How do you keep sane and avoid burnout while engaging in activism? If you want to be in for the long-haul you need to look after yourself and your fellow activists. And it’s not just about self-care.
It’s just the beginning: the women’s march, the refugee ban, the protests at the airport, the abortion order, the construction of the wall with Mexico. Donald Trump might as well be the first politician in history who keeps all his promises. Many across the world find hard to believe what Matt Groening, the creator of the Simpsons, “foresaw” almost twenty years ago: that Trump would be the new US president. Italians like me are not that surprised: we had our own version of Donald Trump sitting in parliament for 20 years, just a different hair-style (in fact no hairstyle at all) and a bit less influential across the political spectrum. But believe me, equally embarrassing. Anyway, it is what it is, right? Well, yes and no. If I were a US citizen I’d be out in the airport too, either protesting or fleeing the country myself.
What’s my point here? My point is that this is a time of social and political engagement, even for those who have never been active in their lives. A word of caution: politicians like Trump have more resources, more money, more friends in the right places. We may have values and passion but these unfortunately don’t always bring results. We are in the struggle because we want to change things, but also to be able to look back in ten years time and say: I did my share for freedom and justice. Results may not come, and this is where I put my psychologist’s hat on and offer you some advice on how to do the activism, while keeping sane and not burning out.
First I want to borrow the words of late activist Tooker Gomberg from his Letter to an Activist:
“What advice can I offer? Stay rounded. Do the activism, but don’t overdo it. If you burn out, or tumble into depression, you’ll become no good to anyone, especially yourself. When you’re in this state, nothing seems worthwhile, and there’s nothing to look forward to.
[…] Don’t drop hobbies or enjoyments. Be sure to hike and dance and sing. Keeping your spirit alive and healthy is fundamental if you are to keep going.
There is no standard recipe to prevent burnout, yet this Letter beautifully spells out the ABC of burnout prevention: Awareness, Boundaries and Connections.
1.Awareness – Be aware of your needs: If you burnout you’ll be good to no-one. Also, be aware of the power issues that run among activists’ groups (do-gooders are not immune to power). Power struggles are generally what breaks them and what lead people to disenchantment and cynicism. Is your group reproducing the same power dynamics that you aim to fight?
2.Boundaries – Have healthy boundaries: “We need to learn the art of saying no” a Syrian activist told me. Indeed, saying no with grace it’s a beautiful art. If you want to be on call 24/7 just know that this is the best way to burnout: because while at first you’ll be happy to give it all “for the cause”, after a while you will expect appreciation, results, change. And they may or may not come. And when they don’t come and you’ve been available at anytime, for anyone or anything, you’ll be resentful and angry. Learn to say no and have a life beyond activism before that happens.
3.Connections – Keep up your relations with family and friends, especially those with loved ones who have nothing to do with activism. They may end up being your “sanity space”. Here’s what Tooker Gomberg wrote in his Letter to an Activist about connections: “I should have developed a deeper kinship with my family and with people. Don’t get me wrong – I had lots of friends and acquaintances in the activist world. But they were not deep friends of the heart. I neglected my heart […]. Now that I’m in crisis, I don’t really have the language to connect with people. The silence is easier than trying to explain what I’m going through, or to relate to other people’s issues or problems.”
You don’t need a therapist or a fancy gym membership to prevent burnout. You and fellow activists just need to pay attention to what goes on within, around and between you. We are responsible for ourselves and for one another. Burnout prevention is about care, as well as about engaging in a reflective practice with fellow do-gooders while being transparent and respectful. It’s about building communities that can hold us, support us and sometimes challenge us in all our common initiatives.
So “be sure to hike and dance and sing.” Be sure to sit around a table and enjoy a meal, a chat, a light conversation. And remember: Burnout is not cool, it’s not a status symbol, nor a badge of honour. It’s ok to have a life beyond activism, without guilt or shame. Because there is life beyond Trump.
“The world needs all the concerned people it can get. If you can stay in the struggle for the long haul you can make a real positive contribution, and live to witness the next victory!”
(Tooker Gomberg, Letter to an Activist)