Friday, October 9, 2009


A striking article from Psychotherapist Dennis Portnoy.
Is your personality causing you to burn out?

Jim’s skin is hot and prickly as he gets increasingly agitated. His legs nervously tap under the table as he struggles to contain himself. The meeting had been going on only fifteen minutes and it was not mandatory for Jim to attend this meeting, yet he feels compelled to take over the direction of the meeting because no resolution is being reached.

Jim admits he is a “control freak” who gets overly involved with work. What he does not realize is how his difficulty tolerating uncertainty interferes with his ability to relax and recognize his limits.

You can take courses on time management and attend seminars on stress management techniques and still suffer from burnout. These strategies are often helpful, but will not lead to lasting changes if you do not address personality traits that foster stress. Much of the literature on burnout focuses more on external pressures than on self- imposed stress. While external pressures such as a demanding workload, juggling personal and professional life, unclear job responsibilities do contribute to stress and burnout, so do beliefs and personality traits. Jim’s worries about uncertainty and lack of control were driving him to burnout. Even authors who write about personality characteristics that cause stress tend to emphasize overt and extreme behaviors such as the type A personality- overly driven, highly competitive, aggressive and obsessed with work. There are many burnout prone people, however, with personalities who do not fit this profile. The most prominent personality characteristics that contribute to burnout are exaggerated responsibility, self-judgement and self-definition. Below you will see how these three traits influence each other.

exaggerated sense of responsibility

Throughout our lives we are told how important it is to be responsible. Being too responsible, however, can hurt you and others. Taking on too much responsibility can make you prone to over work and intolerant of your imperfections. You take on too much and overlook your limits. Exaggerated responsibility can also cause you to feel obligated, guilty about your needs and bad about yourself when you are not giving your best. Being overly responsible often interferes with your ability to relinquish control and an excessive need for control fosters burnout because you cannot relax and take your limits seriously. Jim’s need for control showed up as a need to always be on top of things and difficulty tolerating uncertainty or unpredictability. You may tell yourself, “if I do not do everything myself it will not get done correctly.” Your lack of trust causes you to take on too much, interferes with your ability to delegate and creates tension with others.

Rescuing and caretaking are manifestations of over-control. You get overly invested with work and with fixing situations. Your attempts to create harmony, fix problems or improve someone’s mood are often an attempt to regain control and distance from feelings of powerlessness. You are the one who is always trying to make peace. Doing too much for people does not help them because it often interferes with their ability to be accountable for their lives. Exaggerated responsibility may increase performance in the short run, but will decrease your effectiveness over time. So if being too responsible causes so many problems, why can’t we stop?

Exaggerated responsibility often develops in response to difficult family circumstances. Kids who grow up in families where there is chaos or lack of predictability often cope by becoming super responsible. Jim’s childhood was unpredictable and filled with tension. Several nights a week he was in charge of bringing his intoxicated father home from the local bar. He also watched his parents fight. This reinforced his need to be responsible, in control and belief that he could only count on himself.

You also take on adult responsibilities to help the family if your parents are struggling to make ends meet, This can include helping run the family business, doing housework or taking care of younger siblings. Your parents can be very caring yet preoccupied, causing you to rely on yourself at a young age to get many of your needs met. You may feel that it is your fault if problems arise and view your needs as further burdening your parents.

The roles of caretaker, confidante or the one that provides stability for the family foster exaggerated responsibility. You learn to measure your worth and define yourself by being strong, competent and dependable. If you were encouraged to be strong and self reliant, being vulnerable or needing others may cause you to feel shame or less worthy. When you do not live up to a responsible self- image or if you let someone down, you may feel like a failure. It can be an overwhelming burden when adults expect you to provide strength and comfort and put you in charge of their wellbeing. If you had to be strong or super responsible growing up, you may have difficulty recognizing your limits and needs for support. Being able to ask for and receive support, whether it mean asking someone to listen to your troubles and concerns or offer practical assistance, is a key ingredient for promoting self-care and counteracting burnout.

exaggerated sense of responsibility and your history

You can tell whether you take on too much responsibility by asking the following questions:

* Do you accept yourself at times when you are not dependable or competent? For example, how would you feel about yourself if you did not complete an assignment?

* What were your parents’ spoken and unspoken messages about the importance of being self-sufficient versus relying on others?

