How Burnout Hijacks Your Identity

Feb 22, 2024

Burnout takes its toll in so many ways, and perhaps the most insidious is the way it can hijack your identity.

So often, when my clients articulate their experience of the stressors in their work, they jump from describing what’s happening in the environment directly to a judgment of themselves.


  • A physician, relating the overwhelming demands of his last shift, ends with: “I feel like I’m a bad doctor.”


  • A therapist, describing the needs and pain of her clients and her depleted reserves of compassion for them, shifts to: “I’m a monster because I don’t feel anything anymore.”


  • A leader outlines the multiple demands of a disrupted workplace, and in the next beat, concludes: “I’m ineffective.”


In all of these situations, a completely natural thought error is occurring.  Our human brains, often triggered into survival mode, are constantly seeking information about our place in the world and our mastery of our environment.  When circumstances feel out of control, it’s a reflex for us to make it mean something about ourselves.   Your brain jumps back and forth from a story about your circumstances to a story about you, and before long, the two separate and distinct entities become one.

This is so important because the story you tell yourself, about yourself, is your identity.

It’s the story of who you believe yourself to be: your strengths, your unique abilities, the standards you hold for yourself.  We often relegate identity formation to youth and early adulthood, but identity continues to evolve and develop all throughout our lives.

Your identity is the platform, the springboard for how you show up in your life – for your relationships, your roles, your work, yourself.    Nothing could be more worthy of your deliberate attention and creation, as opposed to absorbing it, by default, from your environment.

You are not the situation.  You are an individual navigating a [fill in the blank] situation.

Burnout is a stress injury, caused by stressors in the environment at such volume and acuity that they aren’t being successfully managed.  Burnout isn’t who you are.

You are not your circumstances.  Making this distinction is so important and it’s the first step in liberating yourself from burnout and keeping it at bay.

If this post resonates with you, I can help. Message me in the form below, and we can book a quick call to get started.



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