How Self-Talk Leads to Burnout

We all talk to ourselves, at least inside our heads.  What we tell ourselves can help us recognize our accomplishments or cause us to believe we will never be good enough.  Negative self-talk can alter our perspective about our results and value and accelerate our journey down the path towards burnout.

What is Burnout?

Burnout is typically described as a combination of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  Of these three, inefficacy is the causative factor leading to burnout.  We frequently use the bathtub model to describe burnout.  The bathtub is our personal agency, or ability to get things done.  Self-care, support, and results all increase our personal agency, while demands drain our personal agency.  We know that self-care, support, results, and demands all have valves that we control.  We can increase our self-care, support, and recognition of results, and we can decrease or limit our demands to maintain our personal agency and prevent burnout.  As we listen to the voice in our head, our ability to maintain our personal agency is impacted by recognizing our results, increasing self-care, and providing support for yourself.

What Do We Say to Ourselves?

Have you ever really thought about the things you say to yourself?  How often do you tell yourself what a great job you did or what a great friend you are?  Too frequently, we remind ourselves about the things we do not feel like we are accomplishing or doing well enough.  It is important to note that the voices in our heads are telling us how we feel about what we are doing.  How we feel about what we are doing may have little to do with reality and much more to do with how we view ourselves.

In my world, I frequently tell myself I am not a good enough wife.  I believe my husband listens to me better than I listen to him, goes out of his way to help me be successful, and, in general, is great support.  If you were to ask my husband, even if I am not present, he will tell you I am a wonderful and supportive wife.  In this case, who is correct?  The truth is he gets to decide if I am a good wife to him.  The voices in my head are not consistent with reality, are not helpful, and are not truth.  The voices cause me to feel bad about myself and believe I am not good enough.


We talk about the importance of self-care in preventing or recovering from burnout.  Listening to the voices in our head without evaluating them for truth results in self-harm.  The things we say to ourselves we would likely never say to another human being or even our pets.  Yet, daily, we tell ourselves that we are a failure or stupid.  We must change the way we talk to ourselves to build the resiliency we need to avoid burnout.

Change the Story

We hear the stories we tell ourselves, but we do not have to believe them.  We can even change them altogether.  Learning to hear the stories, evaluate them for truth, and change them to provide self-support and self-care is key to preventing burnout.  We cannot accept our self or our positive results when we consistently minimize them, saying anyone could do that, or it wasn’t that great.  Recognize the amazing things or even the good things you do and choices you make.  Maybe you are trying to eat healthier; you have one piece of candy but not the typical two or three.  Instead of telling yourself you are such a loser and can’t even resist a single piece of candy, you can compliment yourself on being able to limit yourself to a single piece.

The more we validate the stories we tell ourselves and use self-compassion, the easier it becomes to recognize the results we are getting, increase our personal agency, and stay off the path to burnout.

Parental Burnout

The hardest part about being a parent is accepting that your children won’t do what you want them to do.  Someday they’ll get old enough and out of your sight for long enough that they’ll do what they want to do – whether it’s something you agree with or not.  When you believe that you should have “raised them better” or you decide to ask yourself “where did I go wrong?”, you may be at the edge of burnout.

Defining Burnout

Burnout has most frequently described as exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  Every parent has experienced exhaustion at some point during their child’s life.  Whether it’s the first few months of interrupted sleep or running them from event to event, I’ve never met a parent who can’t identify with exhaustion.  While most parents don’t admit to being cynical, too many can share their frustration and despondence with their feelings of inefficacy.

There may not be a manual for parenting, but there certainly are many who feel like their experience is the experience by which all parenting should be measured.  It’s easy to try to measure up on every front against every parent we meet and feel like we’re completely ineffective at being a parent as a result.

But We’re Legally Responsible

Of course, there are legal responsibilities to consider until a child legally becomes an adult, but that doesn’t mean that the parents of the Columbine massacre were put on trial for the actions of their children.  As tragic as the incident was, the law didn’t hold the parents ultimately responsible for the outcomes.

In most cases, the kinds of irresponsible behavior on the part of a child doesn’t rise to life or death consequences.  It’s mostly related to the choices they make in their friends, the degree of seriousness they take for their academic studies, and the perseverance they demonstrate in their extracurricular activities.

