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Three (More) Self-Sabotage Traps that Can Lead to Burnout

Kandi Wiens

Kandi Wiens

September 2022

I wish I didn’t have more to say about self-sabotage traps, but unfortunately, the list of things that causes us to suffer from self-inflicted stress goes on and on.  

This month’s issue of A Monthly Dose of Burnout Prevention is the final installment in a three-part series on the ways we unintentionally create or amplify stress for ourselves. If you missed the first two, not to worry! You can read about the unrealistic expectations trap, the excessive need for control trap, and the hero traphere, and the overly adaptable trap, the perfectionist trap, and the imposter syndrome traphere

Today we’re going to learn about three more self-sabotage traps: the “this is impossible!” trap, the “I care too much” trap, and the over-engagement trap.

The “This is impossible!” trap

I’ve noticed this trend lately with creatives, innovators, and big-idea thinkers who work in what psychologist Michele Gelfand calls “tight cultures.” These are the kinds of work environments that are known for punishing people for deviating from policies, social norms, strategic plans, and pretty much anything else you can think of that stifles innovation.

Then I noticed this trend en masse last weekend while I was with a group of UPenn graduate students. They are perfect examples of educational innovators and big-idea thinkers who are learning how to develop and implement really cool educational practices in “tight,” very complex organizational systems. 

In one of our evening integration sessions, one participant said, “My biggest challenge isn’t coming up with new ideas to improve our educational practices and grow our programs, it’s figuring out how to implement them without getting shut down every time I pitch my ideas. 

We say ‘education’ is a priority, but it’s virtually impossible to get anything done around here.” So many heads nodded as he said it, and I could feel the frustration and stress oozing out of him.

This is big – as in I bet a lot of us have experienced this kind of stress. We have a great idea, we’re willing to put our time and effort into something, we believe that others will think the idea is a slam dunk, and then – wham, we get shut down! It’s the kind of stress that can leave us feeling defeated and hopeless and makes us want to throw our hands up in the air.

As with so many of our ingrained, automatic reactions to stress, people who fall into the “This is impossible!” trap are reacting unconsciously to what feels like a dangerous threat. This makes perfect sense, because who doesn’t feel vulnerable when their great ideas aren’t valued? But of course, we’re not going to get very far if we shut down when our ideas get shut down.

The healthy countermeasure here is to bring some objectivity to the situation and determine how much control you actually have in moving your idea forward—even if that movement comes in small, incremental steps. Can you find opportunities to influence leaders’ perspective of how your big idea fits into the larger strategic plan? Can you find ways to informally navigate social networks within your organization to gain support and buy-in from more influential or powerful leaders? 

When we take the time to move past our first, automatic reaction, we can usually find creative ways to increase our sense of what can be possible if we take smaller, more deliberate steps. 

The “I care too much” trap

In a recent seminar with Wharton executive education participants, I taught the class the self-sabotage traps I’d observed during my research. After a lively discussion, I asked the group if there were other ways they’d ever noticed they were creating or amplifying their own stress. 

One man immediately raised his hand. “I care so much about wanting my team to succeed,” he said, “that I’m constantly running after them, making sure they succeed. They’re doing great, but I am totally exhausted.” 

The “I care too much” self-sabotage trap starts with the best of intentions, but can easily end up undermining our personal well-being when we habitually ignore ourselves in the service of others. Our own goals, our physical or mental health, or our own progress can suffer. 

How can you fill in the blank? I care too much about… 
the mission of my organization
the well-being of my team
the results we deliver
making sure everyone is happy
something else? 

People who engage in the “I care too much” trap end up over-functioning, and devoting too much physical and emotional energy to others at the expense of themselves. This trap is closely connected to the over-engagement trap (see below), and what’s been called the “friendly cousin” of burnout, compassion fatigue

It’s wonderful to care so much, but remember the old adage: Put on your own oxygen mask first! You can’t be effective or support and mentor others if you’re not prioritizing your own self-care. 

When you catch yourself starting to over-function—say you notice yourself beginning to take on other people’s tasks, or maybe you’re always the first one to swoop in and try and save the day when something goes wrong—stop and consider the impact the “I care too much trap” is having on you and your performance, in the short- and the long-term. 

My Wharton executive ed student realized he was mentally and physically drained—and that doing others’ jobs for them was inhibiting their development. He was able to regulate his behavior while still being supportive of his team by taking on more of a mentor role. 

Another leader I know experienced a wake-up call when she compared her behavior with that of her managers’. “I realized I can’t care about results more than my boss does,” she said. That realization led her to check her own over-involvement and avoid overwork and exhaustion.

The over-engagement trap

This self-sabotage trap especially resonates with overachievers. I’ll be the first to raise my hand here, as I am all too familiar with the over-engagement trap—and how it can be so irresistible. Organizations love to have over-engagers on board, because they go out of their way to deliver, give, and achieve. 

This is great for the organization, of course, and over-engagers are often rewarded in the form of promotions, raises, and accolades. It can create a vicious cycle that in the end, leaves the over-engaged worker exhausted and on the fast track for burnout. 

These workers, like many overachievers who get caught in the over-engagement trap, are especially ripe for burnout. Back when I was an overachieving consultant, I was the poster girl for over-engagement. It was my first job and I was eager to prove myself, and I was also an inveterate people-pleaser. 

Suffice it to say that I became so invested in producing more, achieving more, and just plain old working more that I eventually found myself unhealthy and burned out, and had to take a leave of absence to recover fully. I’ll be sharing more of my personal story in future editions of A Monthly Dose of Burnout Prevention, so stay tuned! 

To get free of the over-engagement trap, tune in and become aware of your personal tipping point, and what triggers you to cross the line from engagement to over-engagement. Are there certain times of day or certain projects that cause you to over-engage? Is it certain people, such as your boss? 

Pay attention to when your happiness and feelings of efficacy at work start to become unhappiness, dissatisfaction, overwhelm, exhaustion, or the feeling that despite how hard you’re working, you’re not really moving the needle. Noticing your patterns of thinking and behavior can reveal where, why, and when your engagement levels become counterproductive.    

Self-awareness is key to freeing ourselves from any of the self-sabotage traps that are inhibiting our growth and undermining our wellbeing—and that put us on the fast track to burning out. 

To help determine if your work-related stress is escalating toward burnout, and for more tips on how to avoid burning out, try my Burnout Risk Assessment

Work can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be horrible. I’m here to help! 

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