Posted in focus on faith

Why am I burnt out? (what’s the cause?)

Asking why you are burnt out and looking for an answer that makes you feel better–or less guilty–is like trying to find a logical answer for clinical depression. There isn’t one.

I know people who have been diagnosed with depression and they (or their significant others) are dismayed because there seems to be no good reason. In other words, they have a good life (others live in war zones); they have plenty of resources (others spend their days searching for enough food to assuage their constant hunger); they are happily married with well-adjusted children (others have an abusive spouse or are single parents working two jobs) and so on. From the outside looking in, it can be baffling and frustrating to have a diagnosis of depression or burnout when it appears you are already living the “good life.”

img_4591And such is my case. I have a very good life. In every way. I lack nothing. I am surrounded by love and support and grandchildren! So I must confess I was amazed, but mostly embarrassed, at the amount of sympathy and support I recieved via comments, texts, emails, FB, and phone calls after writing  about my burnout.

I was embarrassed partly because I have several friends who have real problems — breast cancer, wayward children, a failing marriage, spiritual wilderness, poverty, poor health–and suddenly I am hearing from people who say they love me, support me and will pray for me. I want to shout, NO, pray for all these others who really need it!

My surprise at the outpouring of support rattled me so much I doubted and downplayed and denied the burnout. “I’m not that bad! Am I?”

So I reread this:

The American Psychological Association’s David Ballard, PsyD describes job burnout as “an extended period of time where someone experiences exhaustion and a lack of interest in things, resulting in a decline in their job performance.”

And I had to admit, that seems true in my life.

“A lot of burnout really has to do with experiencing chronic stress,” says Dr. Ballard, who is the head of the APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program. “In those situations, the demands being placed on you exceed the resources you have available to deal with the stressors.”

My “chronic stress” is probably a combination of genetic makeup (anxiety and panic disorder, crippling fear), recent experiences (losses and crises in our family), personal drive (how hard can it be?), and Christian ministry (if you are in it, you don’t need me to explain).

The section that applies directly to me–and to everyone in burnout–is this: “the demands being placed on you exceed the resources you have available to deal with the stressors.” Everyone has resources: emotional, spiritual, physical, financial, cultural…. And sometimes we come up short. We run out. We have nothing left. But we don’t quit.

According to Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D. in High Octane Women,  burnout is one of those road hazards in life that high-achievers really should be keeping a close eye out for, but sadly—often because of their “I can do everything” personalities—they rarely see it coming. 

And from another source, What is Burnout?

Two important definitions of burnout are:

“A state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations.” – Ayala Pines and Elliot Aronson.

“A state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.” – Herbert J. Freudenberger.

Between them, these definitions embrace the essence of burnout, with the first stressing the part that exhaustion plays in it, and the second focusing on the sense of disillusionment that is at its core.

Anyone can become exhausted. What is so poignant about burnout is that it mainly strikes people who are highly committed to their work: You can only “burn out” if you have been “alight” in the first place.

While exhaustion can be overcome with rest, a core part of burnout is a deep sense of disillusionment, and it is not experienced by people who can take a more cynical view of their work.

This last statement holds the key to why I meet so many people in ministry who are in various stages of burnout. They are “alight”–passionate for their faith and desirous of imparting that faith to others. They are committed–they dedicate their entire lives to serving God and others. They cannot and do not “take a more cynical view of their work” so they inevitably deal with disillusionment because they minister to people and people’s lives are messy!

What causes burnout? All the things we want our children to grow up to do and be: Hard working. Dedicated. Zealous. Committed. Passionate. In short, our North American values.

Burnout can happen to anyone. There is nothing to be ashamed of–even though we do feel ashamed. I do. It is not some kind of failure, it is simply a reality like getting a bruise when you whack your shin on the open dishwasher. It happens because you’re moving and you own a dishwasher.

Burnout happens because we care, we try hard, and we don’t give up. Fortunately, because of those same three things, we can find ways to get though our burnout and help others along the way to recognize it, avoid it, or become better because of it.

Stay tuned, my next blog is: what do I do if I’m burnt out? I value your input so dive in…





Christian writer and speaker trying to follow God one yes at a time.

4 thoughts on “Why am I burnt out? (what’s the cause?)

  1. The guilt of not being the super women we thought we could be gets us every time. When our loved ones experience problems, we often shoulder false guilt. When we’re tempted to ask, “Why God?”, we feel guilty, blaming ourselves for insufficient faith. In my experience false guilt leads to burnout because you are grappling with it while trying to keep your mask on in front of the world. Taking the mask off and admitting the problem is the first step on the road to recovery. By blogging about it, you’ve taken that first step. Keep going, we’ll be waving flags at the finish line.


    1. Well said Andi. You are right, its not just our jobs but our real lives as parents and spouses and believers that contribute to burnout as we add false guilt to the mix. False guilt becomes a chronic stressor on top of other stressors. My sister Margy told me it was ok for me to take off the leotard and cape. Truth wrapped in humour!


    1. Hi Shannon. Since you are a good chum, i know we can talk face to face about this. But for the benefit of readers on the blog, I will give you a short answer here. Burnout comes slowly over time and the cure may also take some time. If you are able to make small changes in terms of reducing stress and increasing rest, then that’s the direction you want to go. That means you need to figure out (if you can pinpoint it) the cause of your stress and start there. (People who are burned out seldom think clearly so I suggest you get some help in thinking it through.) Don’t “sell the farm, toss out the old man and run off to India to join an ashram” — think small changes! Another thing to note is that there are often multiple causes of stress so you might want to look for one that has some wiggle room for change and leave the rest until a later date. Also, you need to determine what “rest” looks like for you and see how you can add more of that to your life. Rest might be sleep or downtime or weekend getaway or galloping into the sunset! Sometimes the only changes we can make are attitudinal — for example: if you can’t quit the job, look for small ways to change the job and start a gratitude journal about the job so your thinking gradually changes. Little five-degree changes Shannon. It also wouldn’t hurt to spend some time researching burnout (Internet, library, your doctor) and see what others have to say. Ask God to guide your search and I pray He will lead you into wellness.


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