Moving from Responsible to Responsive

You can’t be held responsible for something you can’t control.  Let that sink in for a moment.  If you can’t control it, then you can’t be held responsible.  Once children begin interacting with the world, you can’t control their actions.  The result is that, while we guide their actions and believe a combination of genetics and environment accounts for their ultimate makeup and behaviors, we still don’t have control. 

Burnout is about feeling ineffective, and if you believe you have control of someone, but you don’t, you’re bound to end up feeling disappointed and ineffective.  If you insist on a belief that isn’t or can’t be true, eventually, it will catch up with you, and you’ll have to give up the belief – or you’ll accept that you’re ineffective.

It’s entirely possible to remain convinced that you can control your children – and you’ll inevitably feel ineffective at times, and that may lead to burnout.  Conversely, if you accept that you don’t have control of your children, and you are responsive to them rather than responsible for them, you’ll find yourself free from the burdens and the risk of burnout. 

Concern without Control

As parents of seven children, we can say the hardest thing to do is to be concerned without an attempt to control the situation.  Whether it’s protecting them from the schoolyard bully or moving them to college, there’s a desire to keep them safe as well as shape their behaviors.  However, letting go of the need to control them may be the most freeing thing that we’ve ever learned.

Cultivating Adaptive Range to Avoid Burnout

There’s controversy around personality testing.  Despite that, nearly everyone has heard of or taken a version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test.  The test is designed to identify your natural state.  That is, it’s designed to help you to understand the conditions for life that are most favorable to your personality.  While this is a good starting point, you may find that expanding the range of situations and conditions that can be positive and life-giving will provide protection against burnout.

Adaptive Range

If you put two people together who score similarly on the MBTI, they’ll quickly understand each other.  They’ll find that the other person just makes sense, because the things that motivate them are likely to motivate the other person.  Of course, everyone is different, but there will be that air of “it just makes sense.”

If our goal in our lives is to better understand and work with others, then extending this effect to folks who are less like us can be useful.  Adaptive range is building our ability to work with and connect with people who are different than us.  The further we can reach across differences, the more we will understand the other person and their perspective – and that means working more effectively with them.  That starts with acceptance.


We’re wired by evolution to be suspicious of people who are not like us.  We’ve been taught to be wary of those who are different, and that extends to those who are psychologically different from us.  The good news is that we can override these biases and learn to embrace people who are different from us.

Developing acceptance of others as a key principle makes it easier for us to get along in the world and, ultimately, for us to avoid burnout.  When we spend less time worried about the differences, we have the opportunity for greater feelings of efficacy.

Improving the Introversion/Extroversion Difference

As an example of improving acceptance, take the introversion/extroversion scale of the MBTI.  A strong extrovert will love being the life of the party and being with everyone.  They’ll struggle, by their nature, to understand someone that prefers a good book or an in-depth, one-on-one conversation with a close friend.  Similarly, a strong introvert won’t like crowds, noise, or the chaos that comes with large numbers of people.  However, both can build understanding of the way that the other is motivated – and they can find ways of getting used to experiences that are just outside of their comfort zone.

Perhaps both could extend their adaptive range by learning to enjoy dinner parties with just a few couples who move past the pleasantries and talk about topics that are important to them.  With repetition, this can become easier and life-giving for both extremes.

Understanding to Live Giving

The tricky bit that often happens during these experiences without us realizing it is that we learn to extract the things that are life-giving, and we ignore, discount, or discard those aspects that aren’t.  In the above example, the introvert may find that speaking in a side-conversation to one of the others helps them find life in the event, and the extrovert may revel in the coordination and hosting of the event.

As you recognize the ways that the other person lights up in their favorite aspects of the situation, you learn how to shape conversations and experiences with them in ways that make everyone more understood and happier.  We’re creating experiences that aren’t native for us but are adaptive to both our needs and the needs of those we’re working to connect with.

Adapting Around Burnout

The benefits of acceptance, understanding, and finding places of commonality is that we’re able to work more effectively as a team.  This expands the results we see and makes us feel like we’re more effective at getting the work done and working with others.

