“Always Say Yes,” “If You Can, You Should” and Other Lies I Told Myself About Winning at Work

How to Know You’re Headed for Burnout and 5 Simple Practices for Recovery

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I am, by nature, a Yes person. I love to make people happy and I learned early in my career that saying Yes – and just jumping in without worrying how – is a fast way to grow personally and professionally. It worked well for many years and my career progressed farther than anyone could have imagined. I grew very adept at adding new responsibilities, figuring things out, and making it all work.

For example, I left my second maternity leave 2 weeks early to launch a new client project that included regular travel. Then not quite a year after that, while I was still very active with that initial client project, I started another one. I didn’t have to do it, but the opportunity came my way and I jumped in.

The new project was local and I rationalized that while it was a heavy workload, at least I wouldn’t be away from home more than I already was. Then immediately after the launch, the client location changed to overseas. I could have backed out at that point but I believed I could make anything work so I pressed forward. Needless to say, it was overwhelming. My husband was understandably stressed with his own business and taking care of our two little ones, and I was exhausted.

This is when I learned that sometimes we find our limits by going past them.

Years later, we welcomed our third daughter. It was around that time that I was on a client project that stretched me in a new way: I found myself in the odd position of my boss and my client wanting two different things. I couldn’t please either one. I should have told my boss early on that what he expected wasn’t likely to happen, but that would have meant disappointing him, failing my assignment, and a step back in my career. Naturally, I didn’t like any of those options so I kept at it for months, trying to figure out a way to make everyone happy. I lost a lot of sleep, dreaded phone calls and meetings, wondered what it was all for and invalidated myself for not finding a win-win, all the while forcing myself to stand tall and smile. It was eventually too much. I became burned out and asked to be taken off the project. It was humiliating.

I wish I could say I learned all my lessons about my limits, when to figure things out and when to be candid, but no. I had to go through a more intense version of it a few years later in order for the lesson to sink in. The circumstances were different, the symptoms were similar but worse and at the end of it, I decided to leave my job.

Sometimes we need to eject in order to restore.

I used to think “If you can, you should” but I learned the hard way that saying Yes (or continuing to say Yes) isn’t worth it when it means:

  • Not sleeping well
  • Being short-tempered and impatient
  • Regularly dreading phone calls, meetings, and work in general
  • Hiding in the bathroom to cry or to pull it together
  • Consuming a lot of caffeine and cookies but still not feeling energized or comforted
  • Trying endlessly to figure out a win-win
  • Feeling lost and unable to see a way to make it right or why it’s worth it

These things happen far more than anyone wants to admit, and most of us are really damn good at hiding it. It took me a while to feel normal again. The following practices helped me recover, and even though life and work are pretty great these days, I still do these to keep from falling back into old habits:

  • Do something at least once a week, if not once a day, that builds your confidence… something that summons your inner badass.
  • Practice gratitude; meditate. It’s the foundation for a peaceful and joyful life.
  • Actively tend to your energy. Be strategic with what you say Yes to. When you’re asked to add something to your plate, take a couple days to think about it. Let the idea of this new something settle in your thoughts and notice if it excites you and gets your creative juices flowing, or if it stifles you, or if it does nothing for you at all. Be selective. Remember you are actively restoring yourself; you need more of what gives you energy and less of what takes it.
  • Be kind and patient with yourself and others; have grace.
  • Celebrate small wins. If you’re used to motivating yourself with rewards after big wins, know this: the scale is different when you’re burned out. Every small win counts. Acknowledging small wins builds confidence, energy and momentum.
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