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Activist Burnout

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

By Ezra Elias Vivas

Image Source: Unsplash / Clay Banks

Sometimes, I take a moment to give myself an existential crisis by remembering that as an activist, the work I want to do to help our species won't be done in my lifetime. It’s one thing to know that structural oppression must be dismantled if we want to create a better world for all of us; it’s quite another thing to devote your life to dismantling it. Sometimes, if we aren’t careful, activists can end up suffering from what’s known as “activist burnout.”

The term “burnout” was first used in a psychological term in a 1974 paper by German-born American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. Freudenberger was volunteering at a free clinic for people addicted to drugs and observed both his and fellow volunteers’ experiences. He described the burnt-out worker as one who “looks, acts, and seems depressed." Burnout is defined by UK Organization Calmer as “the loss of meaning in one's work, coupled with mental, emotional, or physical exhaustion as the result of long-term, unresolved stress.” While Calmer focuses on entrepreneurship, burnout can affect anyone involved in work of any kind, especially younger people who aren’t used to self-care or people who are newer to advocacy movements. You might realize you’ve been experiencing burnout, or that you have in the past, especially with constant pressure from both people who aren’t into advocacy work and people from within advocacy circles who may be constantly asking you to do more, speak more, care more, and give more. In an ideal world, we’d all know how to best take care of ourselves, and we wouldn’t even have a word for burnout. In our world, however, burnout hurts people, badly, and can even lead to them dropping out of movements for good.

Burnout is different from momentarily being tired or frustrated. It’s characterized by persistent, long-term, activism-related feelings that can include:

  • Anxiety

  • Lack of motivation

  • Hopelessness/apathy

  • Exhaustion/low energy levels

  • A pessimistic outlook on life

  • Lower resistance to illness

  • Irritability/anger

  • Self-doubt

  • Social isolation

  • Intense procrastination

  • Headaches

  • Guilt

In general, burnout is caused by inadequate levels of support, low amounts of self-care, and an unstable work-life balance. Racial justice activists interviewed by Paul Gorski in 2015 reported that many of their burnouts had been in part caused by the expectation that they would and should burn themselves out, that there was the “implicit expectation that if you don’t burn out, you’re not committed.” The popular saying goes “if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention,” but paying attention and doing the work doesn’t mean you should completely wear yourself out. It’s not healthy, and it’s not sustainable.

Image via [Unsplash]

The good news? The idea of activist burnout isn’t a new one, which means plenty of people have had the chance to identify, experience, and find solutions for it. First things first: take a deep breath. Your brain and body need oxygen, and if you’re as stressed as half of our generation seems to be, it would do you good to take deeper breaths more often.

Next, identify what’s making you feel this way. Have you been taking on more than you can handle? Are you constantly arguing with people who refuse to listen? Do you have a support system in place to help you? Are your skills better suited elsewhere (i.e. doing a lot of group-oriented, up-in-front activities when you’d do better with more behind-the-scenes stuff)? Are you reading the news (and the comments section) from the moment you wake up to the moment before you sleep? Are you neglecting your physical needs?

Once you’ve figured out the factors causing you to feel burned out, it’s time to figure out solutions. Set healthy boundaries. If you’re part of a minority group under constant attack, allow yourself to filter, block, or blacklist social media posts about the violence your community faces. Surround yourself with friends who support you and whom you can support in turn. Take note of how you feel when you start to burn out and use this knowledge to avoid it from happening (again). Make sure you’re balancing your activism with other parts of your life, such as school, a job, socializing, and/or hobbies. Give yourself permission to take a break once in a while. It might help to remember that capitalism would love for us to spend 20 hours of our day working to create more money for the ruling class, and so, by resting, you are, in one way, opposing capitalistic ideals. In a more long-term sense, taking a break is good for your well-being, and in a world that would rather gloss over the importance of the work you’re doing, taking care of yourself is an act of rebellion. How can we oppose the workaholic, self-destructive culture that would demand we destroy ourselves for the sake of others by emulating it?

The world will turn in its own way whether you’re out at a protest or taking care of yourself. And, by taking care of yourself, you’re not only helping yourself heal and keep going sustainably, but also giving yourself the strength to help your comrades with burnout.  

None of us can do everything for everyone all the time, and, as much as it hurts to admit it, our generation won’t—can’t—save the whole world, at least, not in one or even ten years.

The work of changing the world for the better isn’t a sprint, and it isn’t a marathon, either. There is no concrete finish line in sight, only goalposts we strive to reach, and if we aren’t careful, we’ll burn out and burn up before we can reach the next ones.

Written by Ezra Elias Vivas

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