Yes, you are burned out: burnout denial & accepting that you are not well

Why is it so difficult to accept we are burned out, how can you know if you are at risk and what to do next.
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In all conversations I had so far with people who burned out and people who work with or research burnout, there is one thing that always comes up: how difficult it is to fully accept that we are burned out.

We tend to spend too much time in denial that there is something wrong, that we need to stop, rest and, most importantly, reset. During my interview with Dr Geri Puleo, she mentions that burnout recovery only starts when we finally get up and say, “hi, my name is … and I am burned out” – just like they do in AA meetings.

This seems like the easiest thing to do, doesn’t it? And yet, when we are inside of it, when we’re in the eye of the hurricane, this is definitely the hardest part.

I would argue that is because something in us knows that accepting there is something wrong means acknowledging that we are not invincible. It means that we were wrong when we learned that we could do everything.

It means that we were wrong when we thought that living this way would make us happy in any way. It means that we drove ourselves to the edge of the abyss (depending on how bad we are, it can mean that we are already in the bottom of the abyss).

Let me take a quick tangent here: on last week’s episode of the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, one of the characters (Paula), suffers from a heart attack that nearly killed her. On her accumulating hard work of parenting, studying for the bar and volunteering, on top of a full-time job, she was in denial that there was something wrong, despite everyone around her clearly noticing the opposite.

Her husband dragged her into a hospital, against her will, and then she got the diagnosis that she was dragging a heart attack for 18 hours. Now, I can’t judge how realistic it is for someone to carry a heart attack around for that long without dropping dead, but it has a striking resemblance to how a burned out person looks like.

In fact, the very definition of burnout refers to someone who keeps on going despite their chronic stress and exhaustion, going beyond physical and mental limitations until becoming incapable of functioning.

In the interview, when Dr Geri Puleo referred to Freudenberger’s use of the term burnout to describe the syndrome, she pictures the person who suffers from it as a building that is burned out: from the outside, it may still look normal, but in the inside, there is nothing left but ashes. Depending on how long it takes for you to identify and accept you are burned out, the façade will start to suffer just as much, to the point other people will notice there’s something off about you.

If even so, you don’t take proper action, you will fall apart – if you haven’t already.

Why is burnout so difficult to be accepted?

The answer, in my opinion, experience and research, points at three different directions: (1) how much we know about burnout, (2) how do we see ourselves and (3) how do we see people who burn out.

Most people I know still don’t know exactly what burnout is and how to tell if they have or had it in the past. Depending on where you are in the world, this subject is more or less openly discussed – but that doesn’t mean people are fully honest about it or that it is common knowledge even among the professionals that are expected to treat it.

Freudenberger coined the term in the late ’70s, and it has been gaining awareness just in the last few years. I heard it for the first time about three or four years ago but only came to really understand it about a year ago. To this date, burnout is not in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), a reference for mental health diagnosis and treatment.

It was only recently added to the ICD (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, from the World Health Organization), in 2016.

Research on burnout started to appear in greater volume only in the last few decades, and although it is considered a work-related syndrome, the majority of organisations don’t even know what it is, let alone understand their responsibility on it. In the second direction, it has to do with what our overachieving nature causes to our self-perception.

My hypothesis that overachievers are way more susceptible to burnout is backed byDr Geri, and Alena Hall.

Our overachiever personality is very prone to being stubborn, and it makes us severely oblivious to what we actually need or feel, without judgement or without seeking to please outer expectations.

If you burned out, it probably means you were really good at something one day.

You achieved a lot.
You were a star employee, a successful entrepreneur, an outstanding parent or a top student.

That means you reached a high – and, by high, I mean the status and the feeling of giving in to your addiction (just like with drugs, alcohol and smartphones).

The high of overachieving is addictive, and you are probably hooked on it for longer than you can imagine. But when things start going wrong, either because something very important has changed in your work or personal life, or because you reached your limit of acting against your desires, values and needs, you start to fall.

Something happens, something triggers the burnout (it can be one or ten things, but I strongly advise you to look into it).

We think we can keep going.

We take a short sick leave and come back to work.
But something has permanently changed.

We refuse to accept it because our very identity, in our minds, is built upon the roles we perform (start employee, parent, top student, even a celebrity) and how flawlessly and relentlessly we execute them every day.

We feel the world crumbling down around us.
We feel the burn and we smell the smoke before anyone else.
But we refuse to ring the alarm.

We know that ringing the alarm means we failed.

It means we’re not up above anymore. It means we’re no better than anyone.
It means we can’t keep on racing.
It means we are human, deeply, human.
Full of limits, human.

It means we are just like everyone else. And for some reason, that hurts like a third-degree burn.

The third factor is that, if we are not ready to see ourselves failing, neither is the world around us. Not only we are still very ignorant and judgemental when it comes to mental health, the world praises overachievement and a lot of people around you won’t understand that you can’t do everything anymore. Some people will find it unacceptable – and these are the people you will have to let go of, for the sake of your health and sanity.

