Avoiding Burnout – How Setting Boundaries Will Help

avoiding burnout

“If you listen to your body when it whispers, you won’t have to hear it scream.” Dan Millman

What is burnout? And what is the difference between stress and burnout?

Stress is a case of too much while burnout is a case of not enough, according to this excellent article. Stress is “characterized by over-engagement”; burnout is “characterized by disengagement.”

We all know what stress feels like: too many pressures, too much responsibility, too many demands on our time and resources, leaving us over-reactive, anxious, and physically exhausted. Unrelenting stress can lead to burnout.

Burnout is having nothing left in the tank. Someone who has burned out is mentally and emotionally exhausted. Feeling helpless and hopeless, they lose motivation and become detached. Burnout can lead to depression.

How do we prevent burnout? Or if we are already there, how do we turn things around? In this blog post, I will cover some basics but for a more thorough discussion, check out that article I referred to above.

First, it’s important to recognize the situation for what it is, and where it could lead. There’s no sense in persevering in the hope that things will all work out eventually. Trying harder will only get us there faster. We need to take a good, hard, honest look at what we’re doing. Then we need to readjust our course by taking some kind of action.

Hello, boundaries!

Healthy boundaries prevent us from overextending ourselves in the first place. But even if we are already well along the road to burnout, setting up boundaries can change the status quo, bring balance, and build resilience.

Healthy boundaries are not just saying no. They also define how we will show up for others and how we allow others to show up for us.

There are many causes of burnout, but I’ve chosen to discuss just three of them – probably because I have so much first-hand experience with them. (If you’ve read my earlier blog posts you will know that I have burned out… more than once.) And let’s see how setting boundaries helps.

The Big Three (aka MY Big Three)

1. Trying to please/help everyone

People-pleasing pleases no one in the end. Trying to be there for everyone is exhausting, which feeds an undercurrent of resentment and frustration.

Sometimes you don’t realize you’re actually drowning when you are trying to be everyone else’s anchor. Pinterest

The reality is that for some people we are trying to help, too much is never enough. No matter how much we give, they will not be satisfied. When I read somewhere that you cannot please an unhappy person, I felt like shackles fell off my feet. I had turned myself inside out for someone in my life but I now realized that nothing I did was ever going to please that person. I gave myself permission to throttle back. It is said that less is more and in this case it was. The relationship improved significantly.

“I started dividing my to-do list into 1) things I have to do, 2) things I want to do, and 3) things other people want me to do. Life changing! I often don’t get to #3 and I finally realized… this is what it means to have boundaries.” Jenée Desmond-Harris

It’s easy to think, “But this person really needs my help. I can’t say no.” Here is an enlightening perspective from therapist and author Nedra Tawwab:

“Rescuing people from natural consequences might delay them from learning a valuable lesson. People learn from mistakes, and if they aren’t allowed to make any, they might not learn critical problem-solving skills. Allowing people to experience what they need to is a beautiful way for you to do less work and for them to have an opportunity to learn what’s required.”

Nedra suggests this personal boundary: “I can support people in ways that don’t require me to save them.”

2. Trying to do it all

Many of us are trying to keep a lot of balls in the air. Social media does nothing to help, with its carefully curated collections of people who appear to have it all together. It is easy to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others and as a result, we can feel diminished or inadequate. Comparisons are the thief of contentment. Set a boundary for yourself and unfollow accounts that negatively affect you.

Most of the resources I used for this article recommend asking for help when we have too much on our plate. Perhaps we believe that everyone expects us to do it all, when in reality they may simply not know that we need help. Humans are not mind-readers. We may be surprised by how willing others are to help when we make a simple, polite request.

Boundary suggestion: allow yourself to communicate your needs to others.

And when help is offered, we need to accept it! (Unless, of course, it is inadvisable.) This is where I so often come unstuck. The need to ask for or accept help feels like an admission that I can’t manage my responsibilities. And that feels like failure. My work-in-progress boundary for this one: failure is my perception, not the reality. Stick with realities. No one can do it all, all the time, and come out unscathed.

Boundary suggestion: allow others to show up for you.

Here’s another important boundary to prevent or turn around burnout: show up for yourself. It’s crucial to make time to take care of our physical, emotional, and mental health. For some suggestions, read Why Play Matters. 

avoiding burnout, anxiety, perfectionism

3. Trying to do it perfectly

In a society obsessed with overachievement, perfectionism is like a badge of honour. On the other hand, Terri Cole, author of Boundary Boss, calls perfectionism a “deeply debilitating problem” and says there is an “immense cost of living by the rigid, fearful code of Only if I do it all and do it right will I be happy, worthy, and lovable.”

Perfectionism is just unrealistic expectations in designer clothes. Striving to reach impossibly high standards creates a relentless cycle of stress and makes perfectionists and overachievers prime candidates for burnout.

It helps to recognize where our need to be perfect comes from. For some, being perfect or over-achieving is closely related to being worthy and lovable. It frequently finds its roots in early life: the coping strategy of a child in chaotic, traumatic, or neglectful circumstances. (If this resonates with you, you may find it helpful to talk about it to someone compassionate or a professional therapist.)

As mentioned above, boundaries define how we allow others to show up for us. When we gratefully and graciously allow people to help us, we begin to sense their love for us for who we are, not for what we achieve.

Boundary suggestion: allow others to love us and accept that we are worthy of love.

When others do extend their help, allow them to assist in their own way. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, so the saying goes. We might prefer that it be skinned our way but we need to resist the urge to control the assistance. Let go and allow the other person’s ingenuity to shine.

Remember this: setting boundaries is messy and sometimes awkward. Progress is not a tidy, linear thing, but don’t let that deter you. Progress is progress; keep going.

And finally…

Why does it feel so hard to set boundaries? Because there is no way to set them without some kind of discomfort… usually guilt and fear of change. However, avoiding the discomfort of setting boundaries simply prolongs the pain of living without them, of living with disappointment, frustration, resentment, dread, anger, low self-worth, exhaustion, and the very real risk of burnout.

Feeling uncomfortable when setting boundaries is simply part of the process; it doesn’t mean that we are bad or that we are doing something wrong. On the contrary, healthy boundaries are necessary: for others, for ourselves, and for setting realistic expectations. 

And realistic expectations don’t lead to stress … or burnout.

Photo by Tangerine Newt on Unsplash



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