Adopting This One Simple Phrase Can Prevent 'High Achiever Burnout,' According to Career Counselors
The burnout has been real these last few years. A pandemic, inflation, mandatory office returns, looming recession and layoffs galore have left people feeling stressed to the max. Statistics and headlines confirm: increasing burnout is a worldwide phenomenon.
But there's a type of burnout that career counselors are particularly concerned about: high achiever burnout.
"High achievers tend to have a big pain tolerance, strong work ethic and high standard for their life and work—but no one escapes being human," says Iona Holloway, a coach specializing in burnout and founder of the breathwork app Soul.
Experts like Holloway share that the scary part is that high achievers often don't realize they are burning out until it's too late. But this one phrase can help you nix it. However, there's a caveat: The action it inspires must speak louder than the words.
Related: 35 Useful Phrases to Combat Imposter Syndrome as Soon as It Strikes, According to a Psychoanalyst
What Is High Achiever Burnout?
Burnout is burnout, right? Yes, but experts share it's important to discuss a specific type called high achiever burnout.
"High achiever burnout is a state of total exhaustion encountered by people who push themselves to a high standard," says Dr. Justin Sung, a physician-turned-coach who started his business, iCanStudy, out of burnout. His TedTalk on burnout has nearly 60K views. "It can happen to anyone, but we most often see it in those who are strongly driven toward achieving certain goals."
High-achiever burnout has some pretty serious hallmark symptoms, Dr. Jung says. These red flags include:
Reduced cognitive abilities
Worsening mood (and it ups the risk of depression)
Why Does High Achiever Burnout Happen?
Sometimes, just knowing why something happens can empower you to attempt to prevent it. There are several reasons for high achiever burnout—get ready to nod your head hard if you relate.
"Left to our own devices, freakishly goal-oriented people can get so focused on accomplishing a goal that it becomes difficult to take a break for even the most basic biological needs," says Boston-based career coach and author Amy Feind Reeves. "Worse, because it feels like a worthy cause, we can pat ourselves on the back when we look up six hours after starting an assignment: dry-mouthed, starving and needing to run—I mean run—to the bathroom."
The lack of "stop" is harmful.
"There's never an endpoint," Holloway says. "There's just more...This combination of stress and powerlessness creates pressure and disconnection."
The past may play a role in this internal pressure.
"Past experiences might include how they have experienced success in the past, says Kit Sluys, Psy.D., a psychologist specializing in working professionals—primarily physicians, corporate executives and administrators and entrepreneurs. It could be that their family of origin actually placed a low value on success, and they learned to seek validation from others through their achievements."
Related: 16 Things People With High Emotional Intelligence Often Say, According to Psychologists
The One Phrase To Help With High Achiever Burnout
Holloway suggests asking yourself: "Is it good enough?"
For example, pretend you have a presentation tomorrow.
"Without the 'good enough' filter, a high achiever might put in extra hours to make sure the presentation is perfect and spend hours updating all the colors," she says. "The outcome is the high achiever gets three hours less sleep, but the client doesn't even notice the difference."
Ditto for planning a first birthday party.
"Does the party really need to have the perfect napkins, cake, customized hand-written invites and exquisite party bag for all the babies in attendance? Probably not," Holloway says. "By using the 'is it good enough?' filter, you'd realize the presentation and party are good enough, clawing back vital rest time."
And it may help you drop some baggage in the process.
"Past experiences, along with innate and learned tendencies, create this powerful drive for success," Dr. Sluys says. "When someone is experiencing high levels of success, they might negatively evaluate their performance as 'not good enough' and hold themselves to perfect—unattainable—standards."
So, Dr. Sluys says that a high achiever may consider themselves "worthless" for missing a deadline—continuing the cycle of stress, internal pressure and burnout.
Holloway suggests breaking out this phrase when you're speaking negatively towards yourself or feeling sad or irritable. But she concedes it can be challenging.
"It takes practice and self-awareness to remember to use this phrase in those situations," Holloway admits. "Another good strategy to practice using this technique is to use it systematically. Find an activity that is done regularly and that also triggers some stress. For example, if someone reviews their calendar every morning, they can practice using this phrase as part of that ritual. This will help them feel more relaxed in that moment, but it will also help them remember to use it at other times."
