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Burnout - Something Learned at School?

There is a lot of talk about burnout in and around our workplaces, and the conversation often centers around feelings of being overwhelmed and shame. I was listening to Penni Perri, a certified life and leadership coach who specializes in burnout, share with my Women’s Business League group about the sentiment of shame that is associated with burnout. It is an epidemic that is happening to all types of professionals. After her presentation, I had the following questions: How did we get here? Why is it so common? How might we prevent the next generation from experiencing the same thing? Is burnout something we learn at school? I asked Penni to share her advice on these questions, which will appear later in this blog.

Perhaps we need to take a trip back to high school - are you willing to travel back with me? Maybe you don’t even need to go back; perhaps you are there now, as an educator teaching or working in a high school, or you are a parent of a child in high school. We all experienced it, and some of us are still living it. I propose that the problem of burnout starts here (and maybe even sooner).

Who Doesn't Love a Student Leader?

“Student leaders” are our best and favorite students: they are capable, they are kind, they know the system, and they have strong grades. They are every teacher's dream in class - they participate, they are great role models, and we let them do all the jobs that students are capable of doing. They also are doing all the clubs and sports they can do, since they are leaders and are excited to be engaged.


They don’t learn to delegate.

What are we learning in school - maybe more than just academics, maybe it is how we burn ourselves out.

We hold them to a higher standard. Did you know that the perfectionism we have for ourselves as educators gets passed on to the students we work with in these roles?

I believe that this is so important, that I have an entire separate post I will be sharing about perfectionism.

We don’t do it intentionally, but we express to our students (and children) how valuable they are, and how much they are helping us. Yet they often hear that praise as, “We expect you to NOT mess up, or make a mistake.” So they make sure they don’t - which means they cannot delegate the work to anyone else for fear that any mistake would change the value we place on them.

Pressures in and around the school are where we start to see early signs of Burnout:

It is pretty upsetting to think about the pressure placed on young adults. As parents, we add to that pressure too - parents want their children to have the best application to get into college, so they encourage their children to sign up for countless clubs and sports, so that they appear “well rounded” - so well rounded that they don’t know where (or how) to say no, because they too put undue pressure on themselves. When you think about it, that is a lot of pressure. Too much pressure, in my opinion, and I haven’t even mentioned the stress of getting a job, to help pay for the things they want, and/or need to keep up with everyone else.

What about peer pressure? Peer Pressure is as much a part of the environment our teens navigate as the very air they breathe.

Is it any surprise that we, as adults, are burnt out? Especially if we identify as one of those students who was doing everything. So now let’s look to the future: Even if your teen isn’t filling in all the items listed above, the pressures are still there.

Burnout connections between adults and teens

I spoke with Penni Perri, and here are some of her thoughts on how the pressures on our young adults translate into adult burnout.

  • Penni said many of her clients tend to be chronic over-achievers who do not feel successful unless they are over-functioning, and taking on more than their share of responsibilities both at work and at home. This often results in their feeling like they can never do or be "enough." Could this have come from what we learned as teenagers? Are schools overemphasizing effort as a measure of success; grading for effort, and valuing how much time teens commit to extracurricular clubs and sports on top of academics?

  • Penni reminded me about Brené Brown’s discussion in much of her work that we are “wired for belonging.” We need to be seen as valuable to our group, which plays a large role (aka peer pressure). Our teens are constantly bidding for acceptance. Unfortunately, in middle and high school, competition with peers has replaced the ability to be in a community together. When we feel this over and over as teens, we don’t feel like we belong. Just ask your teen what they are saying to themselves - is it true, helpful, or nice? Competition is not just found on the playing field, it is in the classroom (as only one can be at the top of the class), and it is in the halls (being accepted in the ‘in crowd’). When our teens come home at the end of the day, we know these feelings of not belonging stay with them and it has gotten so much worse with social media.

  • Our self-worth is so important. In school, there is so much outside validation that internal validation is not valuable anymore. This impacts our self-worth, where positive self-talk becomes quieter and quieter to the point that many young adults lose self-confidence along the way. Penni shared that so often her adult clients -- no matter what their external status, achievements, or accolades -- struggle with their fundamental sense of worthiness (and I agree). We have lost sight of who we truly are. I realized that - again - it starts in school: grades, awards, extra training and tutoring to be the best, and competition of teams.

  • As a teen, most of the pressure comes from external factors. As adults, those pressures often are internal. Penni shared that by the time we grow into adults, we have often been conditioned to internalize those external pressures. We have memorized the messages we learned in our formative years. Those external messages have become our belief system, our mindset. Could we be training our teens to shift into burnout more easily because we have trained them through these pressures?

We can’t take all the pressures away, but we can help our teens know the impact of feeling overwhelmed. We can reflect on the pressures we place on them and the validation they seek from us by asking them to validate themselves first. I started this post with a theory (based on my own reflection), and after interviewing Penni, I am now convinced (more than ever) that these experiences lead us to a point of burnout, and one of the biggest losses in burnout is our ability to experience joy.

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