9 signs you may be at your limit

I came across this list a couple months ago, when a friend mentioned it in his sermon, and I was hooked. Convicted. Guilty as charged.

It made me realize that I had allowed myself to slide back into a life of ‘productive’ busyness, where I tended to react to things rather than thoughtfully respond, and so I began to  rebuild some healthy structures and rhythms back into my life.

It’s written specifically for folks in ministry but I think it applies just as much to others.

From Ruth Haley Barton’s book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership (104-105):

  1. Irritability or hypersensitivity. Things that wouldn’t normally bother us (such as a child’s mistake, another driver cutting us off in traffic or a coworker’s irritating habit) put us over the edge. We may or may not express our rage outwardly, but inwardly we are aware of reactions that are all out of proportion to the event itself.
  2. Restlessness. During waking hours we might be aware of a vague sense that something is not quite right or an even stronger feeling of wanting to bolt from our life. When it is time to rest, we might find ourselves unable to settle down and sit quietly or fall asleep. Because we are overstimulated, our sleep may be broken, marred by too much mental activity or disturbing dreams.
  3. Compulsive overworking. “Overwork is this decade’s cocaine, the problem without a name,” says Bryan Robinson, who has written widely about the phenomenon and estimates that as many as 25 percent of Americans have this addiction. “Workaholism is an obsessive-compulsive disorder,” he writes, “that manifests itself through self-imposed demands, an inability to regulate work habits, and an overindulgence in work — to the exclusion of most other life activities.” This compulsive behavior can also manifest itself in a frenetic quality to our work. We might find that we are unable to stop or slow down even when that would be appropriate — like at night after dinner or on vacation. A compulsive leader is one who — for some reason that he or she cannot quite name — has no boundaries on work, checks e-mail late into the evening, and is unable to unplug completely to go on vacation, to enter into solitude or to spend uninterrupted time with family.
  4. Emotional numbness. When we are pushing our limit, we may notice that we can’t feel anything — good or bad. It takes energy to experience and process a full range of human emotion. When we are “at capacity” we literally do not have the energy to engage the full range of human experience, including our emotions. In addition, we might be afraid that if we did stop and experience our emotions we would be overwhelmed, and who has time for that?
  5. Escapist behaviors. When we do have a break in the action, we might notice that increasingly we are succumbing to escapist behaviors (such as compulsive eating, drinking or other substance abuse, spending, television, pornography, surfing the Internet) and don’t have the energy to choose activities that are life-giving (such as exercising, going for a walk or bike ride, connect meaningfully with friends and family, enjoying a hobby or interest like playing an instrument, cooking, painting, drawing, writing poetry, playing sports, working with our hands, reading a good book). This becomes a vicious cycle, because escapist behaviors actually drain energy from us — energy that we could use to make life-giving choices — and then we just get more and more lethargic.
  6. Disconnected from our identity and calling. More and more we find ourselves going through the motions of doing ministry but disconnected from a true sense of who we are and what God is calling us to do. Increasingly, we find that we are at the mercy of other people’s expectations and our own inner compulsions because we lack an internal plumb line against which to measure these demands.
  7. Not able to attend to human needs. We don’t have time to take care of basic human needs such as exercise, eating right, sleeping enough, going to the doctor, having that minor (or major) surgery we need. Even such simple things as getting the car washed, picking up the dry cleaning or staying organized seem impossible to accomplish, indicating that we’re pushing the limits of being human. We may also notice that our most important relationships (family and friends) are routinely being short-changed.
  8. Hoarding energy. When we are running on empty, we can have the inner experience of always feeling threatened, as though exposing ourselves to additional people or situations would drain the last of our energy or the energy we are trying to conserve for what we think is important. We might actually become overly self-protective and even reclusive in our attempts to hoard the few resources we do have. In their book The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz call this defense spending.
  9. Slippage in our spiritual practices. Practices that are normally life-giving (solitude and silence, prayer, personal reflection on Scripture, journaling, self-examination, caring for the body) become burdensome, and we don’t have energy for them even though we know they are good for us. We might even find that we are so accustomed to using God and Scripture for ministry purposes that we no longer know how to be with God for ourselves personally. We know that there are things we need to attend to in God’s presence, but we truly do not have the energy or the will. Over time, this becomes a symptom and also a source of our depletion.

She writes later (111, emphasis added):

When we refuse to live within limits, we are refusing to live with a basic reality of human existence. There is a finiteness to what I can do in this body. There is a finiteness to how many relationships I can engage in meaningfully at one time. There is a finiteness to time — how many hours there are in a day, how many days there are in a week and how much can be done in those blocks of time. There is a finiteness to my energy. There comes a time when I am tired. There comes a time when I am sick. There comes a time when I am injured. There are times when I am reminded that I am human — a finite being living in the presence of an infinite God. God is the infinite one. God is the one who can be all things to all people. God is the one who can be in all places at once. God is the one who never sleeps. I am not.

Our unwillingness to live within limits — both personally and in community — is one of the deepest sources of depletion and eventual burnout.

If this resonates with you — as it did/does with me — it might be time to make a change or two.


  1. Pingback:What to do if you’re feeling overwhelmed | JUSTIN FUNG

  2. Pingback:MONOCHRONICi’mCULTURE | makingmudpiesblog

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