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What Burnout Says About Your Attachment Style

What's really behind your chronic exhaustion and lack of motivation.

Key points

  • Burnout is on the rise and, paradoxically, even more likely to happen when we enjoy our job.
  • People with insecure attachment styles are more prone to workplace burnout.
  • Our attachment styles can predict how and why our burnout manifests in the ways it does.
istock / PeopleImages
Source: istock / PeopleImages

No matter how much you love (or don’t love) your job, chances are burnout has impacted you or someone close to you. The feeling of having to always be “on” due to hustle culture and the glorification of being busy has plagued many people, especially in recent years. A recent survey showed that 75 percent of workers around the world experienced burnout. Four out of five people reported feeling “at or beyond workload capacity.” These alarming trends appear to disproportionately affect millennials and Gen-Zers, women, and those in people-oriented professions (such as education, mental health and health care, and human services). And one myth of burnout is that it only happens when you dislike your job. What I’ve found in my clinical experience and talking with friends and colleagues is that it’s more likely to happen when you like your job or find your work purposeful. It’s harder to say no when every task feels important and necessary.

Burnout emerges as a prolonged response to chronic stressors related to your job and involves three key dimensions: (1) overwhelming emotional and physical exhaustion, (2) feelings of cynicism and detachment from your work, and (3) a sense of ineffectiveness, like you’re no good at your job, no matter how much effort you’re putting in. You may experience one or all of these dimensions as part of your burnout. And, at first, it’s easy to write some of these symptoms off. You might tell yourself that it’s just a tough season at work, or that things will change once you get promoted or once your manager or supervisor moves on. But for most people, the effects of burnout are insidious and even imperceptible. Over time, burnout decreases your overall life satisfaction, causes friction in your relationships, and raises your risk of clinical anxiety and depression.

Attachment Styles and Burnout

Your attachment style can explain why your burnout shows up in a particular way—and those with insecure attachment are more prone to experiencing workplace burnout than securely attached people. This is because our early experiences with primary caregivers (those most responsible for meeting our needs on a regular basis) tell us how to communicate our needs, how those closest to us respond, and whether we feel secure and safe emotionally and physically. Experiences that are repeated or reinforced over time create emotional imprints that profoundly impact the formation of our self-beliefs—what we believe about ourselves, how we interact with others, and how we respond to life’s challenges.

Each of the attachment styles has its own prototypical self-beliefs, which I discuss in my recent TEDx Talk. Avoidantly attached people tend to hold self-beliefs such as “I’m only as good as my last achievement,” and “When the going gets tough, I go it alone.” This causes them to push so hard at work that they lose themselves. When they reach a goal, they go on to the very next one without taking a pause to celebrate or to take a breath. They may work to succeed at all costs, sacrificing their own mental and physical health. When things get difficult at work, they’re likely to isolate and not ask anyone for help. All of this leads to burnout characterized by an emotional exhaustion that arises from being a workaholic, cynicism that derives from a distrust of others, and distancing themselves from people and their own feelings.

Anxiously attached people tend to hold self-beliefs such as “I need to rescue everyone” and “I have to analyze everything.” As a result, their burnout shows up in saying yes to anything and everything. They like to try to do it all in order to avoid embarrassment or criticism from others. If someone else is struggling, they think it’s their job to fix it. They’re also more likely to mull over even the smallest details, which can cause them to spend too much time and energy on things that ultimately don’t matter. These behaviors lead to burnout characterized by feelings of personal inefficacy driven by shaky self-esteem and chronic fatigue.

Disorganized attached people tend to hold self-beliefs such as “My life is in constant chaos” and “I can’t control my emotions.” At work, everything feels like an emergency—triggers for their fight-or-flight response. In moments of calm, they may inadvertently create chaos because it’s what they know, or they expect the worst to happen and behave in ways that create self-fulfilling prophecies. When challenges arise, they have an especially difficult time regulating their emotions, which leads to impulsive decision-making and behavioral outbursts at work that leave them feeling more stressed. These behaviors lead to a burnout characterized by the emotional and physical exhaustion that arises from persistent nervous system dysregulation and detachment from their work and other personal responsibilities as demands pile up.

Values-Based Living Is the Answer

Knowing this, how can you prevent or manage burnout? The answer is to look to your values. Living your work life (and life in general) anchored in your values leads to eudaimonic happiness—the kind of joy that is derived from a deep sense of meaning and purpose in your life, and an assurance that your needs and wants are being attended to while also being thoughtful and caring of those around you.

You can incorporate values-based living in these practical yet impactful ways, beginning today. Start by identifying your top three values (if you need help, check out my free values card sort or search online for “values list”—there are many options available). Values are not items you can check off a list but are the beliefs and principles that you believe are important in the way that you live and work. Your values are like your compass, guiding your priorities, decisions, and how you act toward others as well as how you treat yourself.

Each morning, review your top three values and keep them top of mind in the projects you take on and in the decisions you have to make. When debating between two decision points, think about which decision will honor your top values most. Before you say yes to a project or to helping a colleague, ask yourself if doing so will be in alignment with your top values. And at the end of the day, check in with your top values and ask yourself whether you did something, however small, to live in accordance with each of them. If you find that one or more values were not tended to during your day, recommit to doing something that aligns with those missing value(s) in the next 24 hours.

Practice these tips each day and you’ll find yourself a lot less burnt out—and a lot more joyful.


Ho, Judy. (2024). The New Rules of Attachment: How to Heal Your Relationships, Reparent Your Inner Child, and Secure Your Life Vision. Hachette Book Group.

Kristy Threlkeld. Employee Burnout Report: COVID-19’s Impact and 3 Strategies to Curb It. Indeed. March 11, 2021

Morgan Smith. Burnout is on the rise worldwide—and Gen Z, young millennials and women are the most stressed. CNBC. March 14, 2024.

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