High achiever mindsets that perpetuate burnout (and how to reframe them)
If these apply to you, there's an opportunity to shift
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High achievers deny their own burnout.
We acknowledge that we’re busy. We recognize (often with pride) that we spend long hours and a lot of mindshare on work. But admitting that we’re burning out is too drastic and jarring a claim. It would mean giving into what we resist most: slowing down, paring back our doing-ness. To us, burning out is a sign of weakness, of not being able to cut it in pursuing ambitious and high stakes goals.
The path to burnout can be addictively motivating. A 2006 study on “extreme jobs” showed that 62% of high-earning individuals worked more than 50 hours a week, 35% more than 60 hours a week, and 10% more than 80 hours a week. When asked why they stay in these jobs, the most common response was: “It’s stimulating, challenging, and gives me an adrenaline rush.” In the past 15 years, these numbers have climbed, and these roles are no longer considered quite so extreme.
Burnout has taken on a new shape during the pandemic. While remote work affords us more flexibility, we lose the boundaries previously set by a daily commute. Taking care of kids at home while working means never-ending context switching between parent mode and professional mode. As a result, many of us have encountered weeks or even months of lethargy. As high achievers, we’re used to operating at 150%. capacity. It’s hard to accept that these days, even 50% can feel like a struggle.
How do we know if we’re burning out? Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who coined the term in the 1970s, identified three symptoms:
Exhaustion: Feeling emotionally exhausted and unable to cope, lacking energy day-to-day. One might have trouble falling asleep or getting up in the morning, and end up feeling lethargic throughout the day.
Emotional distancing: Adopting a cynical lens: leadership is incompetent, the company’s culture is toxic, my colleagues are insufferable. It becomes increasingly difficult to empathize with others at work. We gripe constantly to our partner over dinner, or spin silently on negativity in the evenings.
Futility: Feeling like the effort we put into work doesn’t matter. Each task feels like a heavy lift; focusing is harder than it was before.
Can we actually stop burnout?
If futility is a core component of burnout, do we even have the agency to intercept it?
Journalist Jennifer Moss wrote recently that organizational challenges are chiefly responsible for burnout:
When you analyze the real causes of burnout, it becomes clear that almost everyone has been attacking the problem from the wrong angle. According to Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkeley, Susan E. Jackson of Rutgers, and Michael Leiter of Deakin University, burnout has six main causes:
Perceived lack of control
Insufficient rewards for effort
Lack of a supportive community
Lack of fairness
Mismatched values and skills
While these are all organizational issues, we still prescribe self-care as the cure for burnout. We’ve put the burden of solving the problem squarely on the shoulders of individual employees.
In addition, the past year’s news— COVID deaths, racial injustice and violence, election anxiety— has contributed to our feeling that there’s simply nothing we can do, in our work or in the world, to improve our emotional circumstances.
There are many factors outside of our control. Some people work in truly toxic workplaces in which sexism, racism, and discrimination create psychologically unsafe environments. Others are burnt out from the nature of the work itself; I know many hospital workers, educators, and mental health professionals who’ve become exhausted from the emotional toll of supporting those in times of great need.
Extreme cases aside, and for those of us fortunate to work in financially stable, remote-friendly jobs, we have more agency than we think. We can’t always change the things that happen. But we do have a level of choice in how we react to the stimulus in mindsets we adopt. And it’s these mindsets that determine in large part whether the burnout cycle continues or is intercepted and shifted.
Five achiever mindsets that lead to burnout (and how to reframe them)
Over the past few months, I’ve coached, mentored, managed, and interviewed over a dozen high achievers in knowledge work roles. When they encounter ongoing stress, I ask them to log their energy throughout the week— in particular, the energy draining moments and what thoughts and emotions they experienced in those situations.
Once they’ve collected enough logs, we step back and hunt for patterns, boiling down the data points to a few core mindsets that perpetuate the stress cycle. These are the things we silently say to ourselves when we’re upset about work— when we have trouble sleeping, when we’re mentally spinning in the evening instead of recharging.
Normally we let these mindsets run on autopilot. In doing so, we strengthen our brain’s affinity for the negative thought pattern. It becomes comfortable and familiar, like a broken record that can’t get unstuck. And because our bodies are used to responding with stress when thinking these thoughts (e.g. tension, shallow breathing, quickened heartbeat), we unintentionally create a habit. As the thoughts follow us throughout the day and evening, so do the physical and emotional manifestations of stress. And over time, slowly but surely, we burn out.
Noticing these mindsets is the first step to intercepting and reframing them. Here are five of the most common patterns I’ve seen among high achievers:
1) “I need to prove myself”
What this might look like: We’ve advanced quickly in our careers through hard work and strong results. But in the back of our minds, it feels like we haven’t yet “arrived” at our position. We sometimes feel like an imposter, like we got lucky and don’t quite belong with our peers. We scan for signs that other people might not think highly of us. We compare themselves to others: Am I being vocal enough? Influential enough? Smart enough? And are other seeing that in me?
Why this perpetuates stress: Nothing we do is ever enough, unless we get a heavy dose of external validation. We overcompensate by working long hours and going above and beyond in everything we touch. And yet, at the end of the day, no matter how much gets accomplished, we still wonder if we’re doing a good job.
A way to reframe: “I’m growing everyday; the long term learning process matters more than short term outcomes”
2) “I’m a busy and productive person”
What this might look like: While we don’t like to admit it (in fact, I’ve found this to be the hardest mindset for high achievers to self-identify), a part of us takes pride in being busy and having a full schedule. Seeing those color-coded event tiles stacked on top of each other in Google Calendar is both anxiety producing and exhilarating. We live and breathe productivity culture: how to do more while optimizing our time in increasingly skillful ways.
Why this perpetuates stress: When busyness is a core part of our identity, we resist opportunities to create white space in our weeks. To shed responsibilities and deprioritize less important things. We cling to our packed schedules in order to continue feeling like ourselves.
A way to reframe: “Rest and recharge are prerequisites for strong leadership”
3) “It / They shouldn’t be this way”
What this might look like: We have high standards and become resentful when others don’t meet them. A process is inefficient and poorly documented. Leadership made a suboptimal decision. Our co-founder or colleague isn’t pulling their weight. We judge and think “this isn’t right; it should be better; my way is better.”
Why this perpetuates stress: We waste a lot energy wishing that other people would acknowledge that we’re right and change their behaviors accordingly. When they don’t, our frustration increases. In reality, change takes time, and we can’t control what others do. In addition, our attachment to being right prevents us from seeing alternative paths— paths of lesser resistance to solving what matters.
A way to reframe: “Given things are the way they are, how might I encourage small steps toward progress?” (Identify tangible actions you can take)
4) “Success requires sacrifices”
What this might look like: No pain, no gain. We know we’re making tradeoffs— time with family, mental health and well-being, living a joyful and fulfilling life. But as high achievers, we’ve also spent our entire lives gritting our teeth and getting it done. That’s how we’ve learned to win.
Why this perpetuates stress: We adopt black-and-white thinking: we can either be successful and sacrifice the things that are important to us, or we can be unsuccessful without making those tradeoffs. It’s a fool’s choice, and we’re wired to choose the former.
A way to reframe: “My goals are important, and I have time to get there; steadiness, not haste, is the key” (Remove the false urgency)
5) “They need me”
What this might look like: This is the second most difficult mindset for high achievers to self-identify. We’re used to being the hero who swoops in to solve a problem. Have you ever experienced this scenario? The whole team is floundering; they’re wasting time going in circles on a difficult decision. We jump in with our expertise, knowledge, and influence, align everyone on a solution, and save the day by wearing our cape.
Why this perpetuates stress: We don’t trust and empower others to solve problems. We’re convinced we must do it all. There’s no way to prioritize because we’re desperately needed in every corner of the business. Without us, everything would fall apart.
Jeff Riddle, executive coach at Reboot.io, shares how superhero leadership often starts with our childhood:
Of the hundreds of business founders and leaders we’ve coached, the vast majority had one childhood experience in common: being put in a parenting role as a kid.
… At work, these leaders find themselves and their acquired skills in positions where they support teams, investors, and customers. That is an incredible value. But these skills and elevation experiences also have a shadow side.
These leaders may go far beyond supporting other people to stepping in with a superhero mindset of saving every citizen and situation.
But superhero leaders may also struggle to delegate to others, and they can burn out easily. After all, when do superheroes hand over their capes or get a day off?
A way to reframe: "I enable those around me to discover and practice their own superpowers”
The second arrow
In Buddhism, there’s a wise parable about suffering:
It is said the Buddha once asked a student,
“If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful? If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?”
He then went on to explain,
“In life, we can’t always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. This second arrow is optional.” (Source)
While difficult work situations can be painful in the moment, it’s often the subsequent reverberation — our minds revisiting the bad incident and continuing to ruminate on it for hours and days to come— that creates burnout.
By noticing and reframing our mindsets, we regulate the impact of second arrow (and third, fourth, fifth, etcetera) on our well-being. In doing so, we avoid the turbulent whirlpool that pulls us into burnout. We create calmer, more sustainable waters within which to exist and thrive.
Reflection #07: Log daily events that boost or drain your energy using this template. After 1 week, identify patterns in the data. When your energy is drained, what are you saying to yourself? Bonus: Try doing this with a friend and reflecting to each other.
Love and health,