Is Self-Sabotage Raising Your Risk of Burnout? 

August 2022

Last month I introduced A Monthly Dose of Burnout Prevention – a newsletter for busy, purpose-driven leaders like you who want to make a big impact but avoid self-sacrifice and burnout while doing so. 

Through my research and work with coaching clients, I’ve found a number of ways we create or amplify stress for ourselves. There’s so much to say about this topic that it deserves a series of pieces rather than just one newsletter. Last month we covered three traps – the unrealistic expectations trapthe excessive need for control trap, and the hero trap. If you missed it, don’t worry! You can get all the goods here. This issue is part 2 of a 3-part series on self-sabotage traps that put us at risk of burnout.

Before we dive in, I want you to meet Alex –  an ambitious overachiever who’s developed a reputation as the company’s go-to problem solver. He says yes to everything and when a big deliverable is due, doesn’t hesitate to work nights and weekends in order to make sure everything is flawless. His performance hasn’t gone unnoticed, either. He’s been rewarded with leadership roles and generous bonuses, and his managers often laud his flexibility, creativity, and diligence. 

Despite his promotions and consistently good performance reviews, however, Alex can’t shake the feeling that he’s still not doing enough. Each time he’s assigned to a new project or a new team, his negative self-talk escalates. This will be the time I blow it, he thinks. It’s just a matter of time before they realize I’m in over my head.

Like many, Alex responds to his feelings of insecurity and fraudulence by working even harder and achieving even more. Soon, he’s stuck in a vicious cycle of three self-sabotage traps that are constantly feeding into each other, and leaving him mentally and physically exhausted: the overly adaptable trapthe perfectionist trap, and the imposter syndrome trap

Individually, each one of these can be super stressful. Collectively, they can crush your career (and not in a good way, if you catch my drift).

 

The overly adaptable trap

 

Being adaptable and embracing change can be good for you and your career — that is, until you overextend yourself. This is a common trap for so-called people-pleasers, who are driven by the urge to gain others’ approval or to fulfill what they perceive to be others’ expectations of them. Alex was skilled at adapting quickly to new assignments and new roles, and the positive attention he received felt great. But only for a little while. As the external validation faded his insecurities grew, so he redoubled his efforts to please his managers and receive the affirmation he craves. 

If you can relate to Alex, ask yourself, Is my extreme adaptability coming from a desire to please other people? If the answer is “yes,” be aware that compliance comes at a cost. Your flexibility may be a superpower in some instances, but it becomes a liability if you sacrifice your own well-being simply to please others.

If you have a habit of saying “yes” to every new request because you like to make others happy, try saying “no” more often (easier said than done, I know). Start with low-stakes projects, and practice delegating. Try to set better boundaries to protect your recharge time and be clear with both yourself and your manager about when you are and are not willing to work.

 

The perfectionist trap

 

“Perfection is the enemy of progress.” This quote, often attributed to Winston Churchill, reminds us that becoming overly attached to an ideal of perfection actually impedes progress. But perfection may well be the enemy of our overall wellness, too. Setting high standards for ourselves is an important part of success. Problems start to surface, however, when those standards become unattainable or when we expect too much of ourselves—in work or any other part of our lives. Alex’s attempts to create and deliver “flawless” work products were a response to the (very natural) insecurity he felt when facing a new task or working with a new team. 

If you find yourself in the perfectionist trap, ask yourself, How can I get things done without the heavy burden of it having to be perfect? Reach out to a trusted advisor and run your goals by them: Are they realistic? Then, remember to be kind and forgiving to yourself. It’s a natural reaction to be hard on ourselves when we realize that we’re getting in our own way on the path to wellness or progress. Forget the self-blame; it’s only going to make you feel worse and slow you down.

 

The imposter syndrome trap

 

Starting a new role, getting a promotion, or taking on a new project can trigger the all-too-common feelings of inadequacy and fraudulence that accompany imposter syndrome. We put extra pressure on ourselves when we compare ourselves to others or when we feel underqualified for our job. When paired with the perfectionist trap, people suffering from imposter syndrome run a substantially higher risk of overworking, just as we saw with Alex.

Breaking free from this trap starts with recognizing your feelings of inadequacy and then reframing your self-talk. This may require some practice, so be sure to approach the task with self-compassion. Research has found that self-compassion is a far more effective motivator than self-criticism, and it inspires intrinsic motivation to achieve, rather than a desire to people-please. 

If you have trouble coming up with positive self-talk, try imagining what you’d say to a loved one. Alex, for example, pictured his brother, and then it was easy to answer his imposter feelings with compassionate, true statements: “Your performance reviews have been consistently good—your success isn’t a fluke.” “You can trust in your own capabilities.” From there it was a short intellectual leap to directing these statements to himself. Ultimately, Alex came up with a powerful and self-compassionate mantra going forward: “I’m learning to see myself as others do.” 

Self-sabotage traps can block us from our goals and increase our risk of burnout—and the risk is all the greater when two or more of these traps have us ensnared. I hope you’ll continue to use your self-awareness to pay close attention to your thoughts and feelings and how they may be amplifying your stress or escalating your risk of burnout. I invite you to try out my new Burnout Risk Assessment to see if you are on the fast track to burning out. And, as always, I would love to hear your results, stories and comments via email.

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


(Originally published on August 31, 2022. Click here to receive emails straight to your inbox!)

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

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Writing by Dr. Kandi Wiens

Dr. Kandi Wiens

I am a researcher, speaker, executive coach, and leadership development facilitator. I’m also a Senior Fellow at The University of Pennsylvania, where I teach in the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program, the Penn Master’s in Medical Education Program, and Wharton Executive Education. All of my work is deeply rooted in the latest positive psychology, emotional intelligence, and mindset research.

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