Fired Up or Burned Out? Creating Sustainable Activist Cultures

By Cheyenna Weber, Organizing Director

What is burnout? Burnout is feeling chronically tired, listless or depressed, decreased immunity, increased aches and pains, irritability, feeling overwhelmed and underappreciated, and worst of all, hopeless. It’s been described as feeling underwater, or being unable to ever catch up, or feeling bored or angry at colleagues. If you’re feeling this way it’s ok: it does not mean you are a bad activist or a bad person. It just means you—and the folks you work with—need to make some adjustments. (You can check to see if you’re burned out by visiting the ACLU's Burnout Prevention site.)

How do we get burned out? We take on too much, often without proper support, and fail to recognize the negative effects. We forgo celebrating or reflecting and instead focus only on the long to-do list in front of us. We neglect play. This is partly because of youth and zeal for our causes but part of it is also cultural. As activists we’re trained to put the needs of others first. Radical activism often operates in a culture of martyrdom that is defined by personal sacrifice. The trouble is this isn’t a realistic model or indicative of the world we’re trying to build.

So what can we do once we are burned out? What can we do to prevent it? Here’s a list, gathered from various authorities on the subject.

1. Colleen Holt, from Coaching for Social Change, recommends that we take “small sweet steps” towards recovery. Burnout can’t be fixed overnight, but if you make a commitment to do something every day that reminds you of your purpose as an individual, even if it just means watching the sunset each day, that’s a good step.

2. Rest! In an increasingly work-obsessed capitalist culture setting firm boundaries around rest and recreation is a radical act. Turn off your phone when you go on vacation. Sleep 8 hours a night. Schedule time for nothing.

3. Play! Stuart Brown, who has devoted his life to the science of play, has found that “the process of play allows us to deal with the craziness and allows generation of solutions to problems…in the absence of play we meet life’s paradoxes with bitterness and rigidity that prevents us from really engaging.” Basically, play helps us to maintain empowered strategic thinking. Without it we lose our edge.

4. Communicate. Let people know how you are feeling. We should trust the people we’re working with to build a better world to support us and recognize the capacity of the group. Ask people to reflect on this. You might even consider asking everyone to take the ACLU survey above.

5. Focus on virtuosity. Roberto Lovato, a highly successful community organizer, says “it is not enough to look good, it has to be good.” The only way our work can be strategic, nuanced, and have a lasting impact is if we give it the time and energy it requires. You can’t do that if you are divided among several groups or campaigns in a stressful harried schedule.

Burnout isn’t something that can be “fixed” overnight. In fact, to address it we have to look not only at ourselves, but also our organizations, our cultures, and our communities. Creating time for reflection for yourself and your group, and discussing burnout not as a tragedy but as a pitfall inherent in our work will help to empower you and others to make more sustainable choices. That will not only help us to continue to commit ourselves to social justice work, it will also make our movement welcoming to others.

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