Burnout, unfortunately, is everywhere. If you haven’t experienced it personally, you probably know someone who has self-diagnosed. Defined by the World Health Organization as a syndrome “conceptualized as resulted from chronic workplace stress,” it causes exhaustion, “feelings of negativism or cynicism,” and reduced efficacy. That’s a big umbrella, and the condition has become something of a catch-all for chronic, modern-day stress.
“The sort of internal atmosphere of burnout is always, ‘I should be doing something but I’m not,’” says Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst and the author of the book Not Working: Why We Have to Stop. “It’s the feeling you are always a step or two behind where you should be and yet you feel you’ve come to the end of your capacity to do anything.” Given the continuous demands of modern life, in the professional realm, yes, but the personal, too, it’s no wonder burnout has become so commonplace. We’re simultaneously exhausted and plagued by the idea that we’re not trying hard enough, a phenomenon Anne Helen Petersen explores in her viral essay on millennial burnout. “I’d put something on my weekly to-do list, and it’d roll over, one week to the next, haunting me for months,” she writes.
“I think it’s very hard to find someone who has not felt burnt out,” says Terri Bogue, who co-authored Extinguish Burnout: A Practical Guide to Prevention and Recovery with her husband, Rob. The condition is frequently associated with work, but it can just as easily arise from issues outside the office. Terri last experienced burnout over concerns about the path one of her children was heading down. “I felt completely out of control, like I had no impact,” she says. “That lack of ability to feel effective turned into burnout quickly for me.” She was flooded with feelings of inadequacy that bled into virtually every other aspect of her life.
“At the root of it are exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy,” adds Rob. “If I feel ineffective, I am going to be exhausted because I don’t feel anything I’m doing is enough. You become cynical because you feel like you can’t change things.”
It’s a vicious cycle that is easy to enter and hard to emerge from. With that in mind, experts and creatives share strategies for how to recognize the signs and develop strategies for recovery.
Brooklyn-based graphic designer and artist Kelli Anderson rarely experiences burnout. She attributes this, in part, to her ability to switch from different modes of work, interspersing sometimes amorphous passion projects with deadline-driven assignments for clients. Just as important, however: a gift for avoiding “the bad habit of comparing myself to other people,” an activity she’s found often manufactures unrealistic and arbitrary goals.
Frustratingly, comparisons can be hard to avoid. “We live in a culture that’s inundated with everyone’s updates,” Rob says. In real life and on social media, we’re exposed to curated versions of friends, acquaintances, and strangers’ existences. Epic vacations, prestigious jobs, elaborate wellness routines, homemade meals, and picture-perfect families flood by in a well-staged blur.
It’s a good environment for inadequacy to thrive. “You feel ineffective because your expectation is built on the aggregation of everyone else’s highlight reel.”
Recognizing this is a good first step, as is dialing back the modes by which you make comparisons in your daily-life. (Yes, this likely means reducing your social media consumption.)
Reframe your relationship with productivity and achievement
Along with endless forms of comparison, our modern-day life is built on the concept of continual productivity. No matter how much we’ve achieved, there’s always more to be done.
This, unsurprisingly, fuels burnout. Recovering from an episode or, better yet, avoiding the condition altogether often requires a reset. “It’s about developing a different internal relationship to that voice in your head that says, ‘You have to push on, you have to achieve more,’” Cohen, the psychoanalyst, says.
Most people are familiar with the superego, which acts as the minds’ self-critical conscience. The ego ideal is less well-known, but Cohen believes it is intimately involved in mental patterns that contribute to burnout.
Compared to the superego, the ego ideal “is ostensibly more positive…it’s like one of those insanely peppy fitness trainers who pushes you to do more reps. It seems like it’s your ally and your friend; it wants you to do more because it knows you can do more.” (For many of us, it’s a voice that has been cultivated by adult figures who showed encouragement by denying that we had limits—anything was possible if we just worked hard enough.)
For the vast majority of people, such continuous striving is unsustainable. Recovery from burnout, then, requires a more understanding, realistic, and less demanding internal motivator, one that allows for moments of rest and doesn’t view life as something to be optimized.
For those who are feeling early signs of burnout, often the first step is to pause, Rob says. A day off or a vacation is rarely a long-term solution, “but it can be self-care in the moment to give yourself the ability to pause and just sit.” Ask yourself what you’d want to do—not what you feel you should do—if you had an hour of free time. “And then give it to yourself without feeling bad about it,” Rob says.
Reevaluate your expectations
Redefining your relationship to productivity requires a similar reassessment of expectations. Cohen frequently hears from people who feel as if they can’t slow down; they have too many external demands and deadlines. If this is truly the case, it’s worth considering how you got to a place where “your commitments are so persecuting and pressing that you don’t feel there is time to do anything else,” he says. “That requires a reckoning with your particular working situation.”
Siobhan Murray, a Dublin-based psychotherapist and the author of The Burnout Solution, recommends that clients regularly audit their activities and obligations. Once a quarter, Murray takes stock of what is going on in her life and reviews any major changes. If she feels at all overextended, she goes over her negotiables and non-negotiables in order to reduce stressors and time commitments.
For instance: A few years ago, Murray decided she wanted to start a book club—it sounded fun and relaxing. The reality was more complicated. A single mom, each meeting required that she find the time to read the book, secure a babysitter, and get to the meeting spot. After six months, she threw in the towel. “I wanted it, but it wasn’t working for me.” Her kids and her work? Non-negotiable. A book club? Negotiable.
Social media can delude us into thinking it’s possible not just to do everything, but be excellent at everything. This, of course, is a fantasy. “We can’t be successful when we have ten identities and want to fill all of them personally,” Terri says.
Like Murray, she recommends paring back. Start by mapping out all of the various identities you’d like to fulfill, and then separate them into those that are core to your personhood and those that are aspirational. Next, plot out how many hours each identity consumes (for example, the hours you put in as an employee, as a parent, as a friend). Most of the time, “you end up with a deficit,” she says, which means it’s time to adjust your expectations for how many identities you can simultaneously juggle.
To recover from burnout, you need to truly rest. Often, this first requires an acceptance of the state itself. Engagement, activity, and connection are crucial parts of being human, “but they aren’t the only things that define us,” Cohen says. “There is equally an impulse to retreat into privacy and to commune with oneself rather than the outside world.” In our over-stimulated, productivity-obsessed culture, too often this urge is recast as an aberration that must be suppressed.
Cohen recommends finding past times that aren’t attached to any productive outcome or purpose. This can be tricky; It’s distressingly easy to apply an achievement-mindset to the concept of rest itself. “You see this with people who are really into activities that are supposed to induce a state of rest.” Under the wrong circumstances, meditation and yoga simply feed our drive to become even more efficient machines.
Murray has noticed a similar trend. When doing a personal audit, she recommends including “wellness” activities, which can suck up a lot of time and energy. “Maybe you realize that going to three yoga classes a week at 5:30 in the morning is not going to work, but doing 20 minutes on YouTube is more manageable,” she says.
Ironically, she’s found the wellness industry contributes to burnout by trying to convince us that if we only ate paleo, meditated more, and practiced Reiki, “our lives would be perfect.” Instead of chasing an impossible regimen, she recommends that overwhelmed clients simply find a way to move that works for their schedule. Maybe it’s yoga, maybe it’s running, maybe it’s simply carving out 15 to 20 minutes a day to walk. “Go back to the basics,” she says.