How to take care of everyone without burning out

People are counting on you to be there for them. Dr. Mark Goulston shares how to give each one of them the attention they deserve without causing you to overextend yourself.
This is a photo of Mark Goulston, M.D.
Mark Goulston, M.D.

Whenever I feel overextended, I think of the street performer in Venice, California, who juggles chainsaws. I am awed by the intensity with which he concentrates on each ferocious saw as he plucks it from the air. The slightest distraction and he could easily lose an arm.

Like the juggler, I need to focus sharply on each role I play — husband, father, son, brother, therapist, friend, teacher, mentor, coach — only in some respects my task is harder: the performer juggles chainsaws, but I have to juggle people. Because all of my roles are important, and the amount of time I can give to them is limited, I have to make sure that every person who matters to me doesn’t feel neglected.

For a busy person, trying to do justice to everyone’s needs is self-defeating because you usually end up doing justice to no one, including yourself. If you spread yourself too thin, you not only risk burnout but the scorn and anger of people who expect you to be there for them.

The key is to make each person feel important when you’re with them. Of the many busy people I know, the ones who manage their juggling acts best are those who give each activity and each person their undivided attention. At the office, they are engaged in their work: at home, the office is history and they focus on their roles as spouses and parents; when they are with their mother, boss or accountant, they are immersed in the roles of adult child, employee or client. Each entrance and exit is crisp, and most of the time no one feels shortchanged.

I say “most of the time” because there are always periods in a busy person’s life when loved ones do feel shortchanged. When that happens, I advise the person to tell others, “You’re the most important spouse I have. Your kids are the most important children I have. My career is the most important career I have. And I’m the most important self I have. If I’ve made you feel unappreciated, then I’ve been wrong. I’m sorry, but please understand that every part of my life is important.”

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However, you have to do more than explain. You can demonstrate someone’s importance only through your actions. If, for example, you fail to deliver on your promises, no amount of comforting words will make your child or spouse feel valued. It is also important to be proactive rather than reactive. People feel important not when you comply with their requests, but when you initiate commitments on your own. Agreeing to show up at your kid’s soccer game is one thing especially when you spend the game chatting with another parent instead of paying attention to your child, but it is quite another to say, without being reminded, “You have a big game coming up, don’t you? I can’t wait to see it. And hey, let’s practice some drills.”

If you make people feel important, they won’t feel deprived of your time. But keep the following caveats in mind. First, beware of doling out your time so equitably that it seems artificial and measured and you don’t come off as being present. When you do that, everyone feels deprived.

Some people are more important than others; make sure they know it. Second, you too are important, so don’t feel guilty about devoting time to yourself. Third, as long as everyone is making a sincere effort to be fair, you and the people in your life should cut each other some slack. The way society is structured, the amount of time we spend on something often bears no relation to the true value we assign to it.

Juggling people may not be as physically dangerous as juggling chainsaws, but it does entail risks. If you get careless, you won’t sever an arm, but you might sever a valued relationship. If you make people feel important, however, you can hold onto everyone without fear of losing your grip.

Usable Insight: Everything competes for time, but no one should have to compete for importance.

Taking Action: One way to show people how much you value them is to demonstrate the Three C’s:

  • Concern Let them express worries, fears and frustrations without interrupting or rushing them.
  • Curiosity – Show an interest in them before they ask you to. “Did you have a good day?” does not convey much interest, whereas “How did that meeting you were worried about go?” shows that you are aware of, and care about, the details of their lives.’
  • Confidence Show respect for them and faith in their ability to handle problems. Instead of jumping in with unsolicited advice just to be able to leave quickly thinking you’ve show caring, ask questions such as “What do you think you’ll do next?” or “When will you let them know your decision?”

Join the Conversation: What can you do to help other people without overextending yourself? Tell us your strategy for caring with caution on our Facebook page.

Dr. Mark Goulston is an award-winning business psychiatrist, a consultant for Fortune 500 companies and the best-selling author of seven books. His latest book, Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with Irrational and Irresponsible People in your Life can be found on Amazon. Catch up on Dr. Goulston’s previous articles here.

Connect with Dr. Goulston through FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn. His books are available on Amazon. Check out his videos on YouTube or take advantage of free resources available at

This article is an excerpt from Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self Defeating Behavior (©1996 Tarcher/Perigee) reprinted with permission of the authors, Mark Goulston, M.D., and Philip Goldberg