Times are hectic. We live under constant pressure to produce more, perform better, work more efficiently, innovate faster. We are also expected to be connected 24/7 and respond instantly to whatever social media regurgitates.

As if that is not enough, we are also supposed to be mindful, do yoga, eat organic, be supportive partners, develop ourselves and achieve work-life balance, all while smiling on Facebook and LinkedIn for the world to see.

Holy shit. No wonder some of us come to a grinding halt and get a burnout.

Then again, many people don’t. Which is why in a recent workshop for 20 young professionals, I explored why some of us burn out and why some of us burn bright. What I told them, is that it comes down to whether we live a life of desire or whether we carry the burdens and unmet needs of other people.

Allow me to elaborate.


The way I see it, people are primarily driven by desire. Desire awakens, energises and directs us, and grants our actions meaning. If we live a life of desire, we burn bright.

And there is much to desire. Freedom, peace, wholeness, intimacy, recognition, wisdom, self-realisation. Some of us desire to become parents, create works of art of leave behind a legacy. And all of us desire to experience our essential Goodness and to bring that Goodness into the world.

Desires are neither taught nor copied, but emerge naturally from within. Sometimes because the time is right, sometimes in response to something or someone we meet.

And desire has a life cycle of its own. Like a seed sprouting in the deep dark soil, desire emerges, grows and matures over time, until it achieves its final form, fulfils its purpose and ends with a quiet, reflective space from which a new desire can emerge.

Fulfilling our desire brings us good things on many levels:

  • Physically, for example when we enjoy sex, sports or a good meal, we feel joy and contentment in our bodies.
  • Mentally, for example when we achieve a career goal, we experience ourselves as capable human beings and feel self-confidence and pride.
  • Spiritually, for example through art and nature and the act of loving and being loved, we can experience wonder, serenity, acceptance, belonging, and the realisation that we are indeed fundamentally Good.

It is our task in life to listen to our desires, to nurture them, to ensure the right conditions exist within and without for them to be fulfilled. Unfortunately we don’t always do that, particularly when the demands and drama of the outside world drown out our inner voice.


But even when we listen, the fulfilment of our desires is not a given. That is because we possess inhibitions that modulate if, how and when we act on our desires.

Some of these inhibitions – for example healthy shame or self-discipline – are necessary for mature, sustainable functioning. They prevent us from violating our values – say acting on our sexual desire for someone not our partner – and help us wait for the right time to act.

Some inhibitions, however, do not serve us. They are inspired by crippling emotions and limiting beliefs that tell us, wrongly, it’s not okay to act on our desires. In these cases we feel toxic shame, fear or self-doubt, or believe that the desires of others are more important than those of our own.

Inhibitions that are too strong can block our desires, making us feel frustrated, sad or angry. Worse, it can cause us to give up on our desires, making us depressed, listless or cynical.


So suppressing our desires is unhealthy. Makes sense. But what really depletes our batteries, is doing things that harm us because we feel we have to. I am not talking about paying taxes and obeying the speed limit. No, what really kicks us in the teeth is the following three types of things we do against our will.


Ah yes, tolerations. Things that drain us physically and emotionally, but which we allow to persist nonetheless. When you think about it, there is probably a LOT you tolerate at home and at work:

Rudeness, lack of clarity, unreliability, negativity, tardiness. Too little intimacy or inappropriate intimacy. Verbosity, high expectations, arrogance, ignorance, bigotry, sloppiness, discrimination, verbal and physical abuse, threats. Donald Trump.

These things sap our energy, but we allow them to be because we feel we lack permission or power, fear the consequences, or believe nothing we do will change a thing. Perhaps we are convinced no one will take us serious or that it will cost us our jobs or relationships if we speak our truth.


A second energy drain is when we carry someone else’s burden. This happens when we structurally assume responsibility for a task or role that belongs to someone else, or when we take responsibility for other people’s feelings and wellbeing.

We may also feel pressured to meet the expectations of others, for example being successful, strong, quiet or productive. Usually this is in their interest, rarely it’s in ours.

We also take responsibility for meeting other people’s unmet needs. Our partner, friend, boss or colleague is likely to have an unmet need for, say, safety, validation, intimacy or belonging, and make us responsible for giving it to them.

This is insane. Not just because it exhausts us and prevents us from realising our own desires, but also because it prevents the other person from growing up, keeping both parties locked in the same unhealthy dynamic.


The third and final energy drain occurs when we have to hide parts of ourselves that make us worthy, whole and good. We do this because we feel it’s unsafe to show these parts, for example because we fear they will be ridiculed or rejected.

So we go through life hiding our power, talents, enthusiasm, fear, desires and imperfections. Out of shame or guilt we hide our bodies, our sadness, our state of not knowing, our opinions. Or we hide our tenderness, playfulness or fierceness, the three archetypical energies that make us human.


Put simply, living a life of desire energises us. Suppressing our desires, tolerating crap, carrying burdens or hiding ourselves drains us. And when the scales tip in the wrong direction for too long and our system can no longer take the strain, we run the risk of burning out.

But while people rightly fear getting a burnout, we should equally fear living dangerously close to a burnout without actually getting one.

Like a fully loaded donkey that is a feather away from buckling under its load, people have an incredible capacity for operating close to the breaking point. Some of us live on 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 or even 99%% of our capacity to tolerate crap, getting our energy drained and not getting what we desire.

Imagine staying in a relationship, job or community that is decent, ok-ish, mwah at best or barely tolerable at worst. Imagine functioning and surviving, getting by, living hand to mouth emotionally, but never really living fully, brightly or wholeheartedly.

Imagine doing this months, years, decades, maybe your entire life, until it’s too late and you realise you have wasted your youth, your energy, your opportunities. Isn’t that at least as scary as the prospect of burning out?


I am not suggesting these are the only two factors involved in burnout, but I do believe they are key. Now, having said all that, ask yourself this:

Do you want to burn bright and bring your goodness, talents, value, beauty and creativity into this world? Or do you want to scrape by or burn out by living out of shame, fear, guilt and all those other emotions you never asked for?

And what are you going to do about it?

Ilja van Roon