The Impact of Burnout on Self-image: Seeing More than Our Jobs in the Mirror

After a full-productive day of conquering meetings, slaying deadlines, or even after a good run, it’s normal to feel accomplished, elevated, or even good about oneself. There’s nothing wrong with valuing a good performance, feeling smart, feeling capable, or even being told “good job.” However, the lengths we’ll go to receive this feeling or commendation can present problems for our mental health, especially upon working in an environment that venerates utility, productivity, and output above all else. As humans clearly cannot be robots, it comes as no surprise that routines and environments like this can lead to burnout. When we push ourselves towards being cyborg-like, our mental health begins to catch fire. Thus, how can we maintain productivity whilst keeping our humanity? How do we maintain the ability to see ourselves apart from work, productivity, and apart from being of use to others? In this blog, we’re going to talk about the definition of burnout, it’s impact on our self-image, and ways we can mitigate this effect.

Burnout refers to “emotional exhaustion in response to prolonged stress.” Typically, there three sings of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy (i.e feeling like “I can’t do this, and does it even matter?”). These feelings of inefficacy may lead to depersonalization as a “negative response to your job and others around you (Marks, MD, 2019).” “Depersonalization disorder is defined in the DSM-IVTR by a single symptom: “persistent or recurrent experiences of feeling detached from, and as if one is an outside observer of one's mental processes or body (e.g., feeling as if one is unreal or in a dream)." “The Cambridge Depersonalization Scale yields five factors: numbing, the unreality of self, perceptual alterations, unreality of surroundings, and temporal disintegration (Simeon;Kozin;Segal, 2008). 

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“Temporal disintegration is the phenomenon in which individuals are unable to organize and retain information relating to the passage of time (Ackerman, M.A Psy, 2021).” For example, temporal disintegration may have you feeling like you’re really not sure what day it is, and it may give you moments at work like - “that deadline was today!? I could have sworn they needed it by Tuesday… (looks at the date in the corner of computer)...It is Tuesday…”

Dr. Ruth Odgens from England Liverpool’s John Moores Univesity tells us that things like this happen “because our sense of time is governed in part by the emotions that we experience and the actions we perform."So, feeling like “what’s the point?” can lead to just going through the motions at work, unreality, and a “reduced since of personal success (Marks, MD, 2019).” Furthermore, burnout is acute (situational) rather than chronic. So, although burnout can progress into depression, the sense of exhaustion, dissatisfaction, stress, or (in extreme cases) worthlessness are closely connected to the stress (Marks, MD, 2019). 

Keep in mind though - you don’t have to be a perfectionist or a top performer to burn out, and this way of thinking can be really invalidating towards our feelings and ultimately our humanity. The American Psychological Associate defines perfectionism as “the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, excess of what is required by the situation.” However, as mentioned before, people like this are not the only people “deserving of burnout.” In today’s hustle culture, there is this aggressive expectation for people to triumph over burnout and to virtually use the numbness it brings to one’s own advantage. More simply, it’s possible to use feeling detached, emotionlessness, numb, robotic, and stressed to just feed our adrenaline and keep working. Just look at some of the most popular start-up narratives.

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This should not be the expectation.

For some, it may be easier to move forward and excel upon feeling less. However, what does that mean for our self-image?Self-image is how you perceive yourself. It is a number of self-impressions that have built up over time. When we look at ourselves, do we see our jobs? Are all of our self-impressions coming from the workplace (Ackerman, MA Psy, 2021)? If these impressions are good, self-esteem can be preserved, but what if they’re not always good? 

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At any rate, it’s important to find out what you like, what you enjoy in life, and what you’re truly passionate about outside of work. Yes, it’s okay for these things to overlap, but for example, you should be able to feel beautiful or feel handsome, and worthy even if you didn’t get as much done as you’d hoped today. At the end of the day, we’re human. We need things like meditation, snacks, skincare routine, satisfying food, and precious moments that are not about output. 

Remember to prioritize sleep and the ability to let things go. Take just a few minutes to ground yourself and have experiences unrelated to productivity - ones that make you happy. If you’re on vacation - go on vacation! If you’re out of office - be out of office! Don’t just go on vacation for the sake of being able to say you went on vacation. For the moment, let go. Focus on producing happiness, new memories, and bringing forth your authentic, beautiful self. 

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APA Dictionary of Pyschology. 2022.

Ackerman, Courtney M.A. “What is Self-image and How do We Improve it?” Positive Psychology. June 2021. 

D. Degroot; Odgden, Ruth. “What Day is It? Here’s Why We May Lose Our Sense of Time during the Pandemic.” Our Community Now. April 2020.

Marks, Tracey MD. “Burnout Vs. Depression. How to Tell the Difference.” 2019

Simeon, Daphne; Kozin, David Stephen ; Segal, Karina: Lurch, Brena; Dujour, Roxanne; Giesbrecht, Timo. “Deconstructing Depersonalization: Further Evidence for Symptom Clusters. Department of Pyschiatry, Mount Sinai. Science Direct. 2008.