I invite you to recall a moment when you felt really burned out. You might feel that way right now, or it may be a time from your past.

How do you feel in your body when you think about burnout?

Perhaps you feel drained, exhausted, depleted, tired, frustrated, or discouraged. A feeling that comes up when I think about burnout is the feeling of being trapped.

That’s because burnout is full of double binds—situations where we feel trapped between two seemingly irreconcilable choices, where it seems like the only ways forward are to either hurt ourselves or people we love by taking one course of action or to hurt ourselves or others by taking a different course of action.

One reason burnout presents a double bind is that commodification culture makes it hard to meet our needs.

Commodification Culture

When we’re burned out, often we feel most called to do nothing. But given that most of us have to earn money to put a roof over our heads or food on the table, it can seem impossible to take the break we need to replenish our energy. And, so, we can feel trapped, like we’re screwed if we do nothing and screwed if we do something.

Likewise, let’s say that you long to leave your current job but need to make money to meet your needs during your work transition.

The challenge is that starting your own thing or finding a new job typically requires a lot of energy, energy that can be hard to come by when you’re burned out. It’s hard not to feel trapped between the two impossible choices of investing energy you don’t have in finding what’s next or staying in a job that drains you.

Another double bind with roots in a lack of systemic support systems is one that people caring for children, elders, or loved ones often experience.

On one hand, if you’re burned out from caring for others all the time, you may long for nothing more than a significant break from caring for others. And on the other hand, it can be impossible to just let your caretaking responsibilities go.

The roots of burnout are largely systemic, and just changing your perspective does not always ameliorate the situation.

Full stop.

And, at the same time, there is another reason why we can feel trapped in double binds, one we have much more power over.

Either-Or Mentality

This second reason is that dominant culture trains us to see the world in either-or dualities—good guys or bad guys, us or them, right or wrong.

This training leads us to approach our challenges with an either-or perspective, assuming there are only two possible paths forward, and limits the options see.

And yet, when we look more closely, we can see that all life expresses itself in polarities, apparent opposites that need each other to form a whole—night/day, birth/death, cold/hot, soft/hard, chaos/order, knowing / not knowing, yes/no, yin/yang.

There’s no escaping the tension inherent in polarities, especially for those of us who hold a commitment to showing up for the collective and embodying our whole selves.

We cannot do all things at all times, and we must choose where we invest attention on a moment-by-moment basis.

And yet, when we zoom out and take a look at our entire lives, it becomes easier to see the possibility of crafting a both-and life, a life in which we show up for social change and take good care of ourselves, give and receive, say yes and say no, act and rest, are effective and enjoy ease.

We humans have the capacity to hold the tensions in ways that make us proud.

When we let go of grasping for perfect answers, and do our best to choose strategies that match our situations’ needs—over and over again—we cultivate the ability to dance in the both-and.

Practice: Polarity Squares

Seeing the polarities we face more clearly can help us break free from the trap of burnout, perceive the possibilities open to us, and grow our ability to honor seemingly conflicting needs. The polarity squares practice can help us do that.

In this practice we name what we love and fear about each side of a polarity that we’re grappling with. For example, a client of mine had recently been promoted to a managerial role and was grappling with wanting her staff to like her and respect. She named her polarities as Being the Boss and Being Part of the Team.

Her polarity square looked like this:

Being the Big One                                               Being Part of the Team

What I love about this side:

Respect, Efficiency, Effectiveness, Get the job done, Order, A place for everyone and everyone in their place, Teamwork, Collaboration, Clarity, Less Stress, My boss’s respect me too, Trust, Clean, People listen, Prevent conflict

What I love about this side:

Everyone gets along, people collaborate, people like me, Good team energy, People might be more self-motivated, People might have more creative ideas, Avoid conflict, Feels easier, Belonging, Maybe more fun, People listen too

What I fear about this side:

Being unnecessarily bossy, going too far, away from my values, being like a dictator or tyrannical, being mean, pushing people around, creating conflict, people not liking me, creating unnecessary boundaries, people not listening to me or really respecting me

What I fear about this side:

Being a pushover, No one listens to or respects me, Nothing gets done, Messy, Feeling uncertain, I end up doing all the work, I can’t trust people to do their work, creating conflict because things are unclear, People crossing the lines, Feeling stressed often


I first encountered it in my Presence-Based Coaching training with Doug Silsbee and Bebe Hansen, who learned it from Barry Johnson and his book Polarity Management.

I invite you to try it now.

  1. Identify a situation you’re struggling with that feels like it has a double-bind.

  2. Do your best to name the two sides of the polarity you’d like to explore. Try to find the essential quality or underlying need that each side represents for you. You can look at the Needs Inventory for help finding words that resonate. Make sure you choose words that feel non-judgmental.
  3. Draw a quadrant on a piece of paper like the one below, and label the left and right columns of the square below with the names of each side of the polarity. Alternatively, you can create a polarity square with tape on the floor.

  1. Sense into one side of the polarity. Write down everything you love about that side in the top row and everything you fear about it in the bottom row. You might use the online thesaurus, wordhippo.com, to help you discover new words to describe what you love and fear about each side.
  2. Then sense into the other side of the polarity. Write down everything you love and fear about that side.

    You’ll probably notice that you have an easier time filling out some quadrants more than others. This is usually a sign of internalized messages about the right and wrong ways to be in the world, training, or trauma that have led us to habitually hang out on one side or the other of any given polarity. For example, you may have learned to cling to the giving end of the giving-receiving polarity and have difficulty allowing yourself to receive.

  1. Keep asking each part of the square What else? until you feel complete.

  2. When you’re complete, ask yourself: What do I know now about each side of the polarity? What questions or curiosities do I now have? Write them down.

Allow the idea of the polarity square to percolate in the pot on the backburner of your mind for the next several days, and jot down new insights as they arise.

May you be kind to the parts of you who are struggling and glimpse the possibility that is available to you, even right now.


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