Burnout is neither the fault of the person nor their environment, but there are times when both can make burnout more prevalent. People who struggle with their worthiness for self-care have a harder time avoiding burnout. Environments where there is high stress and low recognition of results make it easier to fall into burnout. Some environments are simply not a good match for people and therefore are toxic to them – and cause them to burn out at a much higher rate.
What is Toxic?
Toxic is poisonous. Toxic environments make it harder for an organism – or in this case, a person – to live. The challenge with such a sweeping term as “toxic” is that a set of conditions can be toxic for one organism and life-giving for another. For instance, if you water a cactus like you water a tropical plant, you’ll kill it. The conditions that are good for one are not good for the other.
For people with food allergies, the presence of that food is toxic. From peanut allergies to gluten allergies, what is life-giving for some can be toxic to others. Toxicity isn’t a universal thing that applies to every person.
Certainly, there are some environments where there are few organisms that can survive. These environments deserve the moniker of “toxic” even though some organisms thrive. Just because it’s a toxic environment does not mean that there will not be some people that thrive in it. We’ve all seen people who thrive in high-stress, high-confrontation environments in which most people don’t survive.
Burnout is defined by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. Certainly, toxic environments can test your endurance and encourage feelings of exhaustion. More challenging is the feeling of inefficacy that allow burnout to flourish. Toxic environments may be as simple as depriving people of their results so they can’t see their efficacy – or they may interfere with getting results.
Burnout is simply a lack of feeling like you have any personal agency left – inefficacy. You can fill that sense of personal agency by getting and seeing your results, with the support you receive and are willing to accept from others, and from the self-care that you do. Some toxic environments work by blocking the avenues to self-care as well.
Sometimes it’s not that we’re not filling our personal agency, it’s that the demands of the environment are too great, and we don’t know how to adjust the valve on our demands to protect our personal agency reserves. It’s certainly possible for environments to place demands on us, but, more frequently, our presence in a toxic environment causes us to place unreasonable demands on ourselves.
Surviving a Toxic Environment
What we learn from organisms that thrive in toxic environments is that the secret is to find a way to protect yourself from the aspects of the environment that are toxic. Learning how to protect yourself from overwhelming demands or how to see and accept the results you’re getting – or even learning how to get support from others in difficult environments – can convert a toxic environment to one in which you can thrive.
Consider for a moment H. pylori, the bacteria that causes ulcers in the presence of stress. It lives its life in the toxic environment of the stomach that’s literally designed to break down food for digestion. Because of the protection it has against the stomach acids, it can survive and thrive in an environment that is toxic to most other organisms.
Learning to develop our protections against toxic environments can neutralize them, just like our body protects our stomach lining so that it can do its job.