Being burned out means that not only you won’t be able to produce what the world learned to expect from you, for now, it means you probably won’t be accepting every demand the world has imposed on you as you used to. If you are surrounded by people who love you unconditionally, this will never be an actual issue – but the relationships you built that value you on what you give will burn out as well.

How can I know if I an burned out?

There are many sources online and extensive literature on how to determine if you are burning out and how far you are in the spectrum. And there are many levels to burnout, from continued stress and exhaustion to totally falling apart and becoming incapable of doing simple things like showering.

Different literature will have different frameworks of symptoms and levels, but to give you an idea here’s a list of symptoms that Sherrie Bourg Carter put together on Psychology Today and I believe to be comprehensive enough. The more symptoms you relate to, the most likely you are to be burned out:

1) Physical and emotional exhaustion:

  • Chronic fatigue (lack of energy, difficult to get out of bed)
  • Insomnia
  • Impaired cognition (trouble to pay attention and concentrate, forgetfulness)
  • Physical Symptoms (chest pain, difficulty breathing, dizziness) Anxiety (in more severe cases, panic attacks)
  • Depression
  • Anger

2) Feelings of cynicism and detachment:

  • Loss of enjoyment
  • Pessimism (red flag if you are normally very optimistic)
  • Isolation and resistance to socialising
  • Detachment (feeling disconnected from the people and the environment)

3) Ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment:

  • Apathy, helplessness, and hopelessness (feeling that nothing is going right, that nothing is worth doing or that you don’t make any difference)
  • Reduced productivity (getting a lot less, or nothing, done or taking way longer than usual for the same tasks)
  • Increased irritability (out of disappointment of not getting anything done)
  • Poor performance (you start making mistakes and not achieving what was once easily doable)

There is a fairly easy and informal test here but it doesn’t seem to relate to any valid research – I could take it as an indicator, but not a definitive diagnosis.

Accepting is the hardest part

If you tested your symptoms against the list above or took any minimally credible test online that indicates you might have a burnout, it is likely that you are – or, “best” case scenario, that you are suffering from anxiety, depression, chronic stress or fatigue, and they are still disorders that demand proper treatment.

The moment when we face the reality that we might, indeed, be burned out (or any mental health issue that prevents us of functioning), is like a rock fell from the sky and hit our heads. It is disappointing, devastating. It is a pivoting moment, for until then you believed that maybe there was nothing wrong. That you’d be “back to normal” soon if you just kept on pushing. But when the reality sinks in that you might be experiencing a full-blown syndrome, one that brings several mental and physical disorders with it, and one that demands you to fully stop, you will feel helpless for a moment.

You will feel terrible. Afraid. Disappointed. Guilty. You will remember that person who told you that you couldn’t keep going like this and it will hurt like hell to know they were right, and you were wrong.

You will feel stupid for not seeing it coming from miles away. You will question if you ever knew what the hell you were doing. You will wonder if you will ever be the same again. And probably, you will feel deep, scourging pain, because you know most people won’t understand a thing about what you are going through – I mean, you didn’t understand it yourself until a minute ago!

Depending on how severe your burnout is, you will hit rock bottom. You will be in bed for more than half of the day. You will have immense difficulty in doing what was routine for you just the other day.

You will cry.
And you won’t be able to accurately explain to anyone else how this feels.

Okay, lady, you are making me scared

I know you are hoping for the good news here. But the truth, the very truth is that, if you have just now accepted that you indeed burned out, you still have a long way to go.

You have just rung the alarm and the firefighters will be here soon, but it may take a minute.

They will come with all they’ve got: therapy, medication, mindfulness, gratitude journals, a shoulder to cry on. But the horrible truth is that there are only ashes on you in the inside.

If you were lucky enough to ring the alarm soon enough, it’s likely that a lot can still be recovered, that some furniture was left intact. And that means it won’t take that so long for you to rebuild yourself. But make no mistake: full recovery takes about two years.

And in this case, overachieving will only make things worse (again).

Don’t look at this and say to yourself, “I can do it in WAY LESS TIME”. No, you won’t. You will feel like you recovered, and then go full throttle again, and then you’ll fall with residual burnout. Or a full blown-one again… that’s what happened to me. Don’t take this lightly. But do believe you can and will come out of this not only alive but better than you were before. If you accept the challenge this burnout has brought you, you will revisit your life and choices, you will learn more about yourself that you thought possible, and you will learn to honour your values and needs.

You will learn who you really are, beyond your fear of failure. Hopefully, you will learn how to take care of yourself. You will become able to identify the stressors that burned you out and keep away from them. You will start saying no to external demands and yes to your own desires. You will take yourself less seriously and understand that it’s not what you do that defines who you are or how much you are worth.

And hopefully, you will cut the weeds of your overachieving nature whenever it starts growing again (and it will). But none of this will ever happen until you just get up and say, “hi, my name is … and I am burned out”.

Picture of Carol Milters
Carol Milters

Writer & Educator
Mental health at work, burnout, ADHD and bipolar • Research + lived experience
Author, "My Morning Pages: Chronicles of living through Burnout" and “One Step Per Day: Meditations to begin again, whenever you need”

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My Morning Pages:
Chronicles of living
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