Unpacking the Beliefs That Lead to Burnout

I have the privilege of working with nonprofit leaders around the country and lately have noticed a common theme. They each embrace a version of this belief: The work is too important for me to slow down. This high-minded ideal is inspiring and can lead to remarkable work, but it can also lead to burnout.

You see, anxiety can be powerful and motivating. In the right doses, it can mobilize you into action and make you relentless in the pursuit of your goals. The perfect combination of neurochemicals can keep you in the sweet spot of creative activity without the burnout.

But when the way you think about your work becomes too rigid — veering into an unhealthy belief system dominated by dictates like “must” and “have to” — it’s only a matter of time before you experience the debilitating effects of stress and anxiety.

Following is a partial list of beliefs that, if undetected, will eventually catch up with you and almost inevitably lead to breakdown.

Everything I do must be perfect.

Perfectionism ranks high among anxiety-inducing beliefs. It typically takes root in childhood, when we learn its value — to buffer us from the criticism of others.

We think, “If I’m perfect, no one can judge me.” We hide our limitations behind the guise of a perfect life, perfect family, perfect home, hoping that no one will notice how flawed we really are.

In an attempt to allay our anxiety, we size everyone up — especially those who most threaten us — and compare ourselves to their mold.

It’s a competition you can never win because you will never achieve perfection.

If people really knew me, they’d judge me–and probably want nothing to do with me.

A close cousin to perfectionism is inauthenticity.

At pivotal points in your life, you learned that certain behaviors were acceptable and others were not — and if you want to get along in this world, you better only show the acceptable parts.

When you don’t feel safe to be who you really are, you compartmentalize your identity into acceptable “buckets.”

For some of us, the bucket looks like this: accommodating, agreeable, meek.

For others, the bucket is this: blunt, caustic, edgy.

You have your own bucket of acceptable personality traits. Whatever it contains is the face you show to the world.

The unacceptable parts of your personality are the ones you hide from everyone and probably yourself.

But when you remain disconnected from certain aspects of your personality, you cannot be fully yourself, fully alive.

This self-denial leads to an untenable level of disconnection, a breakdown of your identity and eventual distress.

Talking about emotions is only for the weak.

Emotional Intelligence is important for understanding ourselves, working well with others and managing our relationships.

Yet, avoiding emotions is an acceptable modus operandi for many nonprofit leaders.

Many professionals with whom I work hate to talk about their feelings. They would rather harbor their emotions — or avoid them all together and move onto the next big strategic plan.

Here’s the thing: Emotions are the way you release your stress.

If you’re not talking about them, chances are the stress you’re under doesn’t have a chance to metabolize in your body and work its way out.

Chronically not talking about emotions will only exacerbate the stress you feel.

If I fail, I’ll die. So I’ll kill myself not to fail.

For most of us, failure feels awful. It upends the notion that we are in control of our life and safe from disaster. When we step out into the unknown and risk failure, it just may find us.

So, in order not to fail, we neglect our health, grow distant from family and friends, feign our own well-being so we don’t have to talk about it and plod on to the next task that ensures our eventual “success.”

If you don’t swiftly correct that course, this fear of failure will doom you to a workaholic lifestyle that might lead to success…but at what cost?

Ann’s story

One fundraising professional I worked with (we’ll call her Ann) reached out to me recently to discuss her fears that burnout was imminent. She had been burning the candle at both ends, working tirelessly to meet her fundraising goals. The long hours and lack of sleep was finally catching up with her. Her body was breaking down as she was getting sick more often, and she was growing cynical about her work. She even admitted to experiencing a mild form of depression and was finding it harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning.

Our conversations revealed that Ann’s burnout was the result of poor boundaries, and her fear of failure was only making them worse. For Ann, underperformance (or even average performance) was akin to death. She fought her fear of mediocrity and failure by adopting superhuman abilities — no sleep, no pleasure, no breathing. Ann’s passion for her organization’s mission coupled with her deep desire to please her donors and supervisor became the driving force for her to forego her own needs. 

After several conversations helping Ann gain some perspective, she was able to loosen up on her firmly held belief, ‘If I fail, I will die.’ She began to carve out a few moments of every day to practice self-compassion (thoughts toward herself that stemmed from kindness rather than judgment) and self-care (practices designed to give her sustained energy and vitality). She found ways to prioritize the work (and the donors) that would yield the most value, and she began to let go of the less important tasks that were eating into her personal time and health.

We can always add more obligations to our plates, rationalizing our over-work. It is the gift of burnout that challenges us to take notice and course-correct. Taking stock of your beliefs and prioritizing your personal needs could be the greatest contribution toward personal fulfillment and ultimately professional success.

What belief, if left unchecked, could lead you to burnout? Let us know in the comments below. 

Shelley Prevost is  a psychologist, nationally syndicated columnist, startup investor and TEDx speaker. She writes about her work on purpose, relationships and leadership in columns for Inc. and The Huffington Post. Her work has also been featured in Time, Yahoo Business, Fast Company, LifeHacker and Business Insider.

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