The Burnout Mindset: How to Recognize and Overcome It
Feeling overwhelmed and exhausted? You may be living with a burnout mindset. Learn how to recognize and overcome it with this helpful guide.
The burnout mindset creates a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress and overwork. In my coaching practice, I see how it affects teachers, ministers, social workers, therapists, health care workers and stay-at-home or working parents and more. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, it’s important to pause and recognize the signs of burnout and take steps to overcome it. Most people do not even know they are burned out because they simply accept that feeling overwhelmed and exhausted is the way it is. You do not have to accept it! This guide will help you recognize the signs of burnout, identify the mindsets that fuel your choices to overwork and, most importantly, use three basic strategies to stop your feelings of overwhelm and emotional exhaustion.
Identifying the signs of burnout
The signs of burnout can vary from person to person, but some common symptoms include feelings of emotional exhaustion, lacking empathy for others, and feeling cynical or negative about your job or life in general.
According to Drs. Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, there are three basic symptoms of burnout, a term coined by Herbert Freudenberger in 1975. The symptoms of burnout are:
- Emotional exhaustion (fatigue from caring too much, for too long)
- Depersonalization (depletion of empathy)
- Decreased sense of accomplishment (feeling like nothing you do will make any difference)
It’s easy to walk through life and not even know that you’re burned out. Our culture teaches us our only value comes from how much we do and produce. Overwork and exhaustion is seen as badges of honor. They are NOT.
Let me give you an example: While staffing my booth at a conference recently, I met three women who had a strong reaction to my invitation to sign up for my Create a Burnout-Proof Life mini course.
They looked at me first skeptically, then furrowed their brows in confusion and then rolled their eyes in disbelief. One of them let out one of those guttural laughs from the back of their throat as if to say, “Are you kidding me?”
I engaged them in conversation and asked about their reactions to the invitation to create a burnout-proof life. They explained that they were trying to give energy to other people who weren’t doing anything, especially in their local churches where they gave a lot of volunteer time.
Their resentment at having to expend this energy rolled off them like sweat on a hot summer day. They were exhibiting the classic signs of burnout – emotional exhaustion, lack of empathy and cynicism – and didn’t even know it or simply accepted that burnout was a normal part of life.
I was a little flustered by their reaction to my solutions for burnout. But, as my mindfulness training teaches me, I turned inward. I dug a little deeper and recognized that I had been exactly where they were. I’ve been that person who wears their exhaustion like a badge of honor and then blames everyone else for not doing their share. I’ve been that person who makes sure they are busier than everyone else so that I could feel a sense of superiority. I have chosen in the past to be resentful of everyone else for doing too little, rather than taking the time I need to rest and rejuvenate myself. Can you relate?
Understanding the burnout mindset
The burnout mindset is a state of chronic stress that can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and a lack of motivation. It can be caused by a variety of factors, including work-related stress, personal issues and lifestyle factors.
Whether they knew it or not, the people who scoffed at my Create a Burnout-Proof Life mini course are burned out and not aware of it. It’s no accident that these burned-out people were women. They probably have what the Nagoskis call “Human Giver Syndrome.” In the simplest terms, our culture creates a “Giver Class” of people, whose entire role is to sacrifice themselves so that the “Human Beings” can be fully, well … human. We are largely socialized into these roles based on our perceived gender. Those who are born and raised to be women are the givers; those born and raised to be men are usually the beings.
None of us escapes these roles. It’s not your fault. Let’s get at these burnout mindsets AND smash the patriarchy!
Four types of Burnout Mindsets
I’ve developed four burnout mindsets roughly based on our four basic stress-response types – fight, flight, freeze and fawn. Below you’ll find descriptions
Burnout Type 1: Accomplishment Addict (fight).
You fight through stressful times like a warrior, even when you have nothing left in the tank.
Accomplishment Addicts typically think:
- “I’m the only one who can do this.”
- “What can I do now?”
- “[Terrible Thing] will happen if I don’t do this.”
Antidotes to this burnout mindset include:
- Get hobbies that give you a sense of accomplishment.