Getting Rid of Mental Clutter to Avoid Burnout

Nearly everyone has a vision of a hoarder.  It might be the crazy “cat lady” who barely has a path from one room to another.  It might be a beloved grandparent or great grandparent whose desire to hold on to everything stems from The Great Depression, when it was impossible to get some of the things that we’d consider essential for survival today.  No matter who you see when you think of a hoarder, you can see the fact that the things they have is crowding out the ability for them to live their lives in happiness.


Those who practice meditation try to rid their mind of mental clutter on a regular basis.  Though there are many paths to effective meditation, there are two main approaches.  The first is to guide your thoughts to a single thing – that is, to be very focused.  The other approach is to guide your thoughts to awareness and presence in the moment – to be aware of everything in the environment.

In both approaches, it’s common for thoughts to intrude upon the purpose and seek to take over your thinking.  Even well-disciplined masters of meditation face these interlopers.  Instead of being frustrated by the unwelcome guests, they simply let go of the thought and guide themselves back to the focus of their meditation.

Intruding Thoughts

We’re not going to eliminate thoughts intruding on our lives, whether in meditation or in conversation with someone else.  Instead of being frustrated that we can’t focus, we can practice refocusing.  Instead of allowing the intruding thoughts to constantly derail us, we can commit to coming back to the thought and addressing it.

When we accept that intruding thoughts are normal, we can get over the frustration and find ways to deal with them that are effective.

Write it Down

Perhaps the most effective way to quiet an intruding thought is to write it down and to plan to get to it later.  Thoughts intrude when they may get lost later.  The more diligent we become about recording the thought and putting it on a list to work on later, the easier it is to get the thought to stop interrupting the work that we’re trying to do now, whether that’s concentrating on something else or trying to focus on someone else in a conversation.

Writing it down doesn’t necessarily mean literally making a note, though it can mean that.  Often, I’ll send a quick, one-line email to myself with a reminder of the thought, so I can pick it back up later.  This technique works wonders during the day but also is effective in the middle of the night, when a thought intrudes into my sleep and wakes me.  I email myself and fall right back to sleep.

Processing the Lists

One of the challenges that can occur with this approach is that you never get back to the lists.  This causes you to not trust you’ll get back to the thought and ultimately makes it harder to quiet them.  For that reason, it’s important that, no matter how or where you capture these thoughts, you try to process them.

Processing your list can be just triaging it – evaluating the most important and addressing them.  That’s enough to trust that, if the idea is critical, you’ll get to it.  It’s also freeing to let go of some of those thoughts after they’ve been put on the list.  Deciding in hindsight they’re not that important helps to further reduce the mental clutter.

The Relationship to Burnout

The value of clearing out the mental clutter in terms of interrupting thoughts is that you’ll have more room to be effective.  If you’re constantly tripping over thoughts, you can’t be as effective as you want to be.  By capturing your thoughts and getting them out of your way in the short term, you can be more effective in the long term, and that will help you to avoid burnout.

Why Perfectionism Causes Burnout

High standards aren’t a bad thing.  Excellence is a virtue.  However, when we move from high standards and delivering excellence to a sense of perfectionism, we put ourselves at greater risk for burnout.  Understanding why that is requires a quick review of what burnout is and its drivers.

What is Burnout?

Burnout has been defined by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  Here, inefficacy is key.  Our belief that we can’t be effective – or effective enough – is our belief in our personal agency.  Our personal agency is filled by the results we get – and recognize – the support we receive from others, and the self-care we do.  Our personal agency is drained by the demands that are placed on us – largely by ourselves.

Viewed differently, burnout happens when we believe we’re ineffective, because our expectations of our results and the results we’re perceiving are too far apart when we evaluate them.  We can work for some time without results and be ok, expecting those results will come in the future.  But a defining moment will come along, and we’ll evaluate our progress and discover that our expectations and results are out of alignment.

Expectations of Perfection

To believe that we’re capable of perfection is a fundamental distortion of what it’s like to be human.  None of us is perfect, and to expect perfection is therefore unrealistic.  However, perfectionists hold this expectation.  Instead of being disappointed when things aren’t perfect, perfectionists see a personal fault.  Instead of looking at the gap as an opportunity to learn, they see it as a personal failing.

