In the world of activism, burnout is a common topic and experience. But why? Why do so many activists burnout and is burnout avoidable? When it does occur, how can it be addressed? In particular, as young ones we love become involved in activism, how can we provide them with tools to address burnout in a healthy way?
Why we burn out
It’s not difficult to understand why activism burnout is common. For many of us, when we first learn about a topic like climate change, our immediate response is anger and fear and an accompanying desire to do everything we can to address the issue. We want to “fight” for change. We channel our feelings into action. We want results that match our feelings – that is, we want results to come fast and furious.
In such a state, our emotional and physical systems are running at an aroused level, consuming a lot of energy. It is interesting to note that activists often use language similar to war language – “fight”, “enemy”, “win”, “battle”. Our focus is directed outward, at the cause and the desired change.
It is incredibly challenging to maintain this high-level, outward-focused energy for long. If change doesn’t come quickly enough, if our action doesn’t seem to be accomplishing enough, we begin to feel discouraged. And because so much of our attention is turned outward at the cause with which we are engaged, we miss early signs of burnout. We forget to fuel ourselves.
Is there another way to “do” activism? Is there a generative, nurturing way to engage in the process of working for lasting change? And might this different way not only be better suited to lasting activism, might it also be better suited to creating the type of change we need right now?
How we engage
The roots of activist burnout can be traced to how we engage in making change. Consequently, the antidote to burnout lies in transforming the nature of this engagement.
We live in a time in which the harsh realities of the world reach everyone easily through the news media. For anyone who is sensitive and empathic (and we certainly want to be raising sensitive, empathic young people), it can be easy to become overwhelmed by our response to the suffering we see around the world. It is particularly challenging to witness suffering and feel helpless to make significant change happen quickly.
In other words, the exact qualities that support connected, compassionate and impactful lives – qualities like empathy and altruism – are also qualities that can cause distress when taken to an extreme. Roshi Joan Halifax, a Buddhist teacher, anthropologist and pioneer in end-of-life care has spoken to this slippery slope in her work on edge states. She outlines the way in which qualities like empathy, engagement and altruism can deteriorate into empathic distress, burnout and pathological altruism when we are confronted with especially challenging situations (like climate change). And due to how accessible news is these days, we are daily confronted with the many incredibly challenging situations occurring around the world.
How do we maintain awareness of challenging realities and engage with those realities from an empathic and altruistic place without slipping into despair, distress and ultimately shutting down to protect ourselves?
The answer lies in a critical combination of strong self-awareness and a significant shift in how we understand – and consequently approach – engagement.
Healing our relationship with ourselves
First, self-awareness. We hear it all the time: to take care of others, we must take care of ourselves. But what does that really mean? Is it enough to make sure we are getting enough food, sleep and exercise?
When my husband and I were looking for graduate programs in counseling psychology, we prioritized programs that required students to undergo a high number of hours of therapy themselves. These programs acknowledged that to be effective in counseling others, we must possess a strong awareness of our own internal landscape. The same is true for any impactful changemaking. Why? Because our impact on the systems in place in the external world is directly related to the state of our internal world.
Along with all the other living beings with which we share this planet, we make up the world. How we show up in our relationships to others and the choices we make daily are guided by our internal world. We cannot make positive, lasting change if we are struggling internally.
So much of the climate crisis is caused by a profound sense of separateness, competition and a resulting high level of internal dissatisfaction. In our current capitalistic societies, we have tied much of our confidence, happiness and identity to what we have. This understanding of the “good life” drives the overconsumption that is depleting our planet and robbing future generations of a safe space to live. This understanding also produces a very shaky, insecure foundations of self-worth that tumbles easily if we lose a job, don’t achieve a pay raise, or cannot provide for our family the type of life we believe we should. We cannot hope to effectively advocate for the changes needed to truly address climate change if we are not willing to look inward and heal our relationship to ourselves and to all other living beings.
A new model of engagement
We are also very performance-oriented as a society, fixated on what we accomplish. This fixation further complicates activism, as we are all the more attached to the results and we want them fast and splashy. We are attached to certain changes and certain understandings of success and when our efforts don’t achieve that change quickly enough, we feel the failure at a personal level. It’s understandable that many do not want to stay involved.
Here is where self-awareness can lead to a different type of engagement when it comes to activism. As we look at our internal landscape and work to shift both our alignment of worth and identity with material success and our attachment to performance and accomplishment as a measure of success, we can shift our understanding of successful activism.
What if a meaningful life was one lived in alignment with our values, and what if our values truly reflected our interconnection with all living things? We would still be deeply motivated to change our behaviors and advocate for a system of living that actually honored all life on this planet, but the drive behind our activism and the measure of success would be different.
Instead of being driven by fear of change and an accompanying desire to preserve current systems of consumption, we would be motivated by a love for the natural world and willing to do the work needed to truly preserve life on this planet, bringing our own way of being as humans back into balance and alignment with the needs of the planet as a whole. And instead of being entirely focused on the results of our activism, our focus, at least in part, would be on living from a place of alignment. We would be acting – whether through changing our personal behaviors or through advocacy – for the sake of the action itself. To act in any other way would be out of alignment with our values. Of course, we would still care passionately about the results, but we would be acting in spite of those results.
When internal alignment with our deeply held values fuels our activism, it is much easier to maintain that action and avoid burnout. Furthermore, I don’t know about you, but when I consider the most motivating activists throughout history, they are the individuals who were clearly motivated by their values and acted regardless of how quickly outcomes arrived. These individuals were acting out of love.
While we are at it, we might want to examine the language of activism. When I was preparing to birth my first child, I was encouraged by a birthing coach to shift away from the traditional language of labor, much of which is associated with struggle and pain. Even reconceptualizing the experience as “birth” rather than “labor” was very helpful and I was able to sustain three days of “birthing” without fear. If we shift away from the language of war and instead towards the language of love and respect, how might that change our understanding of activism?
Two final points. First, in supporting both ourselves and the young people in our lives as activists, it can be very helpful to look at the history of activism. Through the stories embedded in this history, we can develop an appreciation of what contributes to effective activism, how change happens, how long change can sometimes take, and more.
And finally, as we consider how critical self-awareness and exploration are to effective activism, I leave you with more wisdom from Roshi Joan Hallifax. In her work on edge states, she emphasizes the possibility that lies within difficulties. Our difficulties, she explains, can be an invitation to a wider, richer internal and external landscape and way of being. “If we willingly investigate our difficulties, we can fold them into a view of reality that is more courageous, inclusive, emergent, and wise—as have many others who have fallen over the edge.”
To truly address the climate crisis, whether as activists or in any other way, we must be willing to dive deep into many difficult aspects of both our internal and external landscapes. The challenging nature of this work can seem overwhelming, so much so that we might not want to begin. And yet, alongside that challenge is an invitation to a deeper, richer, “more courageous, inclusive, emergent and wise” reality. It is my hope that we walk through that gateway together.