Activists need to individually and collectively deal with feelings such as loss, grief, frustration, anger and despair. Here are tips on how to support each other.
Why support and debriefing is important
- Feelings of discouragement, exhaustion and even bitterness are not uncommon among activists who have worked for more than a few years.
- Turnover is extremely high, with subsequent loss of skilled people.
- Many groups do not attract enough new members or work as effectively as they could, and the causes can be linked with not dealing effectively with these issues.
- Research by Mary Gnomes on peace activists in the USA. found the major cause of dropping out and discouragement was not campaign losses or lack of results, but unresolved and unsatisfactory relationships with other activists.
- Bill Moyer highlights that many people adhere to a belief that they are powerless and that what they are doing is failing. They are often hostile to the notion that the movement is progressing along the normal road of movement success and that they could afford to celebrate their successes.
- Groups are often led by highly task/action-oriented personalities who may remain highly motivated, but who do not acknowledge the needs of others for training and support, or for validation, and who do not give attention to individual needs and group process until it is too late.
As activists and community workers, we need to individually and collectively deal with feelings such as loss, grief, frustration, anger and despair.
We are continually bombarded by signs and information telling us that the world is not safe, and that horrific violence is random and everywhere.
Feelings of pain or distress caused by this are natural and healthy, if acknowledged, expressed and used as a motivating force for acting positively for change.
What is not healthy is the denial, the psychic numbing that prevents many people from really taking in what is happening around us, and which also saps energy and blocks the ability to take action for change, sending people scurrying into escapist activities.
Or, unacknowledged, unexpressed feelings of pain for the world can cause people to take action in an unhealthy way – acting for change from a sense of desperation and/or driven-ness, so that their actions are more frantic than effective. This is a sure recipe for eventual burn-out. Cynicism, can be seen as a form of congealed disappointment, feelings that have not had an opportunity to be expressed and to shift.
Actions which rely on anger as their only fuel can result in behaviour which is counter-productive, lacking well-thought-out long term strategies and appropriate responses.
When we can express our feelings of pain for the world – whether they manifest as anger, fear, sadness, hopelessness, frustration, numbness, etc. – in a safe way and in the company of others, it helps to release the mind, to clear the energy, and to overcome the fear that these feelings will destroy us. It helps us to re-connect with others, with the vast web of life, and with the resources we have for creating change. It reassures us that we are not in this alone – we have support for the journey.
This support can be done at a very simple level by being willing to listen to and support colleagues feelings, or to allow time in meetings and workshops to acknowledge this dimension, through to specially designed workshops and training.
Supporting each other
It is never an easy road for people committed to fundamental change. For many of us this work represents a lifelong commitment. How do we sustain ourselves through the inevitable hard times? How can we hold on to our faith and resolution?
Where do we recharge and renew our commitment? How do we find resources?
Who can help us to stay on track? Few people who devote their lives to such work do it without some regular source of reflection, challenge, and affirmation – necessary for sustained and effective efforts for change. Too often we are confronted with feelings of isolation – even from those with whom we work closely.
Support from our community and from the groups we work in are one way to give regular attention to each person’s social change work – to reflect on directions, goals, effectiveness, rough places and growing points, to challenge each other – taking into account all dimensions of our lives.
By supporting each other we can:
- Hear each others’ stories of despair and of hope and to gain support
- Allow full expression of the feelings of despair and other feelings
- Reclaim our sense of power
- Create visions of positive futures
- Develop more skills and strategies for action
- Enhance our sense of community – with each other and with the web of life
Elements of support
There are three basic elements to the support: emotional support, support for action, and educational support.
- Emotional support can be: giving encouragement, affirming and validating thinking and achievements, allowing space for expressions of feelings, checking on physical health and discouraging over-work. Support can be loving challenges based on seeing a person and their life clearly and then thinking carefully about that person.
- Support for action can be: helping to clarify goals, set directions and take actions. It can also help solve problems in specific difficult situations, to look at longer-range strategy questions. It can focus on areas of skill and leadership development for each individual.
- Educational support can encourage learning as a primary focus by attending workshops or seminars together, or reading and discussing books or journal articles, or asking members of the group to share special knowledge or expertise.
If you are supporting another worker
- Have clear agreements around boundaries – what you want to do together, how often, how long, to meet, being respectful of each other etc.
- Confidentiality is very necessary for building trust. Make a clear commitment that sensitive personal matters raised between you will not get discussed with anybody else.
- Practice good listening – this is the key element. Allow enough time for the person to speak and have the focus of attention.
- Keep to the stated purpose – keep the focus on the person – resist getting sidetracked.
- Ask pertinent, strategic questions to encourage clarity on each person’s objectives and how to reach them.
- Encourage and affirm self-care – physical and emotional.
- Allow silence – encourage the focus person to pause occasionally, to go within, to reflect without interruption.
- Provide challenge and feedback – gently, skilfully and honestly. And practice receiving feedback. Encourage boldness.
- Draw out deeper feelings – this takes time and skills.
- Deal with conflicts as they arise.
- No recruiting – support time is about support for you, not for recruiting the other members for your cause unless they offer.
- Check out the other resources in the Pt’chang collection
- Running Effective Campaign Debriefs
- 10 Great Resources on Activist Wellbeing