Shaken Self-Trust at the Start of Burnout

The degree to which we trust ourselves is an important part of our capacity to resist burnout.  When combined with our general outlook about whether the universe is a fundamentally helpful or destructive force, we have an equation that drives our ability to resist burnout. 


Burnout is characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  It’s the loss of hope that our situation will get better.  It’s the belief that nothing can be done, so we descend into cynicism about the situation. 

Our hope is built on the premise that either something outside of us will make things better or we will.  There’s little that we can do to change our fundamental outlook about the universe, but it’s possible to change our belief in ourselves. 

Fundamental Outlook 

We’ve heard about optimists and pessimists and the philosophical question of the half full or half empty glass.  Similarly, some of us are wired – through our genetics and our experiences – to believe that the world is a fundamentally helpful place.  We believe that things will get better by the sheer fact that the universe will deliver us a solution at some point. 

Conversely, some of us are wired to believe that the world is a harmful place bent on our misery and destruction.  For those of us who fit in this category, we not only expect that our situation won’t get better, we expect it will get worse – unless we step in to change the outcome. 


Self-trust is our belief in ourselves.  It’s our belief that we’ll keep our commitments to ourselves, and that we’ve got the personal agency we need to overcome the challenges that are placed in our way.  This trust and determination can carry us through difficult times and even setbacks. 

Self-trust allows people who believe the world is harmful to also believe things can get better.  The good news is that we can improve our self-trust with two simple steps. 

Keeping Our Commitments – To Ourselves 

We’re all guilty of committing to one thing and doing another.  There’s a subset of us that makes New Year’s Resolutions.  Of those who do, the statistics aren’t good about our ability to keep our resolution.  Whether the commitment was to exercise, eat better, or do more philanthropy, sometimes we just don’t meet our commitments.  However, the question is whether that’s the norm or whether that’s a rare exception. 

The more we are conscious about meeting our commitments to ourselves, the more we can believe in our ability to do what we set out to do.  Rather than dwelling on the times we miss our commitments to ourselves, we can focus on the times when we do.  It’s too easy to dismiss the hard work needed to meet a goal.  Once we’ve honored a commitment we made to ourselves, we discount it.  If we want to build self-trust, we should keep a list of these successful commitments.  This way, we can realize that, most of the time when we make a commitment to ourselves, we meet it. 

Personal Power 

The truth is we don’t have control of the outcomes.  We may have a large degree of influence in some situations and less influence in others, but we don’t control the outcomes.  To increase our self-trust, we first realize that we don’t have control – but, with enough influence and time, anything is possible.  Consider that the Grand Canyon was carved by a river.  It didn’t dig it in a day, and it didn’t have ultimate influence, but the Grand Canyon was carved over time nonetheless. 

We can enhance self-trust in our abilities by focusing on what we have gotten accomplished, even when we didn’t accomplish our end goal. 

If you want to stop the slide into burnout, one good approach is to learn how to trust yourself more.  You can do that by keeping your commitments to yourself and focusing on the things that you have accomplished. 

Impostor Syndrome

Sometimes the problem that causes burnout isn’t that you’re not seeing results.  It may be that the results you’re getting seem like they’re too much.  You may feel like you’re faking it – that you’re not really as good as other people believe you are.  You may live in relatively constant fear that others will realize that you aren’t as good as you appear to be.

To some degree, we’ve all felt it.  We’ve gotten that lucky shot, and others are amazed at our prowess.  But we’re confused, because we have no idea what we did, and, more importantly, we’re not sure how to replicate the results the next time we’re called on in a similar situation.  It feels like the results were haphazard and unrelated to us, but the results were good, and people attributed those good results to us rather than dumb luck.

At some level, there’s always more to learn.  Those who are concerned about being the best in the world will always be looking for the knowledge or skill they’re missing to advance to the next level.  (See Peak for more.)  So even those with what others would describe as “absolute mastery” of a task or skill might still believe that they’re receiving more credit than they should.  Perhaps the results are being magnified.  Perhaps the results are random and chaotic, and it’s only the great results that folks are paying attention to.

To prevent burnout – or recover from it – you must accept your role in the results you’re getting.  To be sure, there is an amount of randomness in the results.  We control only what we put into things, not the ultimate outcomes.  However, over time, our contributions lead to a cluster of results.  We can accept that our knowledge and skills lead to those results.

Until we accept that our hard work is delivering the results that we need – at least some or most of the time – we can’t see the fruits of our labor and we will eventually become burned out.  We need to not only see our results but to accept them as a result of our efforts.

If you feel like an impostor, there are some sure-fire ways to help resolve it.  First, tell others that you feel it.  Explain how you feel like you don’t belong or that the results that you’re getting aren’t a reasonable representation of your skills and experience.  Even if you can’t admit this to the person who believes in you more than you think they should, reveal it to someone you trust.  Even though this is a frightening prospect, it is an important step in recognizing your impact.  Let them walk you through why the results are appropriate.

Second, map a path out between where you are now and what you’d need to do to not be an impostor – and then walk it.  Much of the time when you map out this path, the truth reveals itself.  The truth is that most people in most roles aren’t trained for them completely.  Surgeons can’t keep up with new techniques – even if they’re at the top of their game.  Technologists are always wondering about new technology that they’ve not heard about.  The exercise may help you realize that no one else has it all figured out either.

Finally, if you feel like an impostor, give yourself some grace.  If you’re not intentionally misleading people, then you’re fine.  You can continue to figure out what is making you successful as you go along.  After all, unconsciously skillful is still skillful – you don’t have to know why or how.