Thursday, March 1, 2012

Managing Activist Burnout

This post is a part of my “Out of the Kitchen” weekly column at The Progressive Playbook in which various news and pop culture items will be examined through a feminist lens.

I recently joined the community over at Persephone Magazine and I am kiiiiiinda geeking out about how awesome it is over there. (Seriously, if you'd like to be a part of an awesome online group of feminist minded people who are kind, thoughtful, and intelligent, head over that way.)

The other day, Elfity over at Persephone posted about being a fatigued feminist. She said:
At times I fear that I’m going down the path of learned helplessness. I feel like no matter how many letters I write, how much money I give, how much time I volunteer, or how many protests I attend, nothing will change.
...I bring up this subject because I believe that others feel the same thing. We put on a strong front, but it does get to us. That’s okay. It’s alright to be weary and battle-worn every now and then, because we know that our victories will keep us fighting. The next time you start feeling the fatigue or the stress or the burnout, remember that while you have to take care of yourself first, we’ll always be here, and we’ll always need you. Keep on fighting, y’all. These victories won’t come easily.
I suspect anyone involved in activism can nod their head reading Elfity's feelings. How often do we all feel that the things we pour our soul into are hopeless when we interact with someone who makes a rape joke, says "no homo," or tells us that abortion is murder?

Truth is, it's hard out there for a feminist. Or any activist, really. There's no way around it.

I remember when I went to a volunteer training for the Humane Society years ago. It was the first time I heard about "compassion fatigue." According to The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project,
Caring too much can hurt. When caregivers focus on others without practicing self-care, destructive behaviors can surface. Apathy, isolation, bottled up emotions and substance abuse head a long list of symptoms associated with the secondary traumatic stress disorder now labeled: Compassion Fatigue.
While compassion fatigue is usually centered on the experience of caregivers, the same things can strike anyone who gives and gives of themselves for a cause without taking time to rejuvenate and focus on themselves.

I admit, I lead a bit of a charmed feminist existence. I have a group of friends who care about the same issues as me, my profession is directly in line w/ my feminist values and and work. I am partnered with a man who not only respects my autonomy and values, but shares them. And still, despite all the support I have both personally and professionally, watching the news or skimming blogs can get me down. It seems like there is a never ending supply of attacks on women--if it's not a new piece of legislation designed to limit our rights, it's someone body snarking a female celebrity, a hideously objectifying commercial, or research that shows women are still vastly underpaid.

Because my personal passions and my professional life are so entwined, when this happens it can feel particularly devastating. If unchecked, these moments of stress can become overwhelming so it's important to have some fail safes to fall back on; things that you can rely on when all else goes shitty. Here are some of mine. If you have others to add to the list, please share them in the comments:
  1. Journaling--in your journal you can say whatever you want. Sometimes, I can't or don't want to put things into coherent sentences. With a journal or just a random sheet of paper, I can get as ranty/vulgar as necessary. Let it be cathartic. Let it make you cry, if you want. Write so hard that you press through the paper. No one is looking. 
  2. An IRL support system--create a list of people in your life who you can call and just unload on when you need it. Keep in mind, sometimes the people closest to you in your daily life aren't necessarily the best people for this role, as they can be too close to the day-to-day. Identify a few key friends/family members who are really good listeners and who don't have their own agenda when you need venting time. And in case it needs to be said: you should be willing to do the same thing for them when they need it. 
  3. An online support system--find your little corner of the interwebs where you can associate with like minded people. Of course, diversity of opinion is important in a general way, but sometimes you just need your crew to listen to you and chime in with a "hell yeah!" The trick is to seek out this safe space before you really need it so you can build social capital with them over time. Then, if you need a good rant, everyone will have your back.
  4. Be clear about what you need--this is an addition to points 2 and 3, for when you are talking to other people. Oftentimes, the people around us don't know when we just need to rant/a shoulder to cry on or when we would like advice or troubleshooting. I know for me, it can be very annoying to just want to vent but then be offered 13 solutions. Conversely, when I'm seeking advice, and my listener just commiserates with me, I'm left dissatisfied. So when I am fed up with what the world is handing me and I need to connect with someone else, I just tell them from the start: "Can I just vent for a second?" Or "I really need your advice with this situation."
  5. Get your body moving--sometimes it can help to shake it off. Find a physical routine that works for you. I was into yoga for a while as my stress management routine and I also enjoy kickboxing class. There can be a lot of satisfaction in kicking and kicking and kicking. It's also really important to listen to your body too. I know for me, my physical signs of stress often show before I am even cognizant of my mental state. 
  6. Occupy your mind--I have a tendency to get very "in my head" agonizing over worries and unnecessarily focusing on them. When I get this way, doing something that distracts my mind is a huge relief. For me, this means reading or watching a movie. Then, when I actually am to a place where I can productively think through my worries, I revisit them. Or, as I often find, after a few hours of mind occupation the stuff from before doesn't seem so bad. 
  7. Let yourself be frustrated--this is kind of an overall recommendation. It's important to understand that frustration is natural and expected. No one can be perfectly dedicated to their cause every day of the year. As I mentioned in point 6, sometimes it is good to get out of your head for an hour or two. But more often than not, it's just as important to understand that your worries, your burnout, your frustrations are valid. Ignoring your feelings and pushing them to the side can result in more unresolved stress. A much better solution is to view your concerns as legitimate and look for a way to manage them rather than ignore them. 
I wish I could say that I can imagine a point in my lifetime where all feminist work will be done. However, we all know that isn't the case. I always err on the side of realism, and as such it's logical that we should be prepared to face some pretty big emotional obstacles as activists. And after all, managing our burnout is critical as it will allow us to continue to fight the good fight.

    1 comment:

    1. Thank you for this. I often find the stress from my worries matched with my feelings of inadequacy in terms of doing something about what I care about, keeps me from sleeping. It often leads to periods of depression and an overwhelming exhaustion. I too have a relatively supportive system of friends who agree with me, but they don't often see how much it gets to me. These tips have already started to help me manage living and being angry and active. Thank you.


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