#1198: “How do I deal with work burnout and make my partner* happy?” (*My partner = my boss, who is *a* partner in the law firm where I work)

I’m putting this one behind a cut. A Letter Writer is dealing with some major work burnout and anxiety,  and mentions disordered eating (bulimia) and childhood abuse including sexual abuse in passing (no details, just, mentioned). This is a tricky one.

Dear Captain Awkward –

So – the most important person in my life is my partner at the law firm I work at and while I should be writing to you to probably figure out how to establish healthy boundaries and work life balance, I am instead writing to you to see how I can make him happier and acknowledge that I have been slipping which makes me panicky which slows down my work even more.

The thing is I have in equal parts, never been happier in my life than when I work with him; I have completely forgotten who I was and what I did with my life before this job; and know I am 100% projecting all my mess on him while he is generally a pillar of stability and kindness and someone who believes in me so much.

I (she/her), like many people, had both a blessed and somewhat horrible childhood where I had parents who loved me, some step-parents (between the two of them my parents were married seven times) who loved me, and one stepparent who while I’m sure also loved me also hurt me (emotionally, physically, sexually). I went to college and it was messy but I pulled myself mainly into a stable space and built a life with friends (great!) and dated some (horrible! I have the worst taste!) and self-medicated a bit through food and bulimia (neutral?). Through all of this school was my safe space. To this day, the two most soothing sounds to me in the world are a school radiator humming quietly on a winter night and the click of heels on a polished floor.

I picked a field that I knew would take everything I would give it and be a career, an identity, a life. And I love it. And I’ve been successful! Clients like me, my counselees like me, I am good at what I do, and my partners like me! Because I picked a specialty of a specialty I’m not actually in the same office as my main partner. He also hasn’t always been my partner, when I started at the firm I worked in another state in another office and it took five years to convince him to see me as a viable replacement for his last associate. For the last two years I’ve worked nearly solely for him and it has been better than I ever thought it would be.

But we work a lot and so boundaries get…fluid. Not in an untoward way. Just in I know about his family and his frustrations and he worries about me and protects me? He worries about me when I stay too late at the office (in case the city is dangerous) and he worries about me when I’m sick (and orders me to go to doctor). And he protects me. When another partner yelled at me he made them apologize. When a partner made me cry he made them make me feel better. And when a partner made me uncomfortable he nearly burned the world down to make it right. He makes sure no one bullies me and when I make a mistake he says we made a mistake because we are a team. He makes me feel safe and secure and as a result he has my loyalty completely.

But it’s been a rough winter. The hours have been very long and I had a four month bronchial infection that I ignored until he told me I had to go to the doctor and I realized it was really bad (two courses of antibiotics and it’s still not gone). I am tired and a little sloppy and he deserves so much more than that and I can tell he thinks I’m burned out.

But all I hear in my head when he says that is that he is going to leave me and replace me. That the man who protects and cares about me more successfully than anyone else in my life might be done with me. I have to mentally restrain myself from begging him not to leave me (even though he has never indicated he will) and begging him not to replace me (even though he has never even said that’s on the table.) Abstractly, I know both of those are not appropriate workplace responses to someone gently suggesting I might be burned out.

But I don’t want to lose him. I do not know who I am without my job and without him. I feel physically anxious when I am separated from work and my email. When I think he is mad at me my world becomes unanchored and my sleeve feels like it is all unraveled.

I have an intake appointment for a therapist later this month to hopefully work through some of this (and also some of the food issues I have) and I’m trying to work out more and eat better but then my brain gets stuck on the hamster wheel of worry and so I get behind, which means I work later, which means I get more tired, which means I get sloppier, which means I get more worried.

So, I guess my question is this – how can I make him happy? How can I trust that he trusts and values me? How can I put in boundaries that mean I project less of my messy onto him? How can I put my head back on straight so I can be that high producing, happy, good associate that convinced him to let her transfer to his group – who he used to brag about to his other partner friends when he apparently never does that – instead of the tiny disaster trainwreck I currently am?

Thank you,

Being clingy doesn’t help my billable goal!

Hi there, “Being Clingy.”

When you go to see your therapist, which I am very glad you are planning to do, consider taking your letter with you, even if you just keep it with you as a reference for what you’re there to talk about, namely, “I have a history of childhood abuse and disordered eating, additionally I’m experiencing burnout at work and I’ve become pretty fixated on my work supervisor and I’d like help developing some better boundaries around that.” You kind of glossed over the childhood stuff and the bulimia in your writeup, like, “Oh, look what I overcame, no worries!” but there’s a reason you included it, the happiest places you’ve ever been are institutions where you could get outside approval for how hard you worked (To this day, the two most soothing sounds to me in the world are a school radiator humming quietly on a winter night and the click of heels on a polished floor”) and honestly that surprises me not at all.

