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The Meaning of Burnout

Burnout is often taken to mean that there is something wrong with you. What if there's a different meaning to burnout?

Burnout has – at times – been associated with shame.  The voice inside your head says, “Other people can handle what I can’t handle.  Why can’t I do it?”  The meaning of burnout is – in this context – taken to mean that there is something wrong with the individual.  However, what if the problem isn’t with you yourself and your core identity but instead how you see the world?  What if your burnout was caused by the way that you ascribed meaning to the events that surrounded you?

In general terms, you can stop working for an organization because you quit, the organization goes out of business, or you’re laid off or fired.  The objective end is the same: no more employment.  However, the subjective experience – that is, what you feel – couldn’t be more different.

I remember quitting a job and being quite joyful about the new opportunities while a friend was assigned to watch me pack my desk up.  She was almost disturbed by the happiness I brought to the situation.  Sure, I was sad that I’d be missing my friends, but the new opportunity was a good one.  Her typical experience with people being fired was sadness and crying.

Burnout is caused by how you view the world.  Objective reality isn’t the point when your feelings are involved.  Are your results what you expected?  Do you believe that others can do it better?  Do you think you have what it takes to persevere until you’re able to accomplish your goals?

Our propensity towards burnout has less to do with what is happening in our world – in the objective sense – and more to do with what we make of it.  It’s more important to feel like we’re making progress than to make progress.  It’s more important to feel good about what we’re doing than to be doing well at it.

The meaning of burnout may be less about how you’re not enough and more about how you’re not being fair enough with yourself about what you can and can’t accomplish.  Sure, it’s possible to run a mile in less than 4 minutes.  However, are you willing and able to put in the time and energy to perform at this world-class level?  For most of us, the answer is no.  Despite the fact that we won’t make the investment needed to reach the goal, we may become disappointed when we’re not there.  It sounds silly when you look at it like that, but all of us do this to ourselves all the time.

We expect to make the best home-cooked meals but find ourselves rushing to get them done between work meetings and our children’s activities.  We say that we should have stronger friendships but look at our calendar and feel like we’ve got to play Tetris to fit things in.  In many – but not all – cases, the problem isn’t with our abilities or capacity to reach the goals that we have.  It’s in our expectation that we should have it all – without the work.

Sometimes, we put in the work and see few, if any, results.  A corollary to the challenge of not putting in the work is the unreal expectation problem.  Somehow, we believe that others don’t have to work hard to see the results they’re getting.  When you learn more about any person who has demonstrated excellence, you’re bound to find years of hard, unrewarding effort to develop the capacity to do something that now looks easy.

If you’re trying to figure out what burnout means for you, perhaps it means you should give yourself a break.  Accept that you’re doing a good job, and things will get better as you continue to work towards bettering yourself and your world.

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