The little lie that’s a one-way ticket to burnout

By Cathy Jacob

Do you spend too much of your time responding to the demands and priorities of others? Do you have more on your plate than any one human being could reasonably be expected to handle? Do your priorities and personal well-being usually come last?

Why is that?

If your answer is, “I have no choice,” welcome to the second big assumption that makes life harder than it needs to be.

(For the first big assumption, read “A powerful myth that keeps you trapped on the hamster wheel.”)

When I was in my mid-thirties, I had a senior level position at a regional consulting firm, a husband with a busy professional role and two sons under the age of 7. At the very time when my personal life was most demanding, I was working 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. I would go several days in a row without seeing my sons awake. I was sleeping three to four hours a night, max. I was 30 pounds overweight and tired all the time. I was stressed and overwhelmed. When people (including my boss) asked me, “Why are you working so hard?” my standard response was “I have no choice.”

This story didn’t end well. As I approached my 40th birthday, I crashed and burned. I resigned my position at the very time, as one colleague put it, “Your career is about to take off!” I felt so unwell, that I was convinced if I didn’t leave of my own accord, they would be carrying me out on a stretcher. I had simply run out of gas. I was exhausted, depressed, done. It took more than a year before I felt rested and healthy again and even longer before I felt ready to resume my career.

In looking back, while there were many factors that lead to my burnout, my habit of convincing myself that I had no choice played a major role. It was a lie I believed to the core of my being and it kept me trapped in a lifestyle that was unsustainable.

I learned the hard way that a refusal to make and own conscious choices is a dead-end road to a range of serious health, relationship and career impacts. For the last decade, I have had the privilege of working with many talented and courageous professionals, who like me, struggle with their relationship with work. In many cases, they were able to create a healthier, more sustainable way of working without having to take the drastic action of quitting their jobs or without spiraling toward total burnout. In some cases, like mine, changing their circumstances was an important part of their growth.

For many of them, the first step was their willingness to reclaim their power of choice.


What “I have no choice” teaches us about ourselves.

Most of us feel trapped in places of “no choice” in some areas of our lives. That doesn’t make us flawed or stupid. Instead, the places where we feel we have no choice are the territories of the greatest potential growth.

The belief that “I have no choice” is a very common blind spot on any leader’s development journey. Reclaiming your power of choice and taking responsibility for the choices you make is an important developmental milestone.


Two reasons “I have no choice” keeps us stuck.

1.  It is self-deceiving.

It is a very rare thing to be completely without choice. Nowhere is this illustrated more powerfully than in the life and work of Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, holocaust survivor and author of the seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning. Between 1942 and 1945, Frankl was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, where he witnessed unspeakable horror and human suffering and endured the loss of his wife, his parents and his brother. In his book, he writes graphically and poignantly about his experience in these camps. Sorely tested during that experience and central to his life’s work, was the belief in the transcendence of the human spirit. Frank believed that we can find meaning in all life’s moments and we have the ultimate power of choice even in the most unimaginable circumstances.

“Everything can be taken from a man, but… the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.” Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy

It has been my experience that by lifting up and looking at my life from multiple perspectives, I often discover that I have more choice than I first believed. And in those instances when my choice of circumstances was taken away, I still had the choice to create meaning from those circumstances.

 2.  It is disempowering.

The choice behind the statement, “I have no choice” is to hand over your life to the whims of others. It’s a choice to abdicate responsibility for your own life and its trajectory. It’s a choice to remain unhappy with the way things are rather than to take empowering action to change them. And finally, it is a refusal to accept life’s inevitable and necessary trade-offs.

“The easier way” begins with reclaiming your power to choose. It begins by getting real with yourself and by daring to take responsibility for your own well-being. Not all your choices will be easy and you won’t always choose to do what makes you happy. But even being clear that you are the one making the choice is a step toward reclaiming authorship of your own life. When you see yourself making choices that are not in your best interests, you have the choice to be compassionate and curious with yourself. In doing so, you travel a path to greater self-awareness. Exercising your power to choose is an essential step to leading your life on your terms.

...What will you choose?


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Cathy Jacob is a leadership development coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. For more posts like this and other information to support your leadership practice, click here to be added to our mailing list or Follow Fire Inside Leadership on LinkedIn.