for non-survival related things.

If you’re worried how you’ll be able to buy gifts for all the children, you’ll experience the same stress that our ancestors felt when they discovered there was a lion nearby.  The only mitigating factor for us is our assessment of our capacity to address the stressor.  If you believe you’ll be able to afford all the holiday gifts, then you won’t stress about their costs.  However, nearly everyone has some form of stressor at the holidays, even if the stressor is called “in-laws” or – in some families – outlaws.

The big problem with stress is that it’s like a payday loan.  It gets you what you need in the moment, but it comes at a high cost.  Stress physiologically shuts down long-term processes – like digestion and immune system – to allow all your resources to be used for short-term challenges.  The costs to our bodies to restart these processes – or run without them – is generally much more than leaving them going all the time.


It doesn’t exactly matter what you tell yourself about the relative degree of risk there is during the holidays.  Except for a relatively small percentage of families, the gatherings don’t result in a call to the police or fire department (burning the food and setting off the smoke detector notwithstanding).  Despite this, gatherings can be stressful.  There’s the uncomfortable conversation you’d prefer to avoid that every cousin who hasn’t seen you will start.  There are the overbearing parents who will ask you about when you’re going to have children, get married, get a job, or move out of the basement.  These conversations may be uncomfortable enough to qualify, to your mind, as a threat to your survival.

It’s easy to say that you shouldn’t care about what your family thinks, but you grew up with the knowledge that you needed to care what they thought, because you depended upon them for your survival.  The result is a deep-seated belief that a conflict with the family can be life-threatening to you – regardless of how true that is today.


The opposite side of the coin are those “still, dark moments” when you’re completely alone, and loneliness tries to creep its way into your consciousness.  Loneliness isn’t about being alone.  It’s about feeling like you’re alone.  The underlying fear is that you will remain alone – forever.  We feel the loss of relationship to others, whether it’s grandparents, parents, or estranged friends.  That loneliness can feel pervasive and overwhelming even when it’s not.

It can feel like you’re always going to be alone.  It can feel like no one can really know who you are and love you for who you are.  It’s in this loneliness that some descend through burnout – a lack of hope – into despair.  (If you believe that you might be or become suicidal, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org for assistance.)

However, the perception that anything will remain forever is just an illusion.  The burnout you experience from the holidays, whether from the hustle or the hush, will fade away if you can realize that you’re not in danger, and the challenges you’re facing will fade.  We can’t stop the stressors, but we can change the way we assess them.

Caregiver Burnout

Mom never used to be this way.  She used to be the vibrant force that kept the family together.  Now she’s in a memory care facility, and as I go in every day, I wonder if she’ll remember me.  It’s a scary place – for me and for her.  I feel so out of my element and unprepared.  I don’t know what will happen next or how things can get better – even though I know, in my heart of hearts, this is as good as it gets, and even it will only last so long.

The days and weeks drag on to months and years, and I wake up to realize that I resent going to the facility.  It feels like I’m stuck, like my life is on hold.  It feels like – and I hesitate to say it – I’m waiting on her to die for me to get my life back.  In a flash, I feel shame and guilt wash over me.  How could I think that about her?  What kind of monster am I?

This isn’t my story, but it’s a story that plays out in every city and town, where good, honest, and loving children are faced with caring for their elder parent.  Like a Hollywood remake, the story also plays out for parents who have special needs children, the spouse who cares for someone who brought light to their lives, and for those who have chosen to bring troubled children and adults into their lives to care for them.  It feels like burnout.  It feels like there’s nothing left to give.

Defining Burnout

Burnout has been most frequently described as exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  However, of all of these, inefficacy is the most challenging.  It’s the point of losing hope and feeling like you have no control.  Everyone experiences periods of exhaustion, and it’s possible to experience exhaustion at some of the highest points of our life but feeling ineffective can really bring us down.

We can be a caregiver when we know that things are going to get better, but, more frequently, we don’t know the ending – or we know the ending won’t be good.  If we define our progress through the lens of recovery, we know that we won’t be successful.  However, if we redefine our service as an opportunity to reduce the suffering, we have a chance of being successful.


Compassion is seeing the suffering of another and trying to do something about it.  When we’re entering the role of the caregiver, that’s what we’re doing.  We’re intentionally deciding to be compassionate and try to make the world a better place, even when it doesn’t seem like we make it much better or for many people.  Our expectations of how compassionate we “should” be or how much of an impact we “ought to” make get in the way of us feeling good about what we are doing and accomplishing.

Compassion isn’t absolute nor without end.  Compassion is a decision to use our capacity to help others, but that capacity has limits, and that’s why it’s important to get relief.


Cynicism seeps in when we’re unable to cope with the reality we find ourselves in.  We can’t change the ultimate outcomes, and we don’t feel like we’re individually capable of carrying the load.  The solution is to ask for help.  Maybe there’s someone who can take one weekend a month of load off your plate – or even someone who can help for a few hours to take an uninterrupted bath, go to a store without fear, or one of the thousands of other things that can provide a short reprieve.  This space can allow you to see that what you’re doing is possible, and you can continue.

Caregivers who experience exhaustion and cynicism need to know that this doesn’t make them a bad person.  The caregivers around you need your support.  Caregivers aren’t always good at asking for help and have resigned themselves to an unhealthy level of burden for far too long.

If you’re a caregiver who is struggling, ask for help to get some time off.  If you know a caregiver who’s struggling, don’t wait for them to ask.  See if there’s a way that you can help.