Understanding the Root Cause of Burnout

I bumped into a friend at the weekend who I haven’t seen in ages, and she’d heard I had been taking time off and wanted to hear all about my reasons why.  Out came the ‘safe’ explanation of my burnout, (the fuller version of which I have ensured I only need tell a few close friends), which I am practising speaking without giving purchase to the rising feelings of shame inside me.

Thoughts that have entered my head when I’m telling someone about my burnout include:

  1. Now person X will be fearful of me / will think I’m crazy
  2. Person X will realise I’m minimising this and will envisage me having a total nervous breakdown / tearing my hair out / being a raving loony
  3. I sound pathetic and incapable
  4. Person X will be disappointed in me and realise I’m not as strong as they thought
  5. I sound like a drama queen / self obsessed / attention seeker
  6. Person X will wonder if I’m safe to be around
  7. Person X will think I’m unprofessional / a professional liability
  8. Person X will worry I’m going to be ‘that friend’ who’s always offloading their problems

There are two things I notice about this list.  Firstly, there’s a lot of shame. However, I know that shame is only my chatterbox talking – my inner parental voice telling me that only lazy or incapable people take time off.   I only need to stop and think for a moment and I understand this is my own mother’s voice talking, not my own.  Anyone who’s seen Brené Brown’s amazing TED talks will know that shame is completely unhelpful, so I have been applying my alternative perspective / meta-cognitive approach to list of all the factual reasons why there is no shame in experiencing burnout.  This in turn will help me to adjust my thinking until it becomes instinctive.

The second thing I notice is that these thoughts are all concerned with what Person X thinks.  Worrying about what people think is a key issue here.  To explain this point I will need to roll back a bit to the conversation I had with this friend at the weekend.

“What bad luck!” expressed the friend when she heard about the burnout.  She knows that I had previously been having therapy to help me manage issues stemming from my childhood.  “First your family s*@t and now burnout! Poor you!” she exclaimed, assuming these were two completely unrelated strokes of misfortune.  (Sounds like she thinks you love a crisis my chatterbox voice pipes up… and I breathe).

What my friend didn’t know (and to be honest I couldn’t be bothered to explain) was that in fact the burnout has only been another symptom of the same old stuff I have been managing.  It is not an out of the blue occurrence or a random piece of bad luck, but completely connected to my past.  I was working too hard for nearly twenty years as a response to other stuff.  As discussed previously, my lack of care for myself, and the absence of self love meant I always put others first.  I realised I hadn’t been taught to love myself or think of my own needs first (or at all).

In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs the basic ingredients needed to grow a healthy human are set out.  He’s basically saying, ‘if you want to be a good parent, do this.  If you want your child to grow up healthy, do these things.’  I have learned through my therapy that the top three tiers were completely absent from my childhood, and the rest were only partially present.  I have also learned that in order to feel safe and secure I manifested behaviours as an infant in order to protect myself.  These behaviours were about keeping myself safe and pure survival within that environment.  Once I became an adult however, I continued to apply these learned behaviours and these survival mechanisms did not serve me well in the wider world.  It was too late, as they now defined the way I managed my everyday life, relationships and work.  These are behaviours I have spent the last few years unravelling.  Many of these behaviours were created to avoid my primary caregivers’ anger / disappointment etc.  Worrying about what people think.

I’m not saying that everyone who’s experienced burnout has experienced the same stuff as me.  Each of us has our own story.  But what I have found helpful is in understanding where my behaviour stems from (mainly because I’m a huge geek and love to know how things work)!  I don’t believe that burnout is a stroke of bad luck which ‘just happens’, like catching a cold.   I think it’s always really helpful for us to understand our own behaviour as ‘step 1’ towards managing it.

Unfortunately, professional burnout symptoms can often go unnoticed or unrecognised as the person involved and those around them don’t spot the signs early on.  This is because ‘working hard’ and being busy is something our society rewards and values.  “Don’t work too hard’ might be a casual warning we offer our colleagues as we leave the office, but in reality we rarely feel serious concern when people do.  We use the word ‘workaholic’ freely to describe ourselves and others but with a shrug of acceptance rather than a cry of alarm.  This would never happen with alcoholism, drug abuse or other unhealthy addictions and destructive or compulsive behaviours.

I have learnt it is as important to understand the root of burnout as it would be with any other unhealthy pattern of behaviour.  Burnout isn’t just random – it has built up over time as working too hard becomes a coping mechanism, and you can bet there is something underpinning it.  If you’ve experienced burnout, what were you responding to when you were working too hard?  If you have a phobia, compulsion, or unhealthy habit where does it stem from?  The more we can understand our behaviour the more power we can have over our own selves, and the healthier we can become.




2 Replies to “Understanding the Root Cause of Burnout”

  1. I’m really enjoying your writing and thankful for your honesty (and links for extra reading!) I am a full-time mum and at the moment experiencing issues with trying to find breaks without feeling guilty. It is different to your experiences but some of feelings you talk about I can really relate to. I don’t know where it stems from although I have other issues in my life I haven’t dealt with, so maybe they are linked? Thanks for giving me an opportunity to think about these things. Wishing you health and more self love. Onwards and upwards x

    1. Thank you! You definitely have no reason to feel guilty! After all a happy Mum = happy baby right? I think that’s what they say! 🙂 Good luck and hope you can start to deal with old things 🙂 xxx

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