Home > Uncategorized > Self care, burn out and activism

Self care, burn out and activism

***Warning – I’m about to sound really harsh on all of us that have suffered burn out. Really I want to give us all a big hug and make it better. Because, especially the first time, its kind of unavoidable when you first start to realise how shit the world is and try to take steps to do something about it. And I actually have a lot of love and respect for you all. Please read this in the voice of a close friend having That Chat with you because they love you and enemies talk about you behind your back, acquaintances say nothing but those who love you will tell you to your face, in private***


Had a lovely day yesterday at the bookfair browsing, acquiring new books, making new connections but best of all catching up with old friends. And so many now are either parents or about to become such! And so many were /glowing/, it was really lovely. It seemed like my friends and comrades*, many of whom have been through intense trauma, have created healing, nourishing lives that both give them good lives but also, as a side benefit, allow them to continue to be sustainably politically active.

There were a few people who responded to my “How are you doing? What are you up to?” with automated responses about political projects, and seemed genuinely surprised (and then pleased) when I expressed interest in the rest of their lives. This included couple of older activists who have been around for decades. I think we can all be guilty of just seeing ourselves as one dimensional political hacks, but this is unhealthy as individuals, as a community and as part of this global, ongoing fight for a better world.

Burnout is real. Almost no activist avoids it. Its horrible. Its disabling. It is detrimental to the individuals concerned and all of those around them. Sometimes its unavoidable but as a community we can and should be actively trying to protect ourselves and each other from it with self-care. In my head not taking care of ourselves is similar to a sort of guilt around being privileged (which we all are by something, be it because we’re white, male, cis, able bodied, straight, middle class, live in a high income country, had access to education etc etc) in that it is actually quite narcissistic. How does feeling guilt about being white do anything to destroy white supremacism? Instead of me seeing recognising my white privilege as an end point, I need to, sure process that, but also transcend that to recognise its not my fault, and that its further using my white privilege to wallow in self pity/loathing rather than take up the urgent call to stand alongside my non white comrades in opposing racism in every way I can. 

So too with self-care. Yes when you finally step through the looking glass and realise how horrific are the systems, structures and products of today’s world you want to do nothing other than spend every second of your existence trying to counter poverty, war, climate change and other oppressions. But you need to transcend that and realise that making yourself miserable is not the same as achieving meaningful change. Yes, you are privileged in all sorts of ways, but no destroying yourself will not remove those systems and structures that are perpetuating privilege. You’re just using your privilege to keep the focus on /you/ as a now suffering whitey rather than on how we fix this mess of a world we’ve found ourselves in. That sounds harsher than I meant. I just wanted to get through how actually harmful it is to martyr yourself to the struggle.

I have a male friend who is very chivalrous. Now I’m not very big, and sometimes I’ll be carrying heavy things. He’ll pretty much always offer to help. Well that sounds fine and nice and helpful. Except he’ll get upset if I say no I want to carry it myself. He’ll get a bit passive aggressive and grumpy about it and seems to want me to almost strain myself so he gets to rescue me. Sound in any way familiar? He’s not a bad person. He just I think really enjoys his self image as kind and chivalrous and the ego strokes of helping others and getting appreciated. But that’s the thing – he wants to do it *for him*. Its not about supporting me, otherwise why would he be unhappy that I’m ok. Its about him being able to feel good for being helpful. There’s a bit of self esteem issues there, and a whole hell of socialisation about being manly. He’s a friend and I love him and he’s far more complex than this wee caricature but I think its a really useful illustration of my point above. Nobody has asked you to feel guilty and beat yourself up for being privileged.  Yes you should definitely look at how its effected you and how you might be being oppressive yourself. But just wallowing in guilt? Beating yourself up? Is this really about helping others or is this actually to make yourself feel good and righteous and progressive?

And ignoring self-care? Ignoring yourself as a precious individual with interests and loved ones and hobbies and goals? Pointless. You will create a burnt out hull. You have made this struggle about you. You’re wallowing in the pain of full-time activism, beating yourself up with unsustainable timetables and that will not change anything.