- Engage spiritual practices that train your body to rest and relax.
- Experiment with teaching others to take on work you would normally do yourself.
Burnout Type 2: Reliably Unreliable (flight)
You say yes to almost everything … then cancel or fail to show up.
The Reliably Unreliable typically think:
- “Oooo … that’s such a unique opportunity. I have to say yes.”
- “Yes. I will do that!” [Then later notices on the calendar that there were two other commitments at that time.]
- “I’m too tired. I really need to stay home tonight.”
Antidotes for this burnout mindset include:
- Create a standard response you use when you get a request to do something such as, “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.”
- Select a “priority project” each week and stick to it.
- Schedule in significant breaks full of activities and people you enjoy so that you don’t hit the exhaustion wall.
Burnout Type 3: Routine Rejecter (freeze)
You have trouble making choices and setting a schedule because everything seems important and interesting. So you don’t.
The Routine Rejector typically thinks:
- “All of those things sound really good. … I don’t know what to do first.”
- “I want to be flexible and not tied down to a schedule.”
- “Too much structure limits my creativity.”
Antidotes for this burnout type include:
- Clarify your values, i.e., what matters most to you
- Make a to-do list and a to-don’t list each day
- Schedule open time for whatever creative project you feel like doing in the moment
Burnout Type 4: Perpetual Pleaser (fawn)
You need to be needed, so you do everything for everyone. Except yourself.
The Perpetual Pleaser typically thinks:
- “I scheduled time for myself today … Oh, wait, someone else needs something.”
- “If they are asking me for this, they must really need ME. Yes. I’ll do it.”
- “What would happen to this poor person if I didn’t do _____ for them?”
Antidotes for this burnout type include:
- Find an accountability partner for self-care activities. If someone else depends on you to show up, you might be more likely to do it.
- Teach someone else to do a task that you usually do yourself. Notice the satisfaction you get from that.
- Agree to do something for others when you feel no resentment about it.
Learn more about the four burnout types from this 15-minute video and get a journaling prompt to reveal even more strategies for combating them:
Addressing the root causes of burnout
To truly overcome these persistent burnout mindsets, it’s important to address the root causes. Here are some additional tips that apply to any of these burnout types.
Clarify your priorities. Say no to burnout.
Burnout often happens not because we hate our job, or have too many family stressors, or lack time or money for self-care activities. It’s because we give to others at our own expense. We do it because our toxic, racist, patriarchal and capitalist system teaches us that our only value is derived from what we do and what we produce. If you’re a woman, the pressure to give to others increases exponentially.
You can, however, begin to make yourself a priority. Pause at regular intervals to evaluate your priorities and set a calendar. I recommend that you pause for longer calendaring sessions quarterly and monthly and do a weekly planning check-in to get clear about what you need to do – including time for yourself.
Use mindfulness to get more rest and heal from burnout
Recovering from and preventing burnout is going to require more than sitting on the couch and binging TV. (Not that binge watching TV is bad. I do it all the time.) You will need mindfulness practices that help you really rest and restore. Try things like restorative yoga, yoga nidra meditation and other relaxing practices to raise your energy and help you heal from burnout. You can always try my weekly restorative yoga class for free the first time!
Understand that burnout mindsets are not your fault
The burnout mindsets I’ve described above are full of BS.
It’s not your fault. A racist, patriarchal and toxic capitalist culture tells you that hustle and grind is the only way you earn any value. You are taught to sacrifice yourself for the sake of “saving” your family, workplace, school or religious community. You are told from the time you can barely walk and talk that taking time to rest is selfish. You never learn how to really rest. You’re taught that you must get more efficient, more productive, more organized … so that you can do more, more, more.
And if you’re someone like me who really wants to make a difference – we artists, activists, spiritual or religious leaders, teachers, students, social workers, therapists … all of us who feel a passionate calling to what we do – you are more likely to burnout.
I have more resources to help you heal from burnout
Try my free, five-part Create a Burnout-Proof Life Mini Course to get more tips on how to manage your time, get more rest and heal from burnout.
This post was originally published in September 2022 and was updated in April 2023.