The way you talk about this job and embody all this in a single person – “my partner” – meaning *a* partner at a law firm who I don’t think…you are dating…? But reading to me the way people talk about “my partner” as in “the love of my life” and then with a lot of language that would support that, like how you are obsessed with “making him happy”? That needs some serious untangling.

My first honest thought about what it reminded me of was D/s BDSM fantasy erotica, the breathless description of a submissive waiting for Master to give permission to eat or pee or switch sitting positions (or go to the doctor for a persistent cough at long long last), the “My Master is the Best Master, he protects me from all the other Mean Masters” tone of the part where he (from what I can guess ) successfully stood up for you with his colleagues and enforced your office’s policy about sexual harassment against a colleague who made you uncomfortable (this is part of his job).

Consider your opening statement: “So – the most important person in my life is my partner at the law firm I work at and while I should be writing to you to probably figure out how to establish healthy boundaries and work life balance, I am instead writing to you to see how I can make him happier and acknowledge that I have been slipping which makes me panicky which slows down my work even more.”

If your letter were an excerpt from a story about how someone can’t wait for their loving “punishment” because they deserve it for failing to do enough to please somebody, I would not blink an eye. But as an advice letter about a workplace thing?


Let’s go back to the healthy boundaries and work-life balance, please.

It is definitely not wrong to dream about having that kind of kink relationship in personal life, and before you insist that what you feel for your boss is not sexual or assure me that “he would never do that!,” your letter isn’t reminding me of the SEX in that kind of kink fantasy, or how any of it might actually be practiced in real life (don’t @me “but real bdsm isn’t like that” people, I don’t care and also it’s not the point), it’s reminding me of the headspace, the story, the fantasy of letting go and trusting someone else to do the driving, they’ll take you where you need to go if you can just be good enough and let them, a fantasy where, btw, it’s all about the person who is giving up control, i.e. you.

There’s also something religious about this kind of desire. I’m not religious but sometimes I pet my cat Daniel Striped Tiger and imagine a giant, caring hand petting me like that, flipping me over on my back and and holding me safe, cupping my skull in one hand and skritch-ing a hand all the way down my spine exactly the way I like it with the other, what it might feel like to be able to be so boneless and relaxed in the clutches of a greater power. A massage isn’t the same, I’d need a literal giant to give me the thing I mean. If it helps translate it into a non-physical context, maybe imagine yourself as a wandering knight in search of a feudal lord, or a young novitiate in a religious order who can’t wait to take their final vows. You’re aching to swear your undying loyalty and service to…someone…and be taken care of in return, to know that you belong somewhere, but you’re afraid that if you’re not perfect no one will have you.

Two problems with that. I mean, at least two problems with that.

First problem: It is incredibly Not Okay to project this much…stuff…onto a boss or a workplace. Your boss might be a great boss and a wonderful, caring person who likes you and your work a whole lot, but here’s what’s probably closer to his perspective on this:

  • This person does not want your blood oath of loyalty. He does not want you to drop all your love and anxiety and perfectionism and fear and devotion at his feet like an offering. You can’t non-consensually, what’s the word I’m looking for…you can’t adopt someone as your new dad or the center of your world without asking permission first.
  • This person wants you to do your work and do it well.
  • He wants you to get home safe at night and take care of your own health (partly because he’s a fellow human being, partly so he doesn’t have to remind a fellow adult to go to a doctor when they’re sick).
  • He does want to function as a team and make use of your no-doubt excellent skills.
  • Knowing about a person’s family and personal life happens when you work closely with someone, it’s possible to be friendly with coworkers on this level without it being particularly special or “blurring boundaries.”
  • This person does not think about you all that much except in the context of work or when you are right in front of him. You describe your boss as “the man who protects and cares about me more successfully than anyone else in my life…” but that’s not his…I don’t know…responsibility? Being the most caring person you’ve ever known doesn’t mean that he’s caring ENOUGH for what you need, or that should be his role, or that he owes you something because of that, the same way that “You’re the only person who really understands me” is not a compliment.
  • If your boss DID accept/cultivate/foster/expect the level of devotion you describe here, he would be a very bad boss and a bad person. Nobody who would actually be a good professional mentor for you would want you to feel like this or behave like this. When workplaces describe themselves as families (“We like to think of ourselves as a family around here!”) it’s actually a sign to RUN.
  • Consider also that you’re staying late all the time, hesitant to take time off to nurse a serious medical condition or go to the doctor without explicit permission because your workload is too big and “your partner” aka your manager is not doing the best job of managing that in a way that’s sustainable for you or the firm. If a company cannot weather the temporary absence of a single employee for a week or so to rest up and shake a routine winter catarrh, that’s a company problem and a manager-problem, not a you-problem.