Worst of all? You, yes I’m talking to YOU, are modelling behaviour for every new activist you encounter. You are unconsciously showing them how to be one of those people who try to make the world a better place. You have an unsustainable routine of meetings every night, early starts, grabbing fast food on the run, smoking and drinking too much, and ignoring non activist friends and hobbies. Guess what – that new person is going to learn from that that that is how activists behave. They’re going to internalise that rubbish about how I need to push myself 24/7 until this big action, during that campaign, until we’ve ended the occupation and destroyed capitalism, and if that thing isn’t achieved its because *I* didn’t work hard enough.

It helps *nobody* if you burn out. Its kind of inevitable its going to happen at least once to you. Its not because you’re a bad person. Its because what we’re doing is really fucking hard. What you can do is encourage a culture, a community of communities that treats everyone, including those on the spectrum of political activism, as worthwhile human beings. As individuals who have well rounded lives. Who regularly take in beauty, kindness, dancing, chocolate, time with loved ones, time alone. Don’t make every film you see about the destruction of the Niger Delta or drones over Afghanistan. Don’t only spend time with other activists. And don’t never mention these other things when you’re with activists. Tell me about how you took your child to the museum and they loved it (you know who you are and I love you!), how you went geocaching and saw a hare (I love you too!) and how you watched Up and ate vegan chocolate cake. Let me enjoy you enjoying your life! And let everyone know that being open to what’s going on in the world and trying to change it does not mean you have to give up everything else that brings meaning and beauty to your life. Be a sustainable activist that both models sustainable behaviour to others, helps create a thriving community that nourishes as all and prefigures the future society we want to create, and actually draws others in because they don’t just see burnt out husks involved. 

You are a beautiful human being. You are no less valuable and deserving of a good life than those in Gaza or facing eviction because of the bedroom tax. And there is no benefit to them if you deny yourself that. Its not only possible, but essential that you are both politically active and do those things that give you grounding and richness. Anything else is a waste of your life, your energy as an activist and that rather good chocolate cake.


* This is my blog so I feel free to use words that resonate with me. Comrades is one such term. To me it means those with whom I fight together in the struggle. With some I have shared intense moments of fear, stood strong together, felt that unique connection of knowing that we are collectively putting our lives into trying to make the world a better place. We’ve come up against formidable opposition and somehow passed through that, and in doing so realised how incredibly powerful we as human beings actually are. That not only can we ignore the commands of those in authority, but we can actually make a difference. So to me its a term of love, of respect, of special connection. And the knowledge that if it should come to it we will be on the same barricade, risking our lives together to do the right thing.

  1. Matt
    October 21, 2013 at 3:47 am

    Unfortunately, the majority of the stress and grief and unpleasantness I’ve experienced in activism hasn’t come from too much work or self denial. It’s come from other activists. The sex pests and the rapists. The macho dick head throwing his weight around long before he gets round to the punches that finally get him kicked out in the the five hour meeting that will not stop because his enablers and friends will not accept that we shouldn’t give him ‘just one more chance because he’s a good guy and just look at all the work he’s done’. The arrogant intellectual who turns every conversation into a flame war and every meeting into a pissing contest. And the horde of liberals and good guys who are ready to leap to the defence of all of the above and accuse anyone challenging them of being disruptive or crazy or whatever.

    As a single person with no real responsibilities and stresses I was prepared to put up with it for the sake of occasionally (very rarely) achieving something and for the compensating advantage of a handful of genuinely wonderful people. As someone with no time and substantial caring commitments, fuck that shit. Life is too short and too hard to spend what little time I can carve out for myself wading through the cesspit which is most activist scenes.

  2. Emma Pooka
    October 22, 2013 at 2:09 am

    Hey Matt. Not seen you in ages! I keep saying, but tell me when you’re up for a visit.
    Hey, Alice! Love you too, and wanted to get a chance to catch up with you properly but had run myself ragged.
    Yeah, I think we sometimes get burnout from putting too much on ourselves, but more often it’s what I’m beginning to think of as “rage fatigue”, pretty much what Matt describes, when you just can’t be around that shit any longer. I try to take time out, just seeing the awesome people, and then come back in when my default provocation setting is hovering between “make reasoned argument” and “ignore” instead of “kick off” and “cry”.
    The hare was beautiful, and some day soon I’ll go back for the geocache. ;-)

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