The hidden cause of burnout… maybe it’s you

person holding a help sign

When we think of burnout, we usually blame the classic work stressors:

  • A new role or added responsibilities
  • Competing needs of family and work life
  • A difficult boss or team member

These causes of burnout have something in common – they are all external stressors.

But there can be a hidden cause of burnout…


Imagine your resources as a bucket. Everyday external stressors come at it from the sides, piercing holes small and large. These might be a project that pulls you away from your daily responsibilities, a sick child at home, a boss who asks for unnecessary details. You get the idea.

On some level this is all manageable. You patch things up, plugging holes where you can and adding all your resources to keep your bucket full.

It would be doable – but there is another hole in the bucket that you aren’t seeing. And it is the one that you continually create – draining your own energy with negative thoughts and worries.

Some people call these thoughts your self-saboteurs, others call them your inner critic. Arianna Huffington calls them the “bad roommate who never moves out.”

What do they look like? In Delve’s coaching practice, we see clients struggle with:

  • Perfectionism
  • People pleasing
  • Excessive need for control

Just thinking about these habits – and the utter futility of them – is exhausting. If you engage in them, no wonder why you are burnt out.

Why do we engage in habits that cause burnout?

Burnout Culprit 1: Perfectionism

We all love the idea of being a perfectionist. It’s our favorite fault to cite during an interview. “What is your biggest challenge?” “Oh, I am a complete perfectionist. I will work until midnight to finish a project. It drives my [lazy] colleagues crazy.” We wear it as a badge of honor.

But perfectionism is defined as “the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation.”

Perfectionism may drive results, but it has unintended consequences. Perfectionists often have trouble delegating effectively, and a fear of making mistakes can discourage creativity, drive, and risk-taking… a whole host of valuable and necessary qualities in a leader and a team.

For ideas on how to stem your need for perfection, check out this great HBR article, How to Manage Your Perfectionism.

Burnout Culprit 2: People-pleasing

This one flies under the radar. You may not think you are a people pleaser. You are just great with people or you care a lot about others. It’s hard to call yourself out for being thoughtful.

But look at the flip side. What does people-pleasing lead to in the workplace?

  • You don’t give clear feedback
  • You won’t say no to bad ideas
  • You take on too much work

While all of these behaviors lead to professional challenges, the last two have a huge potential to cause feelings of burnout.

For resources on how to check your people-pleasing tendencies, read: Is it Possible to Stop People Pleasing at Work?

Burnout Culprit 3: Excessive Need for Control

Control is an interesting concept.

We use the word to describe certain business functions, like financial and regulatory controls. We also use it to describe necessary emotional and behavioral regulation. Even in our experience of our external – largely uncontrollable – world, we benefit from a sense of control in order to have feelings of agency and safety.

However, just because humans need to have a sense of control, we are not actually in control of everything, at all times. Do you:

  • Think excessively about potential negative future events and how to avert them
  • Dive deep into the details to solve your team’s problems, instead of encouraging them to come up with solutions?
  • Ruminate on past conversations or events, believing that if you had just done “better” you could have created a different outcome?

Try as you might, you will never be able to prepare for or control every outcome. Believing that you can is just a giant hole in your bucket, draining every ounce of energy that you put in.

If an excessive need for control is your particular demon, read here:

Ok, I think I see myself here. But what do I do next?

The process of identifying and diffusing negative thoughts and behaviors is complex. Many psychologists and executive coaches have devoted their careers to researching, writing and speaking about these issues. We have provided some of our favorite resources above.

Our team at Delve uses a variety of tools and methods to help clients identify habits that hold them back. We call it the “aha moment” — understanding how our inner voices can affect outward performance.

If you think that you could benefit from some help in understanding the issues that are affecting your stamina, reach out. Together we can identify and start to quiet your inner critic and help banish your burnout – leaving you with energy to meet new challenges and opportunities.

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