No matter how good the results are, they’re not going to be good enough over time.  No baseball player hits a home run every time.  In fact, even professional baseball players only hit one in three pitches that are thrown to them.  If that’s good enough for professionals, why do we have to be perfect?

Our Demands

One of the common things with all humans, not just perfectionists, is that the demands we place on ourselves are greater than the demands other people place on us.  We don’t just expect that we need to bring cookies to work or school.  We expect that we need to make grandma’s super-secret recipe for cookies.  We must demonstrate not just that we’re willing to participate but that we’re the best cook since our grandma.

That’s fine if your goal in life is to be the best cookie chef – but most of us have other areas of our lives where we’re making investments.  Constantly failing our own internal expectations of our capabilities is demoralizing and may land us in burnout.

Recognizing Reality

The best thing that you can do if you struggle with perfectionist tendencies (which we all do at some level) is to continue to ground yourself in reality.  When you make a mistake, you could say the trite, “I’m only human,” or you could focus on what you can do to prevent the mistake next time without the judgement and disappointment.  Instead of wondering how you could have made such a simple or stupid mistake, you could recognize all the times you’re not making mistakes.

The greater acceptance we have for a lack of perfection in ourselves and in others, the greater chance we have to develop realistic expectations and, in doing so, avoid burnout.

Most of the Demands Others Place on Us, We Place on Ourselves

There’s an old joke.  “What do you call the physician who graduated last in his class?”  The answer is, “doctor.”  We sometimes place standards on ourselves that aren’t the world’s standards.  You’ve probably never asked your doctor what his grade point average was.  After you got your first job out of college, did anyone ask you your grade point average?  Yet there are too many of us who push for the perfect grade, the top of the class, or at least above average.

When we’re dealing with burnout, we’re constantly considering how to maintain enough personal agency, and that means limiting our demands.  It’s convenient to believe that other people drive our demands, but the more we’re willing to peer into ourselves, the more we realize it’s our own doing.

The Should

There are expectations we’ve developed while growing that we carry with us.  They’re like the hitchhiking pebble in our shoe.  It’s annoying, but it makes the trip with us for quite a while before we can figure out what is happening and finally remove it.

Occasionally, the things we should do are uncomfortable or painful to us, but rarely do we even recognize that the pain is coming from something we have control of.  Consider your behavior when you invite friends to dinner.  The level of cleanliness is good enough for your family, but, suddenly, when friends are coming over, you must clean.  Where did this idea come from?  It may have come from your parents as they frantically cleaned the house before their friends came over.  If you’re like most of us, you got swept up in the activity as you were asked to vacuum or dust.

In most cases, our friends aren’t going to judge us if there are a few fur balls around or killer dust bunnies under the couch.  They came to enjoy time with us, not to investigate us for the good housekeeping seal of approval.  However, we believe we should clean before our friends come over because it’s the normal that we learned.  It’s not their demand on us that we clean our house, it’s our demand on ourselves.

The trick with “the shoulds” is learning how to realize that they’re even there.  They tend to hide out and lurk below our consciousness with the oughts.

The Ought

Where the shoulds are largely things that we do, “the oughts” are largely the things we regret not doing.  We go to the dentist for our teeth cleaning and are asked whether we floss regularly – which, to them, means once a day.  Our truthful answer is usually “no.”  The answer we sometimes give is a halfhearted “yes,” which, to us, means at least once since our last cleaning.

Whether we do it or not, an “ought” still registers as a demand.  It’s a psychic demand that remains until we decide to either give it up or take the action and move it into the category of the things we think we should do.

We “ought” to call our moms more frequently.  We “ought” to volunteer more.  We “ought” to go back to school for that advanced degree.  There are all kinds of “ought tos” that no one but us is demanding.  It turns out that most of the demands we have aren’t really about what other people demand from us but are instead are our own beliefs about what we “ought” to do.

Burnout in the Family

Jane’s mom was “getting up there” in years, but it was still unexpected.  It was kidney failure, and if Jane wanted her mom around it meant two trips a week to the dialysis center.  Her mom had long since stopped driving, so it was up to Jane and her siblings to get their mother there and back.  The problem is that Jane’s siblings weren’t local, so it really fell to Jane.

