Letting Go of Burnout

Sometimes the feeling of burnout creeps in under the radar.  There’s the random thought that shows up in the middle of dinner, while driving home, or in the shower.  It’s something that “has” to be done, and it prevents you from attending to whatever is happening right now.  Left unattended, those thoughts can steal your ability to be present in the moment and burden you with the fear that you’ll forget.  However, there’s a quick way to put those thoughts at bay and return to enjoying the moment.

The Zeigarnik Effect

Quite simply, the things we don’t get done are remembered more strongly than the things we do.  This bias is called the Zeigarnik effect.  We’re wired to pay more attention to the incomplete thought or action than the complete one.  It’s no wonder then that people at the end of their life are more focused on the things they didn’t do (or complete) than the things they did.  This powerful effect operates on us even if we’re unaware of it.  It’s the driver behind these random thoughts and tasks that interrupt our consciousness while we’re doing other things.

There is, however, an out to the Zeigarnik effect – at least in the context of keeping these random thoughts from interrupting our flow.  It’s to capture the thought in a way we’re sure will result in eventually closing it.

Old School Reminders

We’ve all probably written notes to ourselves, and most of us have “to-do” lists scattered on our desks.  It’s the old-school way that we have to “ensure” that things get done.  At the same time, we’ve probably all experienced the note getting lost, buried in another file, or slowly slipping into oblivion.  The old-school approach to writing to-do lists and crossing items off as they get done is still an often-used and valid approach today.  However, we’ve got a set of options that are more useful than the old-school reminder.

Today, nearly all of us travel with personal communications devices in the form of smartphones, which keep our calendars, allow us to access email, and connect us with our contacts.  A simple approach that builds on the old school to-do lists is to keep an electronic one where the paper can’t disappear.  Alternatively, if you don’t want another application, you can send yourself email messages with reminders for things to do.  Both approaches, while valid improvements over paper lists, don’t solve another important problem.

Remind Me When

To-do lists, whether electronic or paper, aren’t typically prioritized.  There are no due dates or ways to know which things need to be pulled off the list next – particularly when you’re distracted by life.  However, just like a calendar reminder can be an important tool for preventing us from missing a meeting, reminders can now be scheduled to remind us not just what we need to do but when.  The old-school method is to put these on your calendar and to leverage the calendar reminder functionality to alert us when we need to pay attention to something.

A better, more modern approach is to tell your favorite electronic personal assistant to set a reminder for you.  Siri, Alexa, and OK Google are all happy to set a reminder for you – for a specific time.  If you need to call a daughter-in-law to wish her good luck before an interview, you can get a reminder.  If you need to water the plants when you get home, you can get a reminder.

Trust and Letting Go

The good news is that once you learn to trust that you’ll get the reminders when you need them, you’ll be able to let go of these random thoughts, focus on being in the moment, and not feel like you’re dropping things.  If you’re meeting your own personal expectations that you’re doing a good job, you’ll avoid that nasty feeling of burnout.

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.

Removing Your Mask

Have you ever found yourself trying to fit into a role that really didn’t match your core beliefs yet you wanted to be chosen for?  Maybe it is the person always chosen to host an event or coach a team.  You may not really want to fill that role, but you want to be thought of and considered.

When the desire to be someone else, or at least be seen as someone other than yourself, drives our behavior, we find ourselves fighting a battle that cannot be won.  We can pretend to be someone else for a period of time, but we cannot continue this charade over the long run.  We try to fit in and hide what we believe is our inadequate true self.  This conflict places us firmly on the path towards burnout.  It is exhausting and disheartening to attempt to be seen as someone who is not the person we believe our self to be.

When we listen to the stories we tell our self about not being good enough or needing to be different, we find our self listening to lies that somehow have gotten into our head and sound like the truth.  Too often, the voices we hear in our head tell us that we are not enough, or a burden, or even unlovable.  We are not always good at recognizing our good attributes or being self-compassionate.

As we become more aware of the self-talk we are engaging in, we can begin to validate our beliefs with facts and even trusted friends.  In areas that we believe we do not meet even the minimum bar, we may discover the truth: we are actually much better than we tell our self we are.  With the facts in hand, we can begin to fight the self-talk that says we have to be seen as someone other than who we are to be accepted.

When we become more aware of our own value and integrate this into one self-image, we can break free of the person we want the world to see and be the amazing person that has always existed.  With this more honest view of our own worth, we are able to embrace our identity and remove the mask that we have been wearing.  By accepting yourself as you are today and being willing to continue to grow, you can truly become the best person you can be.

The Real Impact of Burnout with Karl Ahlrichs

Directly involved with 9,000 to 10,000 termination meetings, Karl explains how burnout was a factor in many of them.

It Will Be OK

It sounds like a cliché.  It’s something you say to someone when you don’t know what else to say or how to really empathize with their sorrow.  When you’re struggling with burnout, you might wonder how they know it will be OK, if they know it will be OK, or if they’re just being polite.  Ultimately, you discount what they say – but, strictly speaking, they’re right.

Defining OK

The key problem is in the definition of what it means to be OK.  We often want to have free time.  We want to feel like we’re making a difference.  The problem is we don’t always feel that way.  We see change coming – for better or for worse – and we can’t see how things will be OK.  We can’t imagine what that’s like.

