I recently came back from the Asia Pacific Rainbow Families Forum 2018 in Hong Kong, and one of the themes that united my comrades and I was burnout and the challenges of practicing self care.
Burnout is a political and movement issue. Every year committed activists suffer and drop out of our community because they have burnt out. To a great extent burnout is simply accepted as a by-product of being involved in activism. However as we work in groups, if a person is suffering from burnout, it will tend to have an affect on the group as a whole. The way we behave to both ourselves and the people around us has profound impacts. An enjoyable and effective action or process can easily be turned into a challenging one. This is in no way meant to blame or attack people suffering from burnout, it is more to emphasise the fact that we need to support each other more effectively. We don’t have to accept burnout as a fact of activist life. We don’t have to continue to lose valuable members of our community.
“Burnout is defined, and subjectively experienced, as a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in situations that are emotionally demanding. The emotional demands are often caused by a combination of very high expectations and chronic situational stresses. Burnout is accompanied by an array of symptoms including physical depletion, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, disillusionment and the development of negative self-concept and negative attitudes towards work, people and life itself. In its extreme form, burnout represents a breaking point beyond which the ability to cope with the environment is severely hampered.” from Career Burnout – Causes and Cures, Ayala Pines and Elliott Aronson, The Free Press 1998
We can look at burnout as a warning sign – in this sense it is an opportunity to re-evaluate and re-prioritise, to develop more sustainable and healthy working methods. To paraphrase R.D. Laing the infamous 1960s Psychiatrist ‘It doesn’t have to be all breakdown, it can also be a breakthrough.’ Burnout often results from working too hard and from experiencing too much stress or too many stressful situations. This can happen when we demand too much of ourselves, when we set ourselves idealistic or unrealistic standards, when we don’t feel able to take time out and are unable to delegate. In other words, when we don’t value ourselves, when we fail to look after our own most basic needs.
Reflecting on our activist culture
As a movement do we accept periods of low motivation, while respecting people for admitting that they need a break to recharge their batteries? Do we respect activists who own up to the fact that they don’t have the time or energy to complete tasks they have taken on? Or rather, are respect and kudos within our community earned through a kind of devotion to the cause which requires endless personal sacrifice?
There is a constant danger that the often pressing and urgent nature of activist work fosters a work ethic which in itself can be highly damaging. While perhaps understandable, can create a culture that respects personal sacrifice which is neither sustainable or effective? The downsides of the activist culture of devotion to the cause are that our community continually loses some of its most committed participants, while there is also the tendency for new participants to be discouraged from becoming involved. If we want to become the change that we want to see in the world, then surely it is time we accepted that relentlessly driving ourselves and those around us is neither sustainable nor desirable. We need to remember that changing the world is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to pace ourselves.
Strategies for avoiding burnout
Our activist commitments need regular review and pruning to prevent overload. If you have taken on something but can’t do it say so publicly, rather than people thinking you are doing it when you are not.
Ensure that you take regular breaks while also combining a variety of different activities – plan some time off, before, during and after big actions or work sessions – aiming for a balance that is right for you and your needs.
What are the situations that grind you down the most? Can you create ways of dealing with them?
Don’t feel you have to go on every action – if it doesn’t feel right don’t do it.
It helps to know your own motives. Sometimes people come to activism as a way of expressing anger and pain that actually arises out of more personal sources – an abusive childhood, or difficult life experiences. This is not to say that you can’t have both, or that family violence doesn’t have a political aspect to it. However, in terms of sustainability, it is helpful to know what is coming from where.
Long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations is easier to cope with when you have a way of releasing the emotions that the situations create, regular emotional release through support networks, co-counselling, sport, sex, being in nature, basically things that take your mind off work, they can help you bring out the best in yourself and others around you.
Learn and practise the art of letting go – face up to, accept and work through your pain, your stress, your fears, while being compassionate with yourself, until you come to the point where you can let go and move on from them
Acknowledge your own humanity: you have the right to pleasure and a right to relaxation.
Accept and show our vulnerability. We are not machines, when we deny the vulnerable aspects of our nature, they can easily resurface in more problematic ways.
Lead as healthy a lifestyle as you can:
- Get adequate sleep and rest to maintain your energy levels.
- Eat a healthy balanced diet, lots of fresh fruit and veg, cut out junk food and don’t skip meals.
- Get regular aerobic exercise – eg. swimming, cycling.
- Be aware of your intake of stimulant and recreational drugs, and whether it’s helping or hindering your work.
- Take up Tai Chi, Chi Gong, yoga, meditation(all good for getting the habit of breathing deeply) Get a massage, learn how to give massages. Massage is a great way to relax and find comfort.
- Play and be with children – rediscover your spontaneity – notice how effortlessly in the moment young children are – join them by engaging fully in their games.
- Celebrate individual and group achievements. Create positive spaces, events and alternatives
- Explore your creativity – it’s often said what a creative group of people activists are. How about experimenting with your creativity in areas that don’t involve outwitting the police, or foiling corporate shenanigans?
Ultimately, at the end of the day, there is no one size fits all solution. The process of healing that is involved in avoiding or coping with burnout will be as unique and singular as each one of us is. We have to follow our passions, there is no point taking up an activity just because you read about it in a blogpost, for such a healing process to be truly effective you need to make use of a combination of activities and practices that really grab you and your passions.