At first, it was OK.  It meant adjusting her work schedule, which her boss was happy enough to do.  It meant missing some of her son’s baseball games and her daughter’s volleyball games.  It meant that she had to forgo some outings with her girlfriends, and it meant less time for her husband, Jim.

As the weeks and months wore on to years, Jane became burned out.  She loved her mom, but even after the adjustments, it still wasn’t enough.  She felt shame that she sometimes thought of her mom as a burden.  She was burned out and at the edge of collapse.

Family Burnout

Jane’s not a bad person.  By all accounts, she’s a saint.  Yet she struggles with those feelings of shame, because she resents the burden her mom’s illness has placed on her.  She knows she’s experiencing burnout, but she also knows the World Health Organization (WHO) believes it’s an “occupational phenomenon.”  She doesn’t think of her family as an occupation, but she knows she has nothing more to give.

While WHO defines burnout as an occupational phenomenon for the purposes of their International Classification of Disease (ICD), many others recognize that burnout can come from home, family, and social settings just as easily when it feels like there’s no time for self-care and no progress being made.

In the case of a chronic illness with a loved one that will only stop when they die, there isn’t progress to be made.  There’s only being able to continue to spend time with a love one until it’s no longer possible.  While it’s comforting to know that you’re getting more time with the people you love, it doesn’t help you feel effective at managing your life or stresses.

Burnout Resolution

Whether burnout comes from work or home, the resolution is the same.  We recognize the progress we’re making, improve the support we get, do better self-care, and manage our demands better.  In Jane’s case, through a friend of her mom’s at dialysis, she found a facility for her mom that was closer to her and Jim and would do half of the transportation.  Since a friend referred her, she was able to work with their family and agree to trade off on the remaining transportation.  Her mom still needed a lot of help, but the reduction was appreciated.

To get back to normal, she and Jim decided the first Saturday of the month would be their date night.  That meant they went out and had time to reconnect.  The third Saturday was reserved for a girls’ night out.  While she still didn’t have much time through the week for herself, she knew that she’d at least get some time to rejuvenate.

Jane’s solution involved reducing the demands by decreasing the amount of transportation she needed to do, increasing support, and making time for self-care – which, for her, was connecting with her husband and her friends.  While she couldn’t see her mom getting better, at least she knew she could handle the load it was placing on her.

The feelings of shame that she thought her mom was a burden subsided, and she was able to realize the extra time with her was a gift.  It’s not that the demands of being a wife, mom, and child went away, but Jane stopped being burned out and became more peaceful.

Christmas Burnout

It was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring.  They were all out fighting with other shoppers trying to get that last-minute deal.  They’re off wrapping presents.  They’re loaded up and on the road to the in-laws.  And somewhere in all this mess, we’re wondering why we’re doing it.

Christmas Expectations

For those families who celebrate, Christmas is the defining holiday of the year.  Nothing gets more attention or finances.  Christmas is supposed to be the time when you’re grateful for your family, when you gather around a table and have a good conversation with a good meal.  The nostalgic pictures produced by Norman Rockwell and Coca-Cola make us long for a time when things were simpler – and better.

We remember our own Christmas experience as a child and wonder where the magic went.  If our children are grown, our chance to relive that magic is now behind us.  We’re left with the reality of the event.  It’s buying presents, planning meals, and, invariably, avoiding fights.

We Are All the Christmas Grinch

Grumpy is the feeling of the season when we’re exhausted with the extra effort to put together such a special day.  We feel obligated to interact with parts of our extended families whom we truly don’t want to speak with.  We find Uncle Bill annoying, and we can’t stand Aunt Suzi’s gossip.  Our cousin Jim is glassy-eyed and stoned.  His way of dealing with the emotional stress is escape.  That’s okay, because Jane’s on her third glass of eggnog, and Clarence is so involved in his television show that he doesn’t notice the dog dumping the tray of snacks.

In stark contrast to the nostalgic pictures we have in our heads, we find that our families are a collection of dysfunctions, hurt feelings, and broken relationships that haven’t ever been mended.  Where there is supposed to be joy, there’s only struggle, which can lead to burnout.

