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Feeling Guilty about Being Burnt Out? Here’s How to Lift Yourself Back Up

Behind the daily barrage of Facebook status updates and beefed-up Instagram bios, something odd—sinister even—has taken place: it’s become cool to be busy. At all times, always.

No, the reality of hard work is not a new idea, nor are the compromises that work can demand and the time it preoccupies. However, the activity of always being online (even once we’ve switched off) and our constant exposure to byte-sized progress reports of what everyone else is doing at all times have pushed us to appear busy constantly—or else. Some people may be able to shirk off the pressure immediately, but it lingers for others and may feel like they’ve been thrown into a guilt spiral that can be hard to shake.  

Overworking—and failing to show up in other areas of our lives, from our relationships to exercise to our mental health—has become more normalised than ever. Burnt out? You’ve probably been hardwired to wear it like a badge of honour. Overtired or anxious? Consider these par for the course. Personal life taking a strain, or your batteries simply feeling maxed out? Recharge from the adrenalin of running on empty; if everyone else is doing it, it must be okay. 

“We live in a society that values productivity, so for many it is normal to feel guilty to rest,” explain Dr Elizabeth King and Dr Kate Norbury of the University of Sydney’s School of Psychology. “In reality if we understood what is required for positive relationships and performance, we would feel guilty if we did not rest.”

The 'guilt trap'...

This expectation to be productive at all hours of the day has slipped seamlessly into the status quo, but as King and Norbury point out, guilt is creeping closely behind. The ugly cousin of the ‘comparison trap’, which sees us measure our identities and achievements against others, the ‘guilt trap’ can feel like a dark, claustrophobic pit in which our feelings of falling short steadily accumulate. Initially, these may be easy enough to ignore, but soon enough they can make it harder to be present at any given time if we feel we are underperforming elsewhere or letting someone down. 

The pandemic hasn’t helped. When simply getting through the day has signified a small win for most people, spare time on our hands has been confused as a weighty responsibility on our shoulders to be maximised, measured, recorded and shared. Cramming extracurricular activities into the day (hello, home-made banana bread), learning new skills, or watching entire canons of films all in the name of productivity can curb restlessness temporarily, but may not have the desired effect of quashing feelings of guilt in the long-term. 

That’s why micromanaging our leisure time and filling it to the brink can impair us from doing our best and may, on the contrary, work to exacerbate our feelings of guilt. King and Norbury say we need our time off—it is essential. “It’s important to be aware that peak performance occurs in a cycle of preparation, performance, and recovery,” they explain. “We need to think of performing life like a sprinter not a marathon runner.” 

How to harness the guilt

But finding ourselves in the ‘guilt trap’ is not necessarily all bad. Once we’ve identified our feelings of guilt, King and Norbury emphasise that we can harness them to strengthen our resilience, and even learn to eliminate, or reorganise, the elements (or apps) that arouse these negative feelings in the first place. “The emotion, guilt, can be used to motivate and direct more positive behaviour, it can be pro-social,” they explain. “It’s important to determine if guilt is a form of misdirected self-blame or if, in fact, we have acted in a way that is not aligned with our values.” If the latter is the case, King and Norbury say “noticing that, deciding not to repeat it, and developing self-compassion is a useful response.”

It may sound silly at first but working to reclaim how we spend our time and what we value can also help offset feelings of guilt or of not being good enough. In her book How to do nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (2019), author Jenny Odell proposes this kind of resistance work. She advocates for finding ways to identify our merits and measure our self-worth that don’t jostle for attention (or likes) on the internet—and that focus neither on “productivity, the strength of one’s career, and individual entrepreneurship”.

Covid is the perfect time to shed our guilt by rethinking these goalposts and focusing, for example, on improving family ties or working to cut out our negative self-talk. By reimagining other ways to gauge success or progress, time-sensitive ideals like efficiency or productivity—and the guilt that can surround them on and offline—lose their impact as effective measures of doing better or moving forward. 

There are also concrete, actionable steps one can take, like detoxing from social media from time to time to tackle feeling guilty. King and Norbury suggest taking ten minutes out of our day to meditate, or journaling to download our thoughts. Writing a to-do list—one that is realistic and within our reach—can also help minimise feelings of guilt that may arise later in the day, especially if our schedule is set off-course or we hit an afternoon slump. 

It’s also important to allow ourselves some guilty pleasures, like scrolling TikTok for one too many hours or descending into a YouTube rabbit hole on occasion. You may even find corners of the internet to luxuriate in, guilt-free. These are rare but they do exist (see beamingdesign’s neon-charged affirmations or the wellness podcast behind Reset NYC), and are easy to return to should you get lost. 

Want more advice? Here's how to prioritise your day so you don't burnout by lunchtime, according to a psychologist.

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