Consider the newly injured paraplegic who hears “it will be OK” and wonders how it could possibly be OK.  How could anything possibly be OK ever again?  Fast forward a few months and you’ll find that most (if maybe not all) have adapted to a new normal, a new way that their life works.  It’s not the same.  It’s very different, but at the same time, it’s OK.

When we say that things will be OK, we don’t mean that things will be the same.  We mean you’ll survive and find ways to be happy, even if they’re new ways.

Not the Same

In fact, the idea that what is to come is not the same is a source of hope.  If you’re struggling with burnout now, then more of the same would surely lead you further into the grips of burnout.  So, change is a good thing.  On the one hand, we like the security of the things we know.  On the other, we struggle to believe that things won’t get better.

So, when you think about the future, it’s certain that it won’t be the same.  As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once noted, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.”  The fact that things are constantly changing gives us hope that we’ll find a way that allows us to feel like we’re more productive.  Our goals may be changed or scaled back – but, ultimately, they won’t be the same.

Goal Changes

A part of building burnout resistance is knowing when – and how – to adapt your goals, to change them in ways that are still amazing and will have the kind of impact that you want for the world but are more reasonable than where you started.  It’s certainly possible to desire to be an astronaut.  However, the number of astronaut jobs are very limited.  Perhaps, if you lose out on that one position you really wanted, you can consider how you can bring your passion for space to the next generation of children.  Bill Nye, known as Bill Nye the Science Guy, wanted to be a comedian but connected with his love for science to develop programs that instill his passion into a new generation through science education.

Goals changing doesn’t change our ability to reach a balance in our lives where we’re OK – or more than OK – with the progress we’re making and what we’re getting accomplished.  In the end, whatever the new goals are, a new normal will emerge.  It will be OK, whether it feels that way in a given moment or not.

Is It Compassion Fatigue or Burnout?

In professions that require a high degree of caring, like nursing, there’s sometimes discussion of compassion fatigue – the inability to continue to care because of the high levels of caring required just to get through the day.  Caring people end up feeling as if they’ve lost themselves, because they simply don’t know how to care any longer.  While compassion fatigue in nursing is focused on compassion for the patient, compassion fatigue can impact anyone in any relationship where high degrees of compassion are required, including those where someone is caring for a loved one.

The symptoms of compassion fatigue may look slightly different from burnout on the surface.  But, if you probe deeper, you find that compassion fatigue and burnout may not be different.  While burnout in nursing has been associated with work, we can find ourselves burned out by any aspect of our lives.

Compassion Fatigue

In environments where care is critical, it’s possible that you’ll give more compassion than you have available.  There’s only so much energy that someone can give to help others without helping themselves.

The fundamental trap that causes compassion fatigue is a focus on other people and their needs before focusing on your own self-care needs.  It’s easy to forgo the activities that bring you happiness when so many others are suffering.  The problem is that, without capacity flowing back in, eventually you run yourself ragged, identifying too closely with those suffering, and have nothing left to give.  This is the point where compassion fatigue sets in.

One insidious way that this process is accelerated is when you’re helping others in order to heal your hurts.  If you were abused as a child, you might try to help other abused children, unconsciously hoping that, if you can save them, you can save yourself.  Unfortunately, children in need keep coming, and the relief for your pain never comes.  Reliving your experiences before you’ve had a chance to address them is a recipe for depletion and compassion fatigue.


Burnout is exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of efficacy.  On the surface, this bears little resemblance to compassion fatigue.  But, as you look deeper, you see that compassion fatigue is a specific kind of exhaustion.  It’s an exhaustion about having to be there emotionally for other people all the time.  Cynicism comes from feeling as if you cannot change the situation no matter how hard you try, and inefficacy is what you feel when you don’t believe you can make a change.

Compassion fatigue doesn’t come from the successes of being compassionate and getting good results.  It comes when you give everything you have, and it doesn’t feel like there are any results.  The good news about this realization is that you can use the same techniques for recovering from burnout to address compassion fatigue.

Models for Burnout

There are two simple models for burnout.  The bathtub model uses a bathtub as a symbol for our personal agency – our ability to get things done.  Results, support from others, and self-care fill the tub up, and the demands we allow to be placed on us drain from it.  When our personal agency bathtub is empty, we’re in burnout.  So, to combat it, we can change the results we’re getting, the support we’re getting, or the degree of self-care we’re doing.  Obviously, changing the results is the hardest of these to control – but you could spend more time acknowledging your successes to squeeze more emotional energy out of your results.

The second model is that burnout is caused by the gap between your perceived results and the expectations you have for yourself.  This is where unresolved childhood issues are a problem.  Because every person you help also aids the child inside of you, you feel that you must save everyone– and that’s not realistic.  Instead of being able to celebrate successes, you end up focused on the child who you couldn’t help, knowing the kind of pain they’ll have to endure.

Resolving Compassion Fatigue

The recipe for resolving compassion fatigue isn’t hard, although implementing the change can be difficult.  Focus on the positive results you get, engage more people to support you, do more self-care, and limit the demands on your personal agency that you allow.  Unresolved past hurts can make that difficult – or impossible – to do.  By gaining better awareness of why you’re being consumed by the compassion you offer to others, you may find that finding your way out of compassion fatigue – and burnout – is easier. If you suspect that you have succumb to compassion fatigue or burnout and you don’t have the resources you need, look for resources from your organization such as an employee assistance program that can offer more resources or counseling.  You might also consider a different unit or even a different organization to reduce your compassion fatigue to a more manageable level.

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.