This article explores some of the ‘cognitive errors’ or ‘traps’ that contribute to activist burnout. Read through this list and see if you might need to adjust your perspective, in the interests of your health, wellbeing and effectiveness.
Here are some ‘traps’ I’ve noticed activists can fall into – many of which I’m familiar with from my own experience! These attitudes or practices can contribute to activist burn-out. They can reduce our enjoyment of life and the effectiveness of our actions. Happily, these traps can be challenged or avoided.
Always focusing on the enormity of the problem wears us down! It’s very valuable to be able to focus attention on big problems (more people would be activists if they could) but we need techniques to handle despair and avoid being overwhelmed. Some approaches that may be helpful are: noticing what is going well, getting support with our feelings, breaking our campaigns/projects into smaller scale measurable steps, and celebrating the steps along the way.
Lack of Boundaries
Being open to taking on everything is the fast road to burn-out. We can set realistic boundaries – around the amount of time we devote to activism, when and where we work, and what kinds of work we do. We can prioritise. Doing this means we are more likely to be able to perform well and not spread ourselves too thin. We can practice saying ‘No’ and face the feelings that come up.
If we take on heavy workloads alone we can trap ourselves into believing we’re indispensable – ‘no-one else can do it’. Sharing information, workloads, networks and decision making may mean we feel less special and crucial, but it’s far healthier and sustainable. To stop monopolising work means trusting others, delegating, and investing time in other people’s development. It can also mean being prepared to let things not happen.
Activism can be isolating. Building closeness in our lives can seem like a lower priority than the activist tasks we’ve set ourselves. But working for change shouldn’t be a lonely project. Investing in building relationships, letting people in, and asking for help can make a big difference to our activist experience – and our whole lives.
Responsibility and Guilt
Activists take responsibility for addressing social and ecological problems. The decision to stand up against oppression or take action for change is incredibly valuable. However some activists can over-personalise this responsibility so that if they’re not doing their utmost they can feel like the problem is their fault. We need to keep it in context. For example, we did not start the injustice, we are not actually cutting down trees or constructing coal-fired powerstations! Feeling guilty doesn’t help anyone.
This is another scale issue – it’s difficult to feel pleased with anything you do if you are focused on every tiny mistake. Changing the world involves making mistakes, being experimental, being bold. Perfectionism holds us back. If mistakes are made we need to learn from them, do what we can to clean them up, apologise if necessary, then move on. Reflection is helpful – excessive self-criticism isn’t!
Some activists and community workers are motivated to do good deeds by needing to feel better about ourselves. Our self-worth can become tied up with overwork. This traps us because when we need to stop or take a holiday we can hit feelings of being bad and worthless. With stronger self-esteem we can change our emotional relationship with our activism, and work from more sustainable motivations.
Very few activists have access to the training they need to tackle the tasks they take on. Being continually stretched outside our capabilities can be exhausting and demoralising, and we can feel like there is something wrong with us. It is also pretty amazing how much we figure out on the fly! Having access to training and mentoring is an investment in preventing burn-out, and will increase effectiveness. Planning to work a mix of competence and challenge can help us keep our heads above water.
Lack of systemic analysis
If we don’t have a big picture of the situation we can be devastated by every little set back. Understanding the power relationships in society, and what stage our movement is at, helps us keep perspective. It also means we channel our efforts more effectively, for example we don’t try to build a mass rally when we still need to do awareness raising about a problem.
On the other hand…Self-care is a Political Project
- Having a good life and being happy challenges oppression and contributes to a better future.
- It makes activism more attractive to others.
- It enables you to be active for a long time and enjoy it!
Have a look around Plan to Thrive for many ideas and resources for living well while working to change the world.
Have you found yourself in one or more of these traps? How did you escape?