EXHAUSTED? Here's How I Overcome Activist Burnout

As someone working in the social justice field, I know how difficult it is to give ourselves permission to take care of ourselves without feeling guilty.
Publish date:
March 27, 2015
activism, self care, Burnout

Some days I have so much inspiration that I feel like I can accomplish everything and more. I'll pick up numerous freelance articles for the week and go to work planning, interviewing and writing them – all while getting back to countless emails, maintaining the website for the magazine I run, its daily social media and putting together the next issue.

At the same time I'll go out with friends, run errands and generally be a social person. I'll feel energetic, motivated and positive, holding on to these feelings with the optimism that they'll stay and consistently increase my work.

But then sure enough, my steam will run out just as quick as it arrived and I'll spend the next week pushing myself to get out of bed – feeling lethargic, unmotivated and doubtful that there's any point to what I'm doing with my life.

Inspiration comes and goes, but for someone who's involved in social justice work their life has everything to do with their ability to stay motivated – especially because for so many of us we're either volunteering or being paid very little. Many of us have day jobs that pay the bills while we make time around them to focus on what we're passionate about. But the problem is, when our lives are based around inspiring others to create change, we can easily fall victim to burnout in a field where we feel guilty for slowing down and admitting that we need a break. And when we finally take that break because we're so fried that we can't go any further it forces us to ask the question: When you're the backbone who's working to lift everyone up, who's going to catch you?

As a writer and entrepreneur, my career is built around empowering young women through the stories I write and the publication I run, and I'm constantly a source of motivation for the volunteers who work with me, through giving them guidance and support. When I've pushed myself too hard it's usually after a surge of energy left me feeling like my motivation was invincible.

Well, let me be the first person to admit that motivation is not invincible. Despite how much we love what we do and want to succeed, we all have a breaking point where we need to recharge before we can keep going – and it's especially hard to admit this when we're the person holding everything together.

The worst time I suffