Burnout and the Culture of Impossible Expectations

“No one knows this because it seems like I have it all together, but inside I’m dying.”

When you hear people’s deep dark secrets like I do as a therapist, you hear things like this frequently.

This is because basically every human I interact with is going through something similar: the profound pressure to do “the right thing” in every area of life, while making it look easy.

And expecting it to feel good.

It’s the promise and temptation of being one life hack, career goal, or achievement away from perfection.

You can be:

  • as slim as a nearly disembodied head with barely a body to hold it up
  • as productive as a super computer
  • as cool and interesting as a celebrity (and employ a staff to pull that off)

all while also having a loving relationship and friends.

And somehow you’re supposed to magically merge the completely impossible and superficial with something that also feels meaningful.

It’s a completely GARBAGE narrative. It’s just ridiculous.

But really who of us isn’t vulnerable?

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Competent, compassionate people can be the most vulnerable to burnout. The mental, emotional, and physical labor of our work is enormous.

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I certainly find myself wondering daily:

  • Why aren’t I better x, y, and z?”
  • Why can’t I meditate and go to the gym?
  • Why do my children act like wild animals?
  • Why don’t I have a variety of vegetable-based dishes ready for my allotted mealtimes?
  • Why can’t I run further, life heavier, and have the body of a professional athlete/model/superhero?


The reality is that I functioned on primary chocolate and cheese for most of last week. And on one recent occasion was given a “mom time out” where it was suggested I leave the house for an hour to calm down after being driven to the edge of sanity by small people who share half my DNA.

It’s rough out here.

And I totally get it. The sound-bites of impossible expectations are a real downer.

But you are not hearing voices, and it’s not really even your voice.

It’s the voice of our collective dysfunction, whispering at times, yelling at others, saying, “You have to prove your worth with every work assignment, social media post, outfit you wear, race you run, parenting interaction, home improvement project…and it should feel happy-go-lucky, easy peasy…for god’s sake don’t be negative…”

So yeah, maybe that kind of pressure is making us all die inside.

We are living in a dumpster fire of impossible expectations and wanting it to feel like paradise.


Thank goodness there is some discussion of this reality. We are tired, burnout out on work and the rest of life that increasingly feels like more work, but we are not alone.

  • Healthcare professionals and others made ZDoggMD’s video viral. It took on the topic of burnout in medicine and identifying it as moral injury.
  • Many feeling the grind of adulthood, shared the heck out of Anne Helen Petersen’s Buzzfeed article “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.”
  • Recently the podcast The Ezra Klein Show interviewed Petersen and Derek Thompson (who wrote a piece on “workism”) in an episode called “Work as identity, Burnout as Lifestyle.”

All this talk about burnout can be validating, but leaves us feeling completely disempowered. We are left scratching our heads, what do I do with this information?

That’s where I really do have some good news.

While it does take some profound re-learning, you can change your own relationship to work, expectations, and how you go about work and life in a healthier, clearer way.

How to beat burnout: The 5-step plan

There are five essential steps to beating burnout:

  1. Assess and take action now: What drains you and what’s an action step you can take now?
  2. Clarifying your roles and values: Focusing in on knowing your role and what you value (I call this your mission) in your work. In your own words, how do you describe your role and values?
  3. Defining your own success: How often are you trying to achieve something outside of your control? Be in charge of how you feel about yourself and your work.
  4. Boundaries: What boundaries do you need to focus on your roles and mission, and let go of wasteful drains on your energy?
  5. Rekindling joy: You got into this work for a reason. How can you make joy a priority on a daily basis?

Download the Beat Burnout Blueprint for questions and exercises to help you create an action plan for reclaiming your energy and loving your work again.

Are you prone to caring and giving so much that there is nothing left for yourself? Have you become exhausted by your job, sometimes to the point of daily dread? Is it difficult to figure out what to do, leaving you feeling powerless?

If you said yes to any of these, this workshop is likely the jumpstart you need.

Learn more about the Beat Burnout Bootcamp



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