When I first started my career as a social worker, I believed that my job was to change the world. That made for a daunting to-do list! I was always convinced that I could be doing more or making a bigger difference. Normally, I'm a hopeful person, but my schedule soon left me feeling exhausted and put out. I also resented anyone who wasn't as busy as I was. How dare she use an out-of-office reply during her vacation? There's work to be done! Once, when a neighbor marveled at how many balls I kept in the air, I snapped, "If you spent half as much time helping people as you do on that damn elliptical, I could slow down."

Folks, this is what burnout looks like—for me, at least. It's not pretty. (But don't worry, my friends staged an intervention not long after this incident. They told me I was treating my neighbor as I was treating myself, and that I needed to practice self-compassion if I wanted to truly care for others.)

Here's a quote I once heard from a priest: "If you don't want to burn out, stop living like you're on fire." In today's world, we are surrounded by a culture of scarcity that tells us we're not doing enough, that we don't have enough and that we're not enough, whether we're a stay-at-home parent or a CEO. Burnout is so epidemic that it can even become our shtick: Do you know people who are always stressed out and exhausted? Though I'm no longer trying to single-handedly save the world, I am knee-deep in research for a new book and working, as always, to be present for my family and friends. And I've learned that I always have to be on the watch for burnout. Because when it creeps up on me, I don't like the person I become. That person does not reflect my values, and she's not who I want to be as a researcher or a parent.

Unfortunately, beating burnout is not as simple as getting a good night's sleep. Once you're operating at that frenetic pace, it starts to become how you define yourself and your worth. You might think, "If I'm not busy, it must mean I'm not productive or relevant." That sense of vulnerability is a big reason why people stay on the hamster wheel. To really recover from burnout, we must change not just our schedules but also our thinking. We must accept that what we produce and contribute is not our value—and get clear on what is. The people who matter most to me don't love me for what I do or for what I'm doing for them; they love me for who I am.

When you stop living on stress and adrenaline, you may feel emotional, spiritual and physical discomfort (it's not unlike putting out a fire—the smoke makes it hard to breathe for a while). But that discomfort is worth it if you can finally get calm and comfortable in your own skin.

The Dares

Dare to be honest about what burnout looks like for you. For me, resentment is a huge warning flag. So is judgment. I start to think, "Why is everyone always disappointing me?" My friends say that even my sense of humor changes—it has more bite. These are all signs that it's time to recalibrate.

Dare to set boundaries. I've finally learned that just because I can do something does not mean I should. Sure, I could take on another car pool. But that doesn't make it a good idea. The next time someone asks you to do something, consider whether you're doing it out of obligation or to prove your worth. And set boundaries that reflect what's really important: I'll miss an e-mail (or 20) before I miss one of my kids' games.

Dare to create a clearing for yourself. Nothing calms me down like swimming. That's why, when I need to come back to myself, I grab my goggles and head for the pool. Maybe your clearing involves long walks at dusk, or maybe it's writing. Find an activity that centers you and then make time for it—no matter what. If it feels uncomfortable at first, that's okay. Cooling down takes practice.

Brené Brown, PhD, is the author of Daring Greatly (Gotham Books).


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