Second problem: Jobs don’t love you back. Reciprocity is inherently lacking in this whole situation. In feudal times knights swore fealty to their lords and the rulers promised and gave something in return: lifelong home and hearth, mutual aid, advocacy, fairness, care. Hark! This nice person compiled a ton of historical examples for us. Same deal with religious orders: Swear your faith, chastity, and obedience and you get three hots and a cot and a place you know you belong for as long as you stay frocked and the abbey remains un-sacked.

Nowadays, the problem with professions like law, consulting, academia (ask me how I know) is that they sell the idea of devotion, a proposition you bought wholesale (“I picked a field that I knew would take everything I would give it and be a career, an identity, a life.“) but it only means your devotion to them, they don’t make any promises in return. And they target people who will give that level of devotion, they actively recruit people they describe as “insecure overachievers,” with the idea that if we succeed, great, and if we burn out, oh well, we’ll blame ourselves for not being good enough in the first place. A new crop of novices will be ready to take their vows next year.

From the link, here’s the description of “insecure overachievers” by Laura Empson at the Harvard Business Review,(bolding mine):

…elite professional organizations deliberately set out to identify and recruit “insecure overachievers” — some leading professional organizations explicitly use this terminology, though not in public. Insecure overachievers are exceptionally capable and fiercely ambitious, yet driven by a profound sense of their own inadequacy. This typically stems from childhood, and may result from various factors, such as experience of financial or physical deprivation, or a belief that their parents’ love was contingent upon their behaving and performing well.

As the recruiters I interviewed explained, these individuals are immensely attractive to elite professional organizations because they are entirely self-motivating and self-disciplining. The firm in effect tells the insecure overachiever, “We are the best in the business, and because we want you to work for us, that makes you the best, too.” But upon joining the firm, insecure overachievers discover that the rigorous up-or-out policy exacerbates their insecurity and their fear of being “exposed” as inadequate — and ultimately rejected.

In the short term, insecure overachievers respond by delivering exceptional performance. As the chair of a consulting firm told me, “My theory is that the best client relationship builders in our firm are insecure. They are so hell-bent on making their clients feel good about them that they work overtime. Clients feel their passion and respond to that.”

The tendency to hard work is reinforced by the strong culture of social control created by elite professional organizations. On the one hand, this is comforting. Some professionals I have studied refer to their firms as being like a “family,” or something even more intense. As one consultant described it, “When I first came here, I thought, This place feels like a cult. But now I have been here a while, I think it is great.” Taken to extremes, the insecure overachiever’s sense of commitment can lead to extreme conformity and the normalization of unhealthy behaviors.

Paradoxically, the professionals I studied still believe that they have autonomy and that they are overworking by choice. They do not blame their organizations, which after all have invested in work-life balance initiatives and wellness programs. Instead, they blame themselves for being inadequate. Their colleagues seem to be coping, and they take that as further evidence of their own inadequacy. They do not talk honestly to their colleagues about their problems, thus perpetuating the myth of the invincible professional, which encourages their colleagues to feel inadequate in turn. If they suffer burnout, they think it is their fault. Their organization and its leadership are absolved of responsibility, so nothing fundamental changes.

When I moved to my current apartment, my first with in-unit laundry, Mr. Awkward snapped a photo of me mock-kissing the stacked washer and dryer units. When the units broke down, I was sad, and we tried to find someone to repair them, but after a few weeks the landlord replaced them with brand new ones since they were too old to affordably repair and would be better recycled. Now we have working units and can do our laundry. I like them just as much, if not more, than the old ones. Your boss doesn’t want you to leave, it sounds like, he wants you to take care of yourself and heal and get better so you can do the work and because he doesn’t want you to suffer or get sick, but he also is considering the work that needs to be done as separate from you and your well-being. That isn’t love, it’s capitalism. It’s his job to think that way. This firm, this boss, this career will never take care of you the way you need. No firm or boss can, or will. You must learn to take care of yourself, and it’s the hardest thing to learn when nobody ever taught you how, but you asked us or help and that’s where it starts, you admitting that you don’t know how to do that and finding appropriate venues to learn.

Your boss, not your partner, YOUR BOSS – if you do nothing else based on my advice, please stop calling him “my partner,” it is an immediate lightning rod of weirdness- anyway, your boss suggested you might be suffering from burnout. He spends a lot of time with you, watched you get real sick, knows your work is slipping, likely knows that burnout is incredibly common in your profession, it’s very unlikely that you’re the first person he knows or at the firm who has gone through something like this, so, consider that possibly, he’s right?

If he is right, what do we do about it? Take time off? Reduce your workload? Hire someone to help you stay on top of it? This piece has some concrete burnout avoidance and coping suggestions specifically for lawyers, including taking advantage of bar association mental health and support resources.