* Think of some problem situations that were unresolved where you felt responsible for the outcome, and felt compelled to fix it. Try to recall how you felt in these times. Now imagine resisting your impulse to change or improve the outcome. When you are not acting so responsible, do you feel like a failure or guilty? Does your self esteem decrease?

* Picture being less responsible when you were younger. What if you had refused to listen to your mother’s problems or were less helpful with chores? Would you have faced disapproval, withdrawal of attention, punishment? Would your family situation be less harmonious or more chaotic?

* How productive, strong, responsible and competent do you need to be to feel good about yourself? How do you feel about yourself when these qualities are lacking?

* Does being less productive or strong make you feel out of control?

* What were your parent’s spoken and unspoken expectations about your performance? Did they expect you to get all “A’s”? Excessive parental expectations can foster exaggerated responsibility.


Late at night Judy lies in bed restlessly, unable to sleep. Two weeks into her new job, she is feeling nervous day and night. She is obsessed with trying to make sure that nothing goes wrong and that no one sees her make a mistake. She has to prove to everyone, including herself, that she is worthwhile. Judy believes that she is a failure if anything goes wrong. She needs to realize how never being appreciated growing up causes her to think that self worth comes from perfection.

If you are a perfectionist you push yourself, get overscheduled, promise too many things to too many people, or take on too much work. You judge yourself harshly when you fall short of your expectations or when you make mistakes. You probably would not treat someone you care about in the harsh manner that you treat yourself. You learn to measure your worth by your performance and equate excelling with deserving attention or praise if your parents rewarded you primarily for excelling.

The pursuit of excellence is different from a relentless need to be the best. When you seek perfection and cannot measure up to your ideal, your self- esteem decreases. Developing realistic standards and self- compassion go a long way to counteract stress that leads to burnout.

When you make mistakes, notice how do you feel about yourself. Notice the ways that you talk to yourself when you fall short of your ideal. You may not recognize that your standards for yourself are excessive. Pay attention during the day to the ways you tell yourself how you did not do something well enough or how you could have done things better. Has anyone else ever spoken to you in this way? You may have internalized the ways that your parent’s spoke to you. Now picture someone else talking to you the way you speak to yourself. Chances are you would not tolerate them talking to you in this same manner.

Ask yourself these questions:

How much do family and societal expectations of who I should be run my life?

What were their spoken and unspoken expectations of you?

How did your parents respond to you when you did not live up to their expectations?

How comfortable are you being average? If being average is unacceptable, why?

What were the behaviors that got you noticed and respect?


We live in a society that measures worth by what you do rather than who you are. We are taught the measure of success has more to do with your image and what you produce than on internal qualities such as honesty, humor, or perceptiveness. This teaches you to define yourself by your achievements and by externally imposed ideas of how and who we should be. If your sense of identity and worth comes mainly from external criteria you are likely to overlook your needs and limits.

Corporate culture often reinforces the idea that your personal value is based on what you produce. If you grew up in a family that reinforces these cultural values, you learn to define yourself by others standards and validation. Judy’s view of herself was based on other people’s validation and not her own. The only way she got recognized growing up was when she excelled. She sought validation through her achievements. If your parents place a lot more value on your outer behaviors than on your innermost feelings and concerns, your desire for their approval causes you to adopt their ideas of how you should be rather than discovering your own values. You may equate your with self worth with measuring up to others’ standards. For example, you may think that if you conform to society’s ideas of how you should look, then you are acceptable. If you feel like you are not measuring up, you may compensate by pushing yourself in order to prove to the world and to yourself that you are okay.

Aside from your parents, you may also be trying to please friends and co-workers. Your relationship with peers can cause you to be externally directed. If you experienced being teased or left out by peers as a teenager a lot of your focus may be on being included and accepted. So when teens ostracize someone, that person can work extra hard to fit in as an adult. Your desire to be liked, accepted, to fit in, and measure up to some standard can lead to burnout. You can become too involved with work, give too much, push yourself and overlook your limits. The solution is to become more internally directed and self -validating. You do this by recognizing and valuing your intrinsic qualities, and by challenging cultural and parental messages.

Challenge your assumptions by asking yourself the following questions:

How important is it that others like you, and how do you feel when you are not liked? Can you accept and approve of yourself even when others do not accept you?

