Saturday, May 24, 2008

Lessons from Burnout

Today I thought I would sum up what I have learned from burnout.

What burnout is: It's not just exhaustion, but exhaustion coupled with a sense of failure, or some sense that, after all of that effort, little was successfully accomplished in relation to the costs to your own well-being and maybe the well-being of those close to you as well.

It is important to note that the actual failure (or lack of success) might not be real. But to the person experiencing burnout, it seems real. The perception of failure may be biased by one or more of the following: (a) one's own habit of low self-esteem; (b) others who have been helped may not have expressed their appreciation out loud; (c) what failed was relatively minor in relation to accompanying successes, but the failure got a lot of attention and the successes got very little attention.

At any rate, this analysis of the experiences that contribute to burnout also gives clues as to how to heal from it.

1. Rest and time are important. While easy to say, this can be hard to accomplish. Life may not automatically let up for the burned out person, giving them time to rest. Hence...

2. The burned out person needs to find a way to scale back in order to create the right kind of time and space in which to rest. This can be hard -- it may require retraining bad habits of overcommitment. Ironically enough, the sense of failure can be useful. To understand why, see next...

3. The burned out person needs to process the sense of failure very carefully, avoiding the danger of denial on the one hand (pretending it never happened) and the danger of negative self-flagellation on the other hand (overexaggerating its importance). Is the failure real? How significant is it really, in proportion to related successes? Does it signify the importance of doing things differently next time, or does it signify that this is a kind of challenge that you need to let go of, and hand over to others? There are times when what we can learn from failure is "who we are not," and in truth, this can be quite liberating! I have found that saying, "No, I can't do that because, to be honest, I'm just not very good at it," with confidence and maybe even humor is far more effective than any other way of saying "no" I have ever tried! When I try more apologetic ways of saying "no," people have a hard time taking me seriously and keep asking me over and over again. But when I say, in a confident instead of pathetic way, "I'm really not very good at that," people do back down! So processing failures well, learning from them, and simplifying one's life accordingly, is a very important part of healing from burnout! It is a process in which you eventually forgive yourself, liberate yourself from future related disappointment, and can then move on toward a more positive future, with your life focused more effectively on what you really are good at and successful in. This leads to...

4. You need to have some positive, confidence-building experiences. These are not always easy to plan or manufacture, of course. But they also do not just "happen." You need to know yourself well enough to be alert for the right kinds of opportunities, and assertive enough to take them when they come.

5. You also need to pay attention to building a good support system. The tendency in burnout is to withdraw, and some withdrawal may be an important part of the healing process. But you have to be careful not to withdraw too much. Stay in touch with good supportive friends. Tell them you need their patience and support. Don't be afraid to seek professional help. And gradually work to nurture new positive relationships. It's okay during such a time to avoid trying or difficult relationships as much as possible and focus on the positive relationships as much as you can, because this is an important part of your healing. If troubled relationships need attention, you are better off waiting until you feel stronger before pouring a lot of attention into healing them.

So, in sum: simplify your life, rest, be patient with yourself, give yourself time, process your sense of failure without dwelling on it unhealthily, seek out positive, confidence-building experiences, and bolster your support system.


  1. It is not one of the best articles on burnout that I have found on the net, it is THE BEST article. Not only does it analyse the reasons for burnout, but also provides a step-by-step solution to healing from burnout. As someone who is currently going through a post-burnout phase, I found the instructions most useful. Thank You !


  2. Sande,

    Thank you for your words of appreciation. I am so glad that my observations and reflections were helpful! I wish you well in your healing.


  3. I am so very burned out now, burned out to a crisp. I have been trying to put my finger on what exactly has afflicted me, and this is -- by far-- the best article on the net.

    I slaved for years working on very complex projects for people and never really got any sort of a "thank you" - at the cost of my own happiness and well being.

  4. Brett - Glad this was helpful.

    And I am happy to report that I have now fully recovered from my burnout. It can be a long, slow process. Key for me was being really honest with myself about how I do want to spend my energies, and making real changes in my life to let go of what was burning me out to make room for what I really wanted to focus on. Not easy. But also not as hard as I had initially thought, once I started making some progress. The world can be more flexible and accommodating than I thought, once I started becoming a little more assertive, myself.

    I still do have overcommitment tendencies that I have to be alert for, but I've learned a lot on this journey.