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'We've Become Chronic People Pleasers': Central Texas Therapist On Recognizing And Reversing Burnout

Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT News
Getting out into nature and experiencing fresh air is one of the ways people can recharge after experiencing burnout. Central Texas neuropsychotherapist Junice Rockman says taking this and other steps can also help prevent burnout from setting in.

"A prolonged time of overextending ourselves to the point of mental, spiritual, emotional, physical and intellectual exhaustion."

For many, that might be a pretty good description of life in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic.

It's actually the definition of burnout, according to Central Texas neuropsychotherapist Junice Rockman

Rockman says burnoutcan be experienced individually or collectively. Although it’s often associated with work environments, we can also experience burnout in other settings, like within families or larger communities in a more "collective burnout." Burnout is more than just feeling tired or edgy.

"The problem becomes when we have overly packed ourselves for an extended period of time," Rockman said. "We've overridden that internal GPS that we all have and overridden those boundaries that perhaps we have or don't have."

Rockman said those boundaries that help keep burnout at bay are hard to establish and maintain. Some of her tips for setting them are:

  • Examine issues around attachment and dependency.
  • Don't wait until your at your wit's end to start setting boundaries.
  • Journal daily about intentions and expectations.
  • Understand that setting boundaries encourages others to do the same.

In addition to setting boundaries, Rockman said there are other ways to avoid and prevent burnout. We can:

  • "Unhook ourselves from the narrative" that we have to constantly push ourselves to achieve.
  • Treat compliments and criticism the same.
  • Be authentic and vulnerable.
  • Get outside in the fresh air and sunshine.
  • Recharge by taking a nap or calling a friend.

Listen to the interview below or read the transcript to hear more from Rockman about functioning in a society that supports and even rewards the very behaviors that actually lead to burnout.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT: What is the difference between just being overtired and burnout?

Neuropsychotherapist Junice Rockman: The problem becomes when we have overly packed ourselves for an extended period of time. In other words, we've overridden that internal GPS that we all have and overridden those boundaries that perhaps we have or don't have. So, now it's crossed a line to where something within ourselves and something within our way of doing things like our daily activities has to be realigned and reset to put us back on the right trajectory.

Is burnout a physical phenomenon, a psychological phenomenon, a mental health phenomenon or a combination of all of those?

I think that it's a combination of all of those. As a mental health clinician, though, I like to start from the top down, from the brain down. And I think that our thoughts and our beliefs impact not only how we see the world, but how we behave and then our physical body.

I think one of the things that we have to do is not only think about boundaries, but we have to figure out what those are. In pop culture we used to call it “FOMO” — fear of missing out. But there’s this idea that now we're expected to be omnipresent, everywhere, available at all times, omniscient with all the information ready, so if someone texts us or if they need to do a Zoom call or if they’re emailing us. And there are so many various platforms now to communicate, we're being inundated.

How can people learn to set those boundaries and be comfortable with setting those boundaries?

For most people, if you haven't been doing this boundary work, you probably are going to be very uncomfortable doing that. So, please expect that so that you don't think that you're doing something wrong.

We have become chronic people-pleasers. If we live our life walking on eggshells in the space of fear and scarcity and lack and what may not happen: for one, we have to look at our own attachment and dependency issues because a lot of times under stress those things are triggered. So, if we had any sort of self-worth issues or performance issues, or our identity’s caught up in how much we can achieve or please other people or be there for them, it’s going to be exaggerated during times of distress and especially during times like right now where our norm is no longer normal. We don't have those routines.

Please don't wait until the point where you feel like you're at a boiling point and then you fly off the handle at someone, because that's not an ideal time to express your boundaries, because now you're violating potentially their boundary by the way that you're communicating with them.

Take a little bit of time every day. Just journal a little bit and write out some of your intentions and what your expectations are for yourself. And then more often than not when I talk to people and they say that they’ve expressed boundaries to people, people usually say, “You know what? That's a good idea. Why didn't I think of that? I'm not going to be available from 12 to 2 either. I'm going to start taking that as a lunch. I'm going to start going outdoors and getting fresh air.” Your freedom to be able to care for yourself and to be honest about that, it gives someone else the permission to do the same, and it inspires them to do the same more often than not.

How can we navigate all of this in a society that doesn't seem to support the efforts you're describing but actually seems to encourage us to push ourselves in ways that that can lead to burnout?

For most people, you have been invited into a space or hired or interviewed, or part of your value is that you’re meant to help to bring the authenticity and the uniqueness of who you are. You're an original, not a copy. And, so, you can only be the best you that you can be.

We also have to kind of unhook ourselves from the narratives that we have to live up to these ideas. If someone wants to praise you for pulling an all-nighter studying or doing work, or someone wants to praise you for your efforts in a team meeting or on the floor selling or whatever it is, let them praise you for that. But treat compliments and criticism the same. And I'm saying it like it’s a simple thing to do. But I also want to acknowledge to you that that takes practice. Be yourself. Speak up for yourself. Be authentic.

I just hope that we can continue to shift from a performance-based society to a society that we embody and we embrace authenticity and vulnerability. And you know what’s really tough? Authenticity and vulnerability. That's actually great leadership to show that you don't have to know everything and be everywhere.

To me, the word burnout has this sort of finality to it, like something is burned out. That has a very permanent sound and feel to me. But can people recover from burnout?

In the same way that we can recharge our batteries when you see those cells getting low on your smart device, you can recharge your soul. You can recharge your mind. You can recharge your body, your central nervous system.

And it takes intention and living in it every day, especially I think at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day, if you can do something for yourself to reset.

Sometimes simple things like eco-therapy, like getting out into fresh air, sunlight, putting your feet in the soil, making sure you stay hydrated. Taking a power nap or calling a friend. Those are all small things that we can do to recharge.

Burnout is not a life sentence. It's not finality. If you become self-aware enough, you can actually start to prevent it. You can start to feel it coming on. “Let me set a boundary for myself now so that I don't have to go to the point of burnout to be my indicator to reset or recharge, that I can make it a lifestyle and not just an event.”

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Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @jenstayton.
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