Burnout at Christmas

Burnout is frequently defined by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  Most people find themselves overwhelmed with exhaustion and cynicism at the holidays with the burning sense that they can’t make the family get along better.  Most people find they don’t feel like they can help their family communicate better either.  And that’s the problem.

We expect that we should have a picture-perfect family, but families aren’t – and never were – like that.  Rather than accepting the challenges in the family, we feel like failures, because our family is such a mess.  Even if they’re not addicted or so embroiled in their conflicts that you’ve got 911 on speed dial, there are aspects of the family that don’t fit the ideal.  Every personal friction between two people seems to be a major issue right now.  Everyone is on their best behavior – until they can’t take it anymore, and they blow up.

Fire Suppression

Now is not the time to take responsibility for the way the family interacts or the hurt feelings that have never been addressed.  Right now, you can just accept that this is the way things are – and it’s okay.  No family is perfect.  No family is without their issues.  To get through this season, we focus on acceptance of their differences and their flaws – as long as they’re not truly harming us.

If we want to prevent these feelings of inefficacy next year, we can spend the next year trying to heal our parts of the relationships and conversations.  We learn more acceptance of our extended family, and we try to improve communication where we can.

We may not be able to bring back the magic we felt as children – after all, we’ve seen behind the curtain and know what it’s all about.  However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t take back some of the wonder of Christmas instead of wondering if we can make it.

Avoiding Burnout Through Self-Care in the Moment

“Put your own mask on before assisting others.”  It’s a familiar part of any airline’s safety briefing.  “In the unexpected loss of cabin pressure, masks will drop from a panel above your head.”  We all know these phrases, but rarely do we heed the advice outside of the airplane cabin.  Instead, we believe that caring for others is more important, and we can survive with the leftovers.  We believe that once everyone else has been taken care of, we can take care of ourselves.  But this doesn’t always work.

Airplane Masks

The wisdom in putting your own mask on first is that, once your mask is on, you won’t pass out due to lack of oxygen.  Being conscious is an important prerequisite to helping others.  If you put on your mask and then help others after they’ve lost consciousness, all is well.  If it happens the other way around, you may or may not get the oxygen you need.

Buried in this is the awareness that you can’t help others if you’re not able to help yourself.  If you’re unable to stay conscious and to help others, then you won’t be of help to anyone.

Trust and Acceptance

Much of the challenge for not caring for oneself in the moment comes from a lack of trust that others will be able to survive without you.  The belief is they’re not able to function without you personally.  You don’t trust your coworkers to do the same level of job that you would do – whether that level of care is required or not.

We fail to accept that others can do a good job even if that good job isn’t exactly the way we would do it.  Acceptance that it can be okay even if it’s different than our way holds us back from ensuring we’re providing care for ourselves.

Rarely do we frame our lack of self-care as our lack of trust and acceptance of others, but that’s what it is.  If we’re unwilling to develop our trust and acceptance of others, we may never feel comfortable doing the self-care we need.

Increasing Trust

When Albert Bandura started working with people who had severe phobias, he worked on desensitizing the individual by making the smallest possible step towards their fear and making it okay.  If they had a fear of snakes, then the first step might be showing them a picture of a snake.  After they became comfortable with a picture, he might show them a snake in another room or in a cage away from them.  This progressive approach works in the positive direction as well.

A great way to increase trust is to make a small bid for trust from someone.  It might be a simple and small request that anyone would do for anyone else, like turning off the lights in the next room.  After this, a series of progressively larger set of bids for trust are made until, ultimately, you feel comfortable that the person will meet their commitments to you.  That is, after all, what trust is.  It’s the confidence that you can predict the behavior of another person, and the behavior will be what you’ve asked for or need.

Letting Go

Trust only gets us so far.  It’s one thing to trust, but it’s another to accept the other person’s approach and let go of the specific details of the way we think things “must” be done.  Just because someone folds their towels differently than you doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, it’s just different.

You start by letting go of your control.  You learn to trust.  You learn to not worry about others.  Then you can decide to do the self-care you need in the moment.  Take a break or simply sit and reflect for a few minutes before getting back to helping the team succeed.