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11 Signs You’re More Than Just Tired…You’re Burning Out

signs you're burning out

Ever wonder if you’re burning out? I know a lot of leaders and people who wonder that.

There’s a fine line between being tired and actually burning out.

The challenge is, once you cross the line, it’s so difficult to get back.

Eleven years ago, I entered into the darkest period of my life. People had always warned me I would burn out. I thought I could prove them wrong. And usually I did. I would get tired – out of balance – but when I saw the edge, I could always pull myself back.

That approach worked just fine until the summer of 2006, when it didn’t.

In that fateful summer eleven years ago, I found the edge, and as I was falling, I knew this time I realized I couldn’t pull myself back.

Although I’m not a person who suffers from depression, I’m sure I would have gone to the doctor and received a diagnosis of clinical depression that summer when I fell off the edge.

Perhaps it wasn’t a stereotypical depression.

I could get out of bed every day, and I did.

As a Christian, I kept praying and reading my bible. I never lost my faith (I just couldn’t feel it).

People who weren’t that close to me didn’t realize it was happening.

But I knew something inside me had broken, and I didn’t know how to fix it.

My speed decreased to a snail’s pace.

Hope felt like it had died.

My motivation and passion dropped to zero. (Make that zero Kelvin).

Like most people who experience burnout, it felt like a strange land. I had been tired before, but I had never truly been burned out. It was so disorienting I didn’t know what to do.

What terrified me is that I knew many in ministry and life had gone down this road before me and some of them never made it back.

For them, ministry was done. And sometimes, tragically, they were done – hope never fully returned and they didn’t ever become the person they were before.

That was the last thing I wanted to happen to me.

Looking back, the diagnosis is still a little elusive and mysterious.

Who really knows what corrodes the soul to the point where it deflates?

But I’d say the most likely candidate for what derailed me is what I’d call emotional burnout. 

In caring for others I had not adequately cared for my heart or soul, or let others who wanted to care for it do so.

I spiralled down for about 3 months before I hit bottom.

Then with the love and assistance of a great wife, board, leadership team, close friends, a counselor, and a very gracious God, I slowly began to recover.

It took, honestly, a few years to really feel full stride again, but I recovered to 80-90% of full strength in the first year. The last 10% took two or three more years.

The good new is, there is life after burnout (my next post will be on ways to recover from burnout).

I’m writing this because burnout seems to be an epidemic among leaders and, increasingly, among people in general.

Maybe you’re right on the edge of the cliff right now. Or maybe you’re in free fall.

So how do you know if you’re more than just tired? How do you know if you’re burning out?

Here are 11 things I personally experienced as I burned out.

I hope they can help you see the edge before you careen past it.

1. Your passion fades

Everybody struggles with passion from time to time, but burnout moves you into a place of sustained motivation loss.

Think about it, for those of you in leadership or ministry, you used to have a passion for what you did. Passion got you into leadership, and it’s one of the factors that makes both life and leadership wonderful over a long period of time.

But when I burned out, my passion set like the sun.

I knew what I was doing was important (leading a local church), but I couldn’t feel it anymore.

I realized that a passionless leader will never lead a passionate ministry. But I just couldn’t find my passion anymore.

2. Your main emotion is ‘numbness’ – you no longer feel the highs or the lows

If you’re healthy, you feel things. You experience highs and lows.

When I burned out, I couldn’t feel either properly anymore.

If someone was celebrating the birth of a new child, I couldn’t feel happy. I just felt numb.

If someone was sick or fell into trouble, I couldn’t feel for them either. I just felt numb.

Burnout numbs your heart, and this was actually one of the earliest signs for me that the edge was near.

3. Little things make you disproportionately angry

It’s not that burned out people feel zero emotion, but I know when I burned out, the emotions I felt were often just wrong.

One early sign I was heading for burnout was that little things started to set me off. Something (like a missed deadline) might be a 3 out of 10 on the problem scale, but I would react like it was an 11. That’s never good.

Treating small things like they are big things is a sign something deeper is wrong.

4. Everybody drains you 

People are a mixed bag for sure. Some energize you. Some don’t. I get that. On this side of heaven, that’s life.

But when I burned out, I realize nobody energized me anymore. Not even my family, my friends or my leadership team.

In my head I knew they were good people, but my heart couldn’t feel it.

When nobody energizes you, they’re not the problem. You are.

5. You’re becoming cynical

Oh, cynicism. It’s hard not to become cynical as you age (here’s why).

But cynicism never finds a home in a healthy heart.

If you find your cynicism is advancing at a rapid rate, it may be a sign you’re burning out.

6. Nothing satisfies you

One of the hardest aspects of burnout for me was that nothing seemed to satisfy me.

Sleep didn’t. Prayer didn’t. Good people didn’t. Recreation didn’t. Vacation didn’t. Work didn’t. Food didn’t.

That’s a sign of depression, and it’s also a sign you’re burnt out.

