The Role of Shame in Burnout

Some attitudes build your resilience against burnout. Others, like shame, bring you closer to burnout.

There are some attitudes and perspectives that help make you resilient to burnout.  Others make it easier for you to deplete your personal agency (ability to get things done) and land in the state of burnout.  (Burnout being at least partially defined by your belief that you’re unable to change your situation.)  One of the most insidious of these attitudes is shame.  Shame robs you of your personal agency by shooting holes in your personal agency bathtub, thereby leading you to exhaustion of your personal agency and burnout.

Understanding Shame

Shame is the belief that you are bad.  This is different from you’ve done bad, which is guilt.  While the distinction can be covered in a few words, it’s often difficult to separate in our lives.  We believe that our behaviors define what we do, and if we’ve done bad, then we must be bad.  However, this is an unfair oversimplification.  If we do one good thing, it doesn’t make us a good person universally.  Neither should doing one bad thing make us a bad person.

Despite the simple logic, we often get hung up on the question, “How could I have done that?”  In the most condescending and judgmental tone that we have, the question reverberates through our consciousness with a resonance that’s hard to shake.

Shooting Holes

If our personal agency is viewed as a bathtub that is filled by results, support, and self-care and emptied by the demands are placed upon us that we accept, then shame shoots holes in the bathtub and allows our personal agency to leak out.  It’s difficult to accept our ability to do good in the world if we believe that we’re not good.  It’s hard to believe that we should be allowed the personal agency to make changes in the world.

Instead of our personal agency doing work through the demands placed on us by other people and ourselves, our agency disappears in frustration, conflict, and confusion.  The result is a more rapid loss of our personal agency and the onset of burnout.

Patching Holes

Of course, the easy solution to this loss of personal agency is to eliminate shame.  Once shame is removed, the holes in the bathtub of personal agency are patched, and the natural flow is restored.  However, it’s not as easy as snapping your fingers to get rid of shame.  The ability to separate what you have done from who you are – thus separating guilt from shame – is useful but not enough.

Recognizing that you’re not either good or bad but instead are – like all of us – a mixture of both can move things a bit further.  But, for most people, it’s still not across the goal line.  At the core of shame is self-judgement, and it is unfortunately much harder to get rid of.


The antidote to judgement is acceptance.  Unfortunately, you can’t just decide on self-acceptance if you’re unwilling or unable to accept others.  Acceptance – and lack of acceptance – seems to leak from one area of your life to other areas.  The more accepting you are of yourself, the more accepting you’ll become of others and vice-versa.  By fostering an attitude of acceptance, you minimize or eliminate judgement; and shame can’t survive without the self-judgement that fuels it.

To increase your acceptance of others and yourself, you can ask yourself, “What does it harm for them to be different than me?”  When judging yourself, you can ask, “Why must I be perfect?”  Our human condition is filled with variation.  With all of us imperfect humans, to not accept these things is a judgement that doesn’t match reality.

Shame accelerates the conditions for burnout.  Shame is a lack of acceptance and judgement of ourselves.  If we solve the judgement and acceptance problems, we vaporize shame and make it harder for burnout to grab ahold of us.

For more information on preventing – or recovering from – burnout, visit

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