Practically, it’s another question to take to your therapy appointment. “I am suffering from burnout at work and I’m afraid that if I take time off or if my work suffers more, I’m going to lose this very collaborative and supportive mentoring relationship with my boss, either by losing my job or getting transferred to another practice area or office. Can you help me come up with a plan for dealing with burnout before it gets worse?” There are screening checklists specifically for determining if burnout is the issue, your therapist might be able to help you zero in on exactly what’s going on.

Start there. Take some leave if you can soon, even if it’s just a few days. You need a break to nurse that cough. Non-negotiable. You’re “slipping” not because you suck and your boss is secretly looking to break up with fire you, but because you’re SICK. You’ve been coughing for months, four months, a quarter of a year! You’re SICK! You need REST! 

Go to therapy. Keep going to therapy. Be honest with your therapist about what’s actually going on – the possibility of burnout, childhood abuse, disordered eating, extreme anxiety about this one working relationship at the expense of everything else. Talk about long-term goals, short-term coping strategies, talk about all of it. 

Look at some of the process posts on the site about figuring out what you want out of your working life when the environment is demanding. Here’s one about keeping it together when your focus is suffering.

When you’re ready (perhaps with the coaching of the therapist) talk to your boss. “You said you think I might be dealing with burnout at work, if that’s true, what should we do about it? Can you help me make a plan so I can take some time off and refresh and bring in some resources to make sure our clients are taken care of?” 

Reclaim your own work for yourself, not as a devotional offering. From what I can tell you’re an attorney with valuable skills in a highly specialized field, your career achievements are yours, your clients like your work, this is not the sole firm or boss in the world who would value what you can do, nor is their estimation of your value THE sole estimation of your value. You worked your ass off to be here, it’s not all down to one dude! You are valuable if you never write another contract or research one more goddamn piece of case law in this life but also, your work is your work! Your career is your career! It’s not about this man, it’s about you. You did that. 

Plus, consider that rising further in this career means not being the best sidekick or most loyal supplicant, it means being accepted by people like your boss and the other partners as a peer. The more abject you are, the more you hurt your advancement.

I know this panics you, but if it all goes wrong and you do have to leave to preserve your own well-being, it would be good to have savings and an escape plan and a list of other firms or partners who might take you on. This is actually one of the tools I use to manage anxiety (the clinical kind, with the help of a therapist): If the worst thing I’m dreading happening happens, what would I do in that scenario? I make a big list of options and remind myself I have options, even if some are laughably terrible options, maybe my option then is to laugh. Maybe this is not for everyone but I offer it up in case it is for you.

Almost certainly it’s time to reconnect with past colleagues, mentors, and other people who have believed in and supported your work. Doesn’t have to be “HELP, I’M DROWNING,” could be more like “Want to have lunch soon? What are you working on these days?” Catch up with anyone Not Your Boss who connects you to your profession and who has traditionally been friendly. 

Also connect with your own pleasure, your own comfort. Eating good things, sleep, NOT WORK-things that soothe you and comfort you. You mentioned friends, do you see them? Could you call them? Are you making money at this fancy job that’s eating your life? Maybe use some of that money on you, doing fluffy kind things for YOU. Get a weekly massage if you can (see if they have a giant-hand attachment).

I don’t think you’re alone in feeling like this, here’s another person with a story about extreme limerance toward a mentor that’s about a ton of other life-history, I don’t think it’s forever, I don’t think you’re bad or broken, I wasn’t making fun of you about the letter’s resemblance to erotica or a religious mania – that was my honest reaction to the kind of abject desire and self-abegnation on display in what you wrote. I think you’re a good person who wants to do a good job and your health and some trauma stuff have surfaced in a way that professions like yours exacerbate. (Seriously, read the thing about “insecure overachievers.” Imagine professional recruiters knowingly targeting people with your exact history and emotional profile because they know you’ll work yourself to death and think it’s your fault if you crack under the pressure, and tell me again how you’re failing at everything?) I think a lot of people are quietly going through terrible things while they outwardly achieve and rise in the ranks, and they’re not supposed to talk about it, ever, and that makes it worse for everyone (except the companies who benefit from it), I think you’d be completely shocked at how not alone you are in all this.

No comments today, if you find you want some ongoing peer support, the forums at friendsofcaptainawkward.com are a very nice bunch.

I wish you all the best with this, please know that I’m rooting for you to figure this out.

P.S. I said this on Twitter but it’s worth repeating: Are all my favorite media stories some version of “brilliant misfits who work (esp. fight crime) together and somehow became a fambly?” that I need read to me again and again 10,000 times in a row like bedtime stories? Yes. Have I sometimes imprinted on a boss or a mentor like a baby chick in a way that was highly inappropriate because they gave me a sense of safety and stability and also regular praise? Also yes. Are people sending me messages about the “insecure overachiever” thing saying “omg it me” en masse, including highly-admired, highly-accomplished people? Affirmative. Letter Writer, you are soooooooooo not alone.