7. You Can’t Think Straight

When you’re burning out, your heart messes with your head; you lose the ability to think straight.

I remember having read enough and listened to enough about mid-life crises and burnout to know that people make stupid decisions when they’re burnt out.

My emotions made me think I would always be this bad. That I was a failure. That there was no hope. That I should just quit.

So I had this daily conversation with myself that boiled down to five words: Just don’t do anything stupid. 

For me, that meant not doing three things. I told myself, Carey, don’t:

Quit your job

Have an affair

Buy a sports car

By the grace of God, I did none of the three. The first two are still part of my long term plan, but one day I think it would be fun to have a sports car.

Some days, simply avoiding stupid is a win.

8. Your productivity is dropping

One sign I knew I was in burnout was incredibly low productivity.

I’m usually a fairly productive leader and person (some would say highly productive). But when I fell into burnout, even writing a simple email might take an hour.

I couldn’t think straight. My pace slowed right down, and I felt like there was a cloud between me and everything I was trying to do.

If you’re working long hours but producing little of value, you might be burning out.

9.  You’re self-medicating

In the early stages of burnout, many people turn to self-medicating to numb the pain.

Whether that’s overeating, overworking,  sexual addictions, drinking, impulsive spending or even drugs, you’ve chosen a path of self-medication over self-care.

I avoided drinking, drugs or sex. My poison was, ironically, more work, which just spirals things downward.

People who are burning out almost always choose self-medication over self-care.

10. You don’t laugh anymore

This is such a small thing that’s actually such a big thing.

If you’re burning out, you don’t laugh a lot. I remember in my recovery laughing out loud one day after listening to something on the radio. It was then that it hit me: it had been months since I had laughed out loud.

When you’re burning out, nothing seems fun or funny, and, at its worst, you begin to resent people who enjoy life.

11. Sleep and time off no longer refuel you

If you’re just tired, a good night’s sleep or a week or two off will help most healthy people bounce back with fresh energy.

If you’re burning out, sleep and time off no longer refuel you. You could have a month off when you’re burnt out and not feel any difference.

I took three weeks off during my summer of burn out, and I felt worse at the end than when I started. Not being refueled when you take time off is a major warning sign that you’re burning out.

Long Term Health Is About Sustainable Patterns

Eleven years on the other side of burnout, I’ve never felt better. All eleven signs are gone and have been gone for years.

Do I have bad days? Of course, but they’re days, not life. I’m so thankful!

On the other side of burnout, I developed new rhythms, patterns and approaches to life and leadership that have helped me thrive. They actually helped my productivity soar while working fewer hours. And they’ve given me a new passion for life and leadership.

I’ve taken all my lessons from the decade since burnout and put them into the High Impact Leader Course. The High Impact Leader is all about getting time, energy and priorities working in your favour. It’s about getting your life and leadership back.

The course is open again for a limited time in a few days. Please note…the course will not help you get out of burnout (that’s a separate matter), but it can help you avoid it if you’re showing a few of the signs or help you not fall back into it once you recover.

The High Impact Leader Course is available now. Check out the team edition that includes multiple licenses for your staff, or consider the new premium edition kit which includes a physical workbook and Moleskine® journal.

So Are You More Than Just Tired?

So how do you know if you’re burning out?

Identifying with just a few of these signs might just be a sign that you’re tired.

If you identify with half, you might be close to the edge.

If you identify with most or all, well, you might be in the same place I found myself—burnout.

If you are burnt out, I would encourage you to seek immediate professional help – a medical doctor and a trained Christian counselor.  I would also encourage you to talk to a close circle of friends (again, my next post will be on recovery from burnout).

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you and what you’re seeing when it comes to fatigue and burnout.

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  1. […] told part of my story in this post along with sharing 11 signs you might be burning […]

  2. Robbie Neiman on May 21, 2017 at 11:13 pm

    Great post, Carey! I feel like you wrote this especially for me as I have been experiencing all eleven to one degree or another over the past 5 months. One thing that I find helpful in all of this is moderate to brisk exercise. I do a fast paced prayer walk almost every day for at least 30 minutes and also do a light weightlifting session a couple times a week. This routine is not a complete cure but it does help me considerably… both physically and mentally. As an athlete understands that muscle needs to be tore down before it can be built up, so perhaps spiritually, God has to tear us down (maybe through burnout) to build us up even stronger.

  3. Lin on May 20, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    In the midst of it. Thank you for your insights that show what I am going through.

  4. Will on May 20, 2017 at 8:49 am

    I wonder how you know if burnout means you need to change jobs, especially if you are being treated unfairly at one job and even other individuals think you should move?

