Burning Out

I recently spoke with a man who had received a prestigious promotion not too long ago, who needed help to see that he was pushing himself way too hard.  This man, Ben, defines himself as being a leader in a helping profession, even though that is not exactly typical of how this particular kind of work would be described.  Making his job about helping others is part of how he pushes himself, which couldn't be more admirable - except there are some pitfalls, and some unconscious motivations for him and for many like him, that it would be good to recognize. 

1. Superhero complex.  Ben grew up in a family where his father had a rage problem, a rage that sometimes became violent with Ben and his siblings, and with Ben's mother.  Ben grew as an adolescent to be a very large, imposing man - and he began to take it on himself to save his mother by getting in between her and his father.  He eventually won that battle, but it did not erase the years that he felt small and helpless against his out of control, raging father.  Ben's expectation of himself that he be all things to all people, that no amount of work is too much, amounts to a wish to save the world - which is what a small frightened boy might wish in the face of a terrifying father.  There are many other scenarios that could lead a child to develop the superhero fantasy, too many to go into here.  Ben and those of us like him have to realize that no matter how much we push ourselves, we cannot single handedly "save the world."  Ben needs to take the pressure off himself and be realistic about what he can achieve.

2.  Self-care is selfish.  Because of this credo, Ben doesn't stop to eat meals, he stays at work far longer and later than others, and when he comes home, he's got a wife and 2 kids that he's too exhausted to deal with  - and he takes out his frustration on them.  Helpers in any profession will burn out if they cannot recognize how important it is to take care of themselves.  Having a can do attitude may bring recognition and appreciation, but when it is taken too far, it becomes a kind of martyrdom, a self-sacrifice that is self-defeating.  Ben can keep up a good front at the office, but he loses it at home.  His work is supposed to support his good, healthy, happy life with his family, not destroy it.  Without careful, committed attention to self-care, people burn out.

3.  If I make one mistake, nothing else I ever did matters.  Ben erases all his accomplishments the minute he discovers any mistake, of any magnitude, that he's made.  So he's always pushing himself back to square one.  Pride and self-confidence don't accumulate enough to ward off the constant fear of not doing something right.  The link to his childhood shows up in this trait - the fantasy that if he does everything right, his father won't be angry and violent.  For Ben to feel like a failure because of any mistake, or to fear that he will be perceived as a failure by others, is truly unreal.  Rationally he knows this; but the fear is not rational, it's phobic.  It's based in personal history that formed early in his development - and this history lives on and gets restimulated when he feels the least bit out of control.  Only by properly valuing and holding on to his positive accomplishments can he diminish his fear of error and tolerate his imperfection.  To negate all the good because there is any bit of bad is another express route to burn out.

 All hard working people who care about what they do are vulnerable to burn out - no matter what the occupation.  The three pitfalls above are good to keep in mind - and of course there are plenty more.  Some jobs are impossibly demanding, that's true.  But often, it's our own impossible demands of ourselves that is the bigger problem.