And it may also help you realize that your workload for the day is "good enough."
8 Other Helpful Phrases To Prevent High Achiever Burnout
1. Even though this moment is hard, I am just trying to be kind to myself.
Dr. Sluys says this phrase leans into self-compassion, a fantastic Rx to perfectionism and negative self-talk.
"When we are self-compassionate, we are tuning into our own suffering and tending to that suffering with kindness," Dr. Sluys says. "This phrase is also about relieving pressure. Notice that, within this phrase, there is nothing about to-do lists or accomplishing something. In this way, the phrase can give a high achiever a break from their endless focus on what they think 'needs' to be done."
2. I have all the time I need to complete what I need to do.
Work-life balance shouldn't be a luxury, and not everything is an emergency. This phrase grants high achieving types perspective and grace.
"It’s a good reminder that you do have time to live a balanced life and schedule a normal day," says Reeves. "Taking time for lunch, to call a friend, or even walking to the window for a little sunshine and three deep breaths will not decrease the value of what you are working on."
4. Replace "should" or "need" with "would like."
Test-drive this tip on anything you think "needs" to go on your to-do list.
“'Would like' still acknowledges that this task is important without the pressure that comes with 'should,'" Dr. Sluys says.
5. Have I already set the goalpost down the field a few times?
They don't move the goalposts in the Super Bowl—even for the best kickers in the game.
"Focusing on mini goals during a work section is great," Reeves says.
For example, you might try to copy-edit 100 pages before lunch. But if you hit get to 90 pages and decide to plow through 100 more pages, you're not being fair to yourself.
"That's a good indication it is time to stop and take a break," Reeves says.
6. Will this matter in six months? One year? Five years?
This question puts things into perspective.
"High achievers tend to make everything really important and urgent in their minds when in reality, a lot of tasks and projects are actually low stakes," Dr. Sluys says.
7. Who is going to benefit if I push myself?
"Sometimes, reminding yourself of the trade-offs of a balanced day vs. a work-heavy one can push you towards balance," Reeves says.
8. Preventing burnout is in your control.
Empower yourself. You can't control everything, but you may be able to nix burnout.
"Sometimes it means making decisions we don’t want to make, but it’s better to deal with your own decisions than having the decisions made for you because you don’t have any energy left to try," Dr. Sung says.
Related: 35 Simple, Sincere Phrases To Express Empathy, According to Therapists
Can Self-Talk Really Prevent Burnout?
Phrases can help, but they're not a catch-all cure for high achiever burnout.
"Self-talk is important, but it’s like pushing the pedal down to accelerate a car," Dr. Sung says. "You still need a car, a road and fuel. Preventing and overcoming burnout requires a supportive environment and practical strategies or skills."
Dr. Sluys agrees and recommends:
Get clear on your values and evaluate whether your actions align with those values. "When high achievers get clear on their values, they may be surprised to find that the things they are striving for are not actually aligned with their values," Dr. Sluys says. "Then they can choose to refocus their efforts on things that are, in fact, aligned with their values. This exercise helps us see where we can take action to be in better alignment with our values."
Seek connection. "Connecting with loved ones releases the hormone oxytocin, which fights the effects of stress," Dr. Sluys says. "Connecting with nature, hobbies, or a higher power helps put things into perspective and helps us remember that there is so much more to life than striving for success."
Take a break—seriously. "High achievers can really struggle with this one because they feel like downtime is not productive," Dr. Sluys says. But she says boredom increases creativity and productivity.
Next up, Could You Be a Victim of 'Self-Gaslighting'? 5 Signs of the Subtle Form of Self-Sabotage and How To Stop, According to Experts
Iona Holloway, coach specializing in burnout and founder of the breathwork app Soul
Dr. Justin Sung, physician-turned-coach who started his business, iCanStudy, out of burnout
Amy Feind Reeves, Boston-based career coach and author
Kit Sluys, Psy.D., psychologist specializing in working professionals