  5. My 5 for Friday (May 19, 2017) | Art Rainer on May 19, 2017 at 4:09 am

    […] 11 Signs You’re More Than Just Tired…You’re Burning Out by Carey Nieuwhof. Many leaders will say they are tired or possibly even close to burnout. This can be a dangerous place to be. Carey Nieuwhof says, “Burnout corrodes the soul to the point where it deflates.” Here are eleven signs you’re burning out. […]

  6. Lilly on May 15, 2017 at 7:59 pm

    I’ve never read something that so closely mirrored the thoughts, feelings and slog-through-molasses of the last 3 1/2 years off my life. Thank you. It might not be your pastor/church planter who is slowly slipping away, it may be his wife…

    • Elayne on May 19, 2017 at 7:28 pm

      I see & hear you sister.

  7. Fanie on May 15, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    Man, I needed to read this today! I am eagerly awaiting your post on recovery Carey.

  8. […] told part of my story in this post along with sharing 11 signs you might be burning […]

  9. 增达网 on May 14, 2017 at 3:52 am


  10. […] Carey Nieuwhof   |   11 Signs You’re More Than Just Tired…You’re Burning Out […]

  11. helen rush on May 13, 2017 at 12:58 am

    agree with this, but I think there is more at issue here. I do not believe it is just about doing too much, or work life balance is wrong and getting very very tired and so inevitably…..burnout. While doing my degree, this featured quite highly in my not-for-profit case study. I looked at the mayo clinic and they suggest that the factors that contribute. include; Lack of control.; Unclear job expectations.; Dysfunctional workplace dynamics; Mismatch in values; Poor job fit; Extremes of activity; Lack of social support; Work-life imbalance. If we could only utilise the advice from these experts and put processes in place – I have too many suggestions to discuss here LOL. Makes my heart sad that some think burnout is inevitable and the only thing that can be done is to rest and not work so hard………………….. (this is not what I think you are saying, just what I have experienced and seen time and time again)

    • Sharie Blanton on May 14, 2017 at 8:05 am

      Would love to hear your further thoughts on this.

  12. Joanne on May 12, 2017 at 8:39 pm

    I found this article very insightful to understand others who are going through depression and or burnout. This article gave me questions to ask and behaviour to be aware of. I am looking forward to your next article so I can give a little bit of advice to others as I recommend them to seek professional help. Thank you for your candidness. God bless.

  13. […] 11 Signs You’re More Than Just Tired…You’re Burning Out by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  14. pastorcarl on May 12, 2017 at 10:09 am

    This has been timely and helpful. I have a great wife who notices things and asks me what’s going on or how I’m feeling when I seem to be “checking out”. I’m aware that things aren’t as they should be, but the nature of our calling does not include structured “time out” like someone who punches the time clock. I need to be reminded to be intentional about self care, which includes those seemingly innocuous things like humor and play. There will always be a mountain of things to do that there is never enough time for, but I need to stay focused on the main things and help others to do the same. Fatigue comes most often from doing the meaningless and unrewarding tasks without recognition. Doing the things that we’re passionate about also fuels our passion. Thanks for bringing this to mind again as we all need to hear it!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 12, 2017 at 12:44 pm

      Carl…thanks for this. So helpful. Checking out could actually be sign 12. Great point!

  15. Mike on May 11, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    Thanks for the transparency, Carey.

    I’ve experienced (and am still experiencing) many of the eleven points you mentioned. For me, the motto I tell myself for getting through point 7 is “three days.” I still continue to battle depression and have periods where I dip into wanting to end it all. I learned from a suicide prevention website that when I get to that point, I can help myself by acknowledging the mental pain and setting a three-day limit to see if the pain subsides. For me it usually takes a day and then I can start thinking and feeling clearly again. I also try to speak with my wife and trusted friends who will listen without judgement.

    I only share this to say an “Amen” to your post and give a strategy to others who may be suffering in darkness. You’re not alone. Find someone you can trust and open up.

    Thanks again for being vulnerable, Carey.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 11, 2017 at 3:45 pm

      Mike…wow. Thanks for this. At my lowest, I also struggled with suicidal thoughts. It truly is horrible. That’s good to know about the three day limit…never heard that before and I’m glad you have found it helpful. Thanks for sharing!

  16. Nate Fietzer on May 11, 2017 at 2:31 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing your journey. You have no idea what it means to me. The fact that you have been where I am and are now healthy and such an incredible leader gives me hope. Every sign you have shared above is blatant in my life. I have been trying to recover for the last two-three years. I have asked “What’s Wrong?” and “What Happened?” over and over again. I have kept up with (even increased) my Bible reading and prayer time. I went to OC17 questioning if God was done with me when it comes to children’s ministry and in your session you said “God hasn’t exhausted your call to ministry. You’re just exhausted.” and it broke me. With all that said, I am really looking forward to your next blog post!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 11, 2017 at 3:43 pm

      Nate…thank you for this note. Man, I’m so humbled and thankful God used this piece and my time at OC17 to encourage you. Hang in there. Help is on the way. Start by telling someone close to you and seeing a doctor and a Christian counsellor. I’ll share more Monday and I’m doing a Facebook Live on it tomorrow, May 12th at 12:30 EDT. Hopefully this helps.

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