What thoughts and feelings get evoked when you contemplate rejecting or questioning your parents’ values? Do you have criteria about what makes you a worthwhile person that differs from your parent’s or the criteria of the society?,/P>

What “inner” qualities do you value about yourself that are unrelated to what other’s value in you? Examples include intelligence, resourcefulness, humor, and perceptiveness.

On a sheet of paper write, “what makes me a worthwhile human being?”

Then write a list of qualities, omitting achievements and what you do for others. Notice if this is difficult, and, if so, why?

Judy was frustrated and sad when she tried this exercise because she couldn’t identify intrinsic qualities in herself.


Once you are aware of the beliefs and outdated coping strategies that cause you to become too invested in outcomes, push yourself too hard, overachieve, you have the opportunity to challenge them. You can recognize hidden forces that interfere with your ability to set limits and attend to your emotional needs as they are occurring in the moment. You can stop being so responsible and can developing realistic standards.

It is important to distinguish between past and current realities while reminding yourself that perceived threats are outdated. For example, when you do not perform well it does not mean you do not count or that you are less than someone else. If you do not separate past threats from the current reality, you will continue to act as if childhood consequences still exist in your adult life. Your identity and sense of worth is often shaped by family roles. For example, being in a confidante role for a parent could make you feel special, valued and connected to that parent. To be less responsible or perfect may pose a threat to your emotional survival and identity. Choosing not to listen to mom’s problems could result in losing your special connection and your sense of usefulness. The same can be said about the role of the strong one. If you did not go along with your assigned role and were less responsible, you may have lost connection with your parent’s .You may feel guilty for letting them down if you were not so responsible and strong and they were unhappy. Without realizing it, you may fear that being less responsible will cause you to be all alone or overwhelmed with helplessness. You may be convinced that being average or making a mistake will mean no one will value you. If you do not over achieve, you will not be valued. Jim, who I mentioned in the beginning, grew up with unstable caretakers where uncertainty led to chaos. He was unaware of how past influences still impact his adult behavior, and how always being in control is how he deals with the helplessness from his upbringing. The reason why Jim was unable to relax and relinquish control was because uncertainty associated with his upbringing. Your rational thoughts often have a logic that is different from your feelings. Even though his rational mind knew that uncertainty would not lead to harmful consequences, on an emotional level Jim was convinced the threat is real for all time and in all situations.

Learning to listen to yourself

Listening to your inner self is a powerful antidote to burnout. It is hard to do when you are too concerned with being liked or with other’s perceptions of you. These habits keep you focused externally and this prevents you from paying attention to your inner world. Another reason you may avoid accessing your inner world is because this causes you to experience uncomfortable emotions. You tune out and deflect your attention away from loneliness, boredom, or areas of your life where you feel dissatisfaction by making work the center of your life. You can get so busy and focused on what is immediately in front of you that you do not take the time to listen to your feelings and your body. Sometimes you are able to hear your internal signals, but your agenda or obsessive focus on getting things done takes priority. By learning to listen to your body, feelings and intuition you can access and be guided by a deeper knowing about what is best for your well being. Your bodily sensations and emotions tell you when you need to slow down, exercise, set a limit, what to and not to eat, whether to be social or alone. You discover needs that are both general and specific in the moment. For example, you desire more supportive friendships or for a specific friend to be more supportive in the moment. The type of information that is revealed from deep listening is different from desires that are based on an impulse for instant gratification or escape.

Burnout begins gradually and occurs in stages. At first, you feel irritable, disillusioned, less energy, and life feels less fun. You think about work more when you are not at work, get physical symptoms like headaches and colds, and are less idealistic. In more advanced stages you may experience feelings of overwhelm and often get sick. You may be so numb or distracted by busyness that you are unaware of accumulating stress. If you are like most people, you only become concerned about burnout in the advanced stages when your health or important relationship is in danger. When you listen to your body and emotions that are not colored by childhood distortions, you detect the early warning signs of burnout. You will choose what is best for you and pay attention to what you really need. Taking the time to become attuned to your inner life fosters self care and is an antidote to a burnout personality. There are many times when you will not be able to change external circumstances that are stressful. However, you can minimize the negative effects of stress and learn to take care of yourself in ways that make you more resilient to external pressures. You accomplish this by counteracting beliefs and habits that foster burnout and that throw your life out of balance.

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