Not my words, but those I read in an international women's rights group this morning. This was the weary comment from one woman on yet another depressing article about the shocking abuse of a sex slave. Quick to jump were many who deemed her words uncaring and self centred, but others recognised that she spoke a truth. This stuff is exhausting and she was suffering from activist burnout. She had read one article too many for herself in that moment and she was done. Negative might have been a wrong choice of word, but she was right. It wasn't a positive. Any group filled with articles and posts on all the wrongs and horrors of the world is rarely going to exude positivity. And whilst I don't buy into the "surround your self only with positivity, spiritual by-passing, I'm alright Jack" vibe, there is something here that needs to be acknowledged.
To be at the frontline of raising awareness about injustice and abuse; taking action against horrid, mind blowing cruelty in the world; or caring deeply about the planet, or human and animal rights can come at emotional and mental cost in a world that at times seems hell bent on destruction, greed and harm.
Those that care profoundly are often those that surround themselves with images and stories of that which they wish to change. There is a constant reminder that it is an uphill struggle and no matter how many marches they go on, or petitions they sign, or letters they write there is an endless swathe of more to attend to. It is exhausting. It is soul shatteringly exhausting at times. Activists do burnout. It leads to depression or a kind of mania. The kind of depression where you've run out of anger and fight to do anymore, and you feel all action is hopeless. It is an overwhelming sense of doom and loss and grief. Or it spirals into the kind of manic desperation where your life, your conversation, your thoughts, your words are consumed by trying to make change and get others to care about the things you care deeply about. This also becomes overwhelming and there can a loss of self in this. A loss of the things that make you whole.
Recognising the symptoms is key to stop the overwhelming grief and hopelessness. When you find it hard to be happy or have fun, because in the back of your mind are the things you are campaigning about, a constant pull or presence, then think about doing some of the following:
- If you are frontline, as in a public face for a specific cause, it's ok to get help from admins, take time out from organising, blogging, vlogging and posting etc. It's defnitely ok to prioritise your safety and deactivate accounts if needs be in the face of bullying or personal attack.
- Mute or unfollow certain social media chats and groups from time to time, you can still look when you want to.
- Leave certain social media chats and groups and only stay in a few key ones if you feel the need.
- Hide or unfollow other activists who post a lot on your social media. Snooze them for thirty days on Facebook and give yourself a break from a full newsfeed.
- Give your self time out, days off, weeks off, a month or two off when needed. It's ok to take a break. Real battles are won in separate campaigns, new strategies, and frontlines being held. Frontlines can be held in shifts and rotation. You don't have to stand there sleepless holding it solo. There are others who care like you. The whole thing won't fall apart if you take a break.
- Reduce the amount of imagery or stories you feed your mind with. Stop looking until you feel you really can. There is no obligation to damage your mental health by forcing your self to be aware of every bad thing in the world.
- Pare your activism back to petition signing for a while via petition groups like Avaaz, 38Degrees or Change, without reading reams about each topic. Petitions do work.
- Choose a positive real time project closer to home for a while
- Limit the amount of time spent on marches and vigils. Allocate a percentage of your free time and stick to it. Or only choose key ones to attend.
- Limit the amount of topics or problem areas you invest your time in. What calls you the most, honestly? Remember you can switch from time to time. Just trying to take it all on at once is asking for burnout.
Most importantly once out of the burnout or before burnout hits make sure the following is a priority:
- Make space and time for the good things in life.
- Make space and time for friends and family outside of activism.
- Allow yourself to grieve, don't bypass the sad feelings just because others around you don't feel the same. Their being less affected does not invalidate your feeling that things are far from okay.
- Invest in your own self care via food, nutrition, relaxation therapies, exercise and uplifting activities.
- Balance the sense of hopelessness by focusing on success stories and positive changes as well.
- Get enough sleep and time in nature.
- Ask yourself this every now and then. If the thing I'm trying to change was changed overnight and there was no need for me to protest, what would I then do, and what life is there outside of me trying to make that difference? Make sure there is something. Maintain that something.
Those of you reading this who have activists in your circle of friends and family, look out for them. Make them a meal once in a while. Make sure they feel cared about and nurtured. Thank them for their part in making change. Support their frontline activities. Share some of their posts. Pay for their transport cost of getting to a march. Buy them a massage voucher. Just because you can't do or choose not to do what they do, don't assume that they feel anything negatively about you. I see many close friends and family of activists look the other way because somehow they feel like it shames then when they do look. That's your stuff to deal with, often not to do with the activist themselves. Don't not support your activists because you feel like you should be doing more. Maybe the more you can be doing right now is actually supporting them. Make sure they have exposure and visibility in the things they are trying to change, ask them how it is going, take an interest, but also make sure they have fun and relaxation, and see them in their wholeness. Don't avoid your activists because they burst your bubble. They make you uncomfortable because they are literally pointing at things beyond your comfort zone. They highlight and wave flags in areas of life that are uncomfortable. They are the truth speakers in a world of veneer and glamour. Thank them for going into the darkness and shining the torch. Thank them for educating you and showing you a bigger picture. Thank them for holding politicians and corporations accountable. Don't turn away, they are not shameful. It is the things they bring a spotlight to that is our collective shame.
And when you hear the call and cannot ignore it any longer. Take your own action. No matter how small. Thank you for all you do. Take care. Go gently. Take steps to avoid activist burnout.