Escaping Burnout When You Don’t Have Control

If you're feeling trapped in burnout, one way to find the way out is by changing your perspective.

When you’re in burnout, you feel stuck.  Burnout is defined by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  In our bathtub model of burnout, we say that your personal agency “bathtub” is filled by results, support, and self-care.  It’s drained by the demands you place on yourself and the demands of others.  While it’s sometimes hard to ask for support, most folks feel positively powerless to address the demands placed upon them.  The demands feel external and outside of our control.

External Demands

While we believe that our demands are external, when we examine them closer, we find that, for most of us, the demands we have are largely internal, with only a small component of external influence.  Take, for instance, the “need” to do a thorough cleaning of the house before friends come over.  If your friends are coming over to see how well that you clean your house, perhaps you need new friends.  However, most of us learned this habit from our parents (more likely, our mom), who cleaned the house like mad before their friends came over.  We caught the expectation that you must have a pristine house for friends – but is that an external demand or an internal one?

What about the need to answer the phone when it rings?  If you were brought up in a certain generation, you believe that you must answer a ringing phone.  However, if you were brought up in a different generation, you’ll might ignore the ringing phone and text them back at some time later.  Despite the urge, it’s not necessary to answer a ringing phone.

These demands seem like they’re external and acted upon us, but we have control of how we choose to respond to the external stimulus.

Choosing Responses

Invariably, there is someone that explains how they don’t have control of the situation.  Their child needs picked up from school and taken to soccer practice.  Ignoring for the moment that your child doesn’t have to go to soccer practice, who is to say you must be the one who picks them up or drops them off?

Sure, you have obligations and expectations to not neglect your child.  However, that isn’t to say you can’t organize a handful of soccer moms and run a carpool.  The truth is the child will probably like it better – and so will the other parents.  When people explain that they don’t have control, they’re really saying they don’t have control of the external events.  That’s true to some extent, but that doesn’t mean you must accept the standard answers.

Whatever the situation, you’ve got an expectation of how you should – or must – respond.  However, there are often other alternatives that meet the true requirements – but that don’t require the same amount of effort from you.


The truth is that control is an illusion.  No one ever really has control of someone or something else.  There may be strong influence, but there’s no such thing as controlling something or someone else.  While this is initially difficult to accept, it makes it easier to understand that you don’t need control of the situation to be able to influence it in ways that are consistent with your desires – and your need to do self-care for yourself.

The key to burnout is breaking free of the perception of inefficacy.  The more you realize you have influence on your world, the less burnout will be able to maintain its grip on you.  If you can realize that you’re making an impact on your world – and on the world of those you care about – the quicker you’ll get out of burnout.

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