How I burned out: A cautionary tale

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As I write this, I am currently experiencing my second major burn out.

The first happened about 12 years ago when I was working in Department of Corrections. At the time, it was attributed to “vicarious trauma” — the suffering that comes from working with criminal offenders and knowing the horrible things that they’ve done.

It was a plausible explanation from my therapist, and I had been having nightmares about gang members hunting me down, so I figured that was the problem.


It overlooked the fact that I’ve struggled with stress my entire life, moreso than the average person. You wouldn’t think it to look at me, but I’m often running a high stress level.

For most of my life, I self-medicated to deal with this, bingeing on movies and alcohol and porn, and later becoming essentially a cannabis addict. So while managing criminal offenders was difficult and emotional challenging, it’s much more likely that the first burn out was the result of a longer term issue.

Now that I’ve yet again been burned out, I can yet again easily explain it with current life circumstances. Our first child was born just over 2 years ago, and I basically haven’t slept since then. Combine this with nearly zero grandparent or babysitting or daycare support, and it’s been a tough couple of years. I have no doubt that these are relevant factors.


It wasn’t little Chloe that was stressing me out. As far as toddlers go, she’s an angel. And I spent most of my early life with severely chronic insomnia due to my anxiety issues, so not sleeping is an old friend of mine.

I could attribute it to my wife’s chronic health issues since the birth, including serious injuries and illnesses, but again she’s had these before the birth too.

No, something else is going on here.

The plain-as-day fact of the matter is that I’m a high stress person. If I keep blaming my current struggles for my burning out, I’m overlooking the common denominator over my lifetime: me.

It’s something deeper about the way I look at life. About the way I respond to things “going wrong”. About the pressure I put on myself.

The other day, my wife said to me yet again that I was “being too hard” on myself. This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve received this feedback.

Some people are “victims” and blame the external world for their issues. While I’ve certainly been guilty of that from time to time, my much more recividivist crime is to blame myself for external issues!

If Lucie’s suffering, it’s because I’m not doing enough as a husband. If Chloe’s crying, it’s because I didn’t anticipate her needs. If my business is slow, it’s because I’m not working hard enough. If my weight goes up, it’s because I’m not disciplined enough. If there are no parking spaces available, it’s because I didn’t arrive early enough.

This is what’s known as “an internal locus of control”. It’s so obvious when somebody other than me has this problem.

As a child, I suffered some sort of trauma that led me to the conclusion that it’s my job to ensure nothing bad ever happens, and that if bad things happen then I’ve failed at my job.

It would appear that I’m yet to fully grow out of this.

I carry an unbearable weight on my shoulders. While people praise me often for my conscientiousness and helpfulness and responsibility-taking, the truth is that there’s a dark side to my “resilience” and work ethic.

I think it’s my job to do everything and control everything and cause good things to happen constantly. And even when I see that I’m doing this and know that it’s wrong, I respond by punishing myself even further for knowing it’s wrong and yet still doing it.

I refuse to blame externally, even when it’s not my fault. This is as much a fault as not taking the blame when it’s mine to take.

I’ve certainly felt it over the last couple of years. Every day I wake up feeling hypervigilant, sensing that I need to be on top of everything and protecting everybody. I set goals that basically amount to perfectly controlling all elements of not only my life but the lives of my loved ones too.

As I write about this, I can feel how ridiculously unreasonable it all is.

I’ve read before that people who were traumatised in childhood for not being “good enough” take it upon themselves to become so ragingly independent that they do not accept support and help, and do not allow others to take the blame for anything. That rings true for me. I’ll reject the same kind of help that I offer others.

I struggle to accept help because in the past — when I’ve experimented with doing so — I’ve been disappointed and even hurt. My brain tells me it’s better that I just handle it all on my own.

And my empathy is such that I can’t allow my wife or daughter to “suffer”, even when it’s got nothing to do with me and it’s just a natural reaction to normal life circumstances.

On a meta-level, it’s interesting to watch me try to take responsibility for this burn out in the exact same self-blaming way I caused myself to burn out in the first place. It might not be the most helpful approach.

Maybe I need to be thinking more about forgiveness and compassion than blame and responsibility. Maybe this isn’t something that needs to be fixed as much as it’s something I need to recover from.

I’m not writing this to help anyone. I’m writing it more for me, and sharing it just to be shameless. I’m not even going to read over it or edit it. Hitting publish now.

Thanks for reading.

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