Burnout and Control: How Letting Go Can Help Us Move from Surviving to Thriving

Burnout. It’s everywhere–and finally, in almost 2020–we’re moving beyond simply talking about burnout to actually doing something about it. According to a 2018 survey by Gallup, about two-thirds of Americans feel burned out. And it’s not just “in our heads.” Burnout is real, devastating, and downright sneaky. One day you feel “fine,” but then like a frog being slowly boiled in a pot, you suddenly realize that you’re absolutely cooked. Burnout has been defined as physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion, caused by long-term involvement in emotionally demanding situations.* But my favorite burnout definition thus far is this:

“Burnout is the index of the dislocation between what people are and what they have to do. It represents an erosion in value, dignity, spirit, and will, an erosion of the human soul. It is a malady that spreads gradually and continuously over time, putting people into a downward spiral from which it’s hard to recover.” –Maslach and Leiter, 1997

My Blind Date with Burnout

stressed-woman-at-her-deskBurnout entered in my life like bad blind date in 2006. I had long dealt with (and more-or-less effectively managed) chronic depression since childhood, but in 2006, I started experiencing something similar to depression, but somehow different. Day-to-day, I was unable to be fully present, deeply engage, or feel authentically good. My physical, emotional and behavioral health was rapidly deteriorating, impacting both my personal and professional life. The worst part? Feeling so damned guilty for feeling that way. Afterall, I had a lot to be grateful for: a loving family, a successful purpose-driven career, healthy social connections, financial fitness, three dogs, a gourmet kitchen (seriously, it was a great kitchen). My life checklist quite frankly looked pretty fabulous. No wonder why I was simultaneously mystified and terrified.

Today, after thirteen years of researching the linkages between stress, burnout, happiness, wellbeing, and performance, I now understand that at that time, I was suffering from complete and utter burnout. Why? A variety of reasons likely contributed to my burnout, including my father’s long-standing struggle with Parkinson’s, the sudden death of my dear friend, serial entrepreneurship, a difficult labor and delivery, and more. But if I’m honest with myself and you, I can say that the greatest burnout contributor of all was my “Be it all, do it all, have it all,” belief system.

Burnout Brain – How Our Beliefs Shape Our Propensity for Burnout

At the tender age of thirteen, an Enjoli perfume television commercial forever burned itself into my psyche. The scene: a glamorous, confident, Lauren Hutton-esque woman with sky-high cheekbones singing, “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never ever ever let you forget you’re a man. ‘Cause I’m a woman!” Tagline: “The 8-hour perfume for your 24-hour woman. Enjoli.” Finally, I’d knew what I wanted to be when I grew up—the perfect, be it all, do it all, have it all woman. It became my internal mantra throughout high school, college, work, marriage, and child-rearing. I was SUPERWOMAN, or at least that’s what I thought I should be to be worthy or loved. Unfortunately, over time, this programming turned me into a “human doing” instead of a “human being,” and I naturally grew cynical, exhausted, and ineffective because of this self-punishing, unrealistic narrative. In case you missed it, here’s the Enjoli commercial that helped to wire my brain for burnout.

The Road to Recovery

Instead of “healing from burnout,” I set out (with an amazing team) to achieve a more aspirational goal: to experience happiness and make it last. First off, we set out to align on a definition of happiness that was practical and intuitively true. We quickly realized that authentic happiness wasn’t “manufactured,” constant positivity. Nor was it externally driven by the next vacation, promotion, weight loss, etc. And it wasn’t until we talked with children under the age of ten that we were able to agree on definition of happiness that actually made sense:

“Happiness is your innate ability to locate and cultivate serenity and excitement about your life regardless of outside forces.” -Experience Happiness

No doubt, adopting this definition of happiness changed my life for the better. It helped me remember that happiness is a birthright which exists in all of us, and that disruptive life experiences are inevitable, but not capable of diminishing my innate wellbeing unless I give them the power to do so. Somehow, knowing that happiness is an “inside job” radically changed how I dealt with disruption and continues to keep me on a more even keel when it occurs.

Beating Burnout Brain: Releasing Control to be Empowered

Adopting a practical, innate definition of happiness was an important first step toward recovering from its opposite: burnout. But fully recovering from burnout and cultivating happiness required me do deeper work: releasing control to be empowered.

I recognized that my perfectionistic, controlling “be it all, do it all, have it all,” belief system (thank you, Enjoli) had helped to build my “burnout brain” while making me a “Happiness Hostage”—a person whose happiness is contingent upon outside forces (people, events, things) being a particular way. Not surprisingly, our research demonstrated that I wasn’t the only happiness hostage—as there’s a happiness hostage living inside most of us.

3 Steps for Releasing Control to be Empowered:

Step I. Understand the Destructive Nature of Control Itself

When we engage in “control,” we’re essentially doing one of two things:

  1. Attempting to manipulate the behaviors or decisions of others without their consent, or
  2. Demanding that situations (events, circumstances, etc.) turn out in particular ways.

Not surprisingly, the desire to control people and situations is largely born out of our feelings of fear and insecurity. Very few of us enjoy being controlled, and our attempts to do so only create feelings frustration, anger, and resentment capable of damaging relationships.

Once we understand the unhealthy control dynamic, we can more easily tap into motivation to mindfully shift into its opposite—empowerment. Empowerment is the process of increasing the capacity of self and others to make choices that work on more levels. Empowering communication is grounded in the sincere intent to be respectful, trusting, clear, open to possibilities, and willing to let go. 

Step II. Release Control to Be Empowered (A.C.E.)

  1. Assess: Who or what are you trying to control? What’s the impact on your life and theirs? What do you really want? Why?
  2. Invite: Identify what you want. Clarify your requests. Share your request(s) of others in compassionate, clean, and forwarding ways. Invite instead of demand.
  3. Release: Celebrate that you’ve done your best. Try not to attach your happiness to outcomes. See what happens next. If a door closes, a window will open. Let go.

Part III. Embrace the Benefits of Releasing Control to be Empowered

  • More Energy & Less Anxiety: Releasing the illusion that we can control events, or the beliefs and behaviors of others helps to reduce anxiety, frustration, and exhaustion, while deepening innate serenity and excitement.
  • Increased Creativity: Releasing control frees us from our ego’s rigid rules about the way things “should be” and allows us to explore how things “could be.” This flexibility helps us to bend, but not break—increasing our creativity and capacity to enjoy the moment, and to perhaps even welcome what’s next.
  • Greater Happiness: Mindfully releasing control in favor of empowerment diminishes our sense of struggle, while amplifying happiness, resilience, and innovation.

Celebrate the Journey

Releasing control to be empowered is a courageous step toward healing from burnout, cultivating greater happiness, and modeling behavior that invites others to do the same. Releasing control isn’t necessarily easy, but trust me, the journey is worth it. Most importantly, my fellow perfectionist control-freaks, remember to be kind to yourselves, for you cannot pour from an empty cup. Learn to take care of yourselves well so you can take care of others well. Oh, and don’t listen to dumb commercials.

Linda Saggau

Linda Saggau

Linda Saggau is Co-Founder of Experience Happiness, a behavioral health and performance company dedicated to helping people and organizations thrive through happiness by measurably reducing stress and burnout while improving comprehensive wellbeing and performance. Please assess your personal burnout and happiness levels by taking the 100% confidential assessment here: http://www.experiencehappiness.biz

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