Activist Burnout: Coping with the Weight of the World

July 14, 2009

Sometimes I find myself overwhelmed by the daily news to the point where I switch channels from the real-life murder report to CSI Miami, where there is no semblance of reality, just so I can rest my mind from the stress. It’s hard not to be aware and negatively affected by the intense problems going on in the world every single day.

But for the activists out there, our job is to confront specific issues without the luxury of flipping the channel. Our work, whether paid or volunteer, forces us to take on the wrongs in the world. After some time this can lead to frustration, mental and physical exhaustion, and even a sense that we are struggling without gain. Simply put, we suffer from activist burnout.

I was thinking the other day about this sense of burnout and did a Google search only to be stunned by the number of blogs and articles online that have touched on this subject. Angry Black–White Girl writes, “Being an activist for me has always come with the expectation [of] giving everything possible for the movement, and anything short of that being taken as a reflection that one is not truly ‘down for the cause.'”

I feel I can really identify with this sentiment. For me it can come down to as minor a thing as worrying that my love of shoes betrays my feminist stance. I think it’s easy for those of us embedded in passionate and intense activist communities to forget to take care of ourselves and our colleagues.

Another blogger writes, “Going to work everyday against gigantic odds can be crushing to the soul.” I know this is especially true for those whose work doesn’t show immediate results.

Feeling burnt out? Some helpful resources include the American Civil Liberties Union, which has useful information on their website on identifying symptoms of burnout for activists and ways to manage the stress. Also, this website gives helpful suggestions on how to cultivate mental attitudes to better cope with activist work.

We would also appreciate suggestions from our readers. If you are an activist, in any big or small way, how do you cope with the issue of burnout? Do you have suggestions for preventing or dealing with stress? Share your experiences and thoughts with us.

By:   |   July 14, 2009

4 Comments

  1. KG says:

    This is a great point and thanks for the links. Burnout is a real issue for people who engage in activism and work for nonprofits. One of the sociopolitical factors leading to burnout cited by the ACLU is:

    “Patriarchal values such as: an attitude that workers are expendable, focusing on feelings or relationships is a waste of time, productivity is everything etc.”

    I think self-care is important, as it helps us manage stress so we can keep fighting the good fight. But sometimes we, as activists, are faced with environments that are toxic. I think one key to success is being able to recognize when we can no longer be effective working within a specific setting. Sometimes to be our best we have to move on or align ourselves with others who better share our values.

  2. Holly Kearl says:

    Great post, Amanda! Occasionally feeling burned out is a struggle for me too. In part I think it’s because many of my after work activities also involve women’s rights activism. Trying to relax and have fun is sometimes a struggle when there is always more that could be done! I’m lucky to have a great partner who looks out for me and helps me snap out of that mind frame for a while when I really need a break. Running daily also helps me manage my stress.

    I volunteer with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network and there are a list of self-care tips we give to survivors we talk with on the hotlines (http://rainn.org/get-information/sexual-assault-recovery/self-care-for-survivors) and whenever we have volunteer meetings, the volunteer leaders remind us that we can follow the same self-care tips if we are getting worn down by our work.

  3. […] And because you’re an activist – damn it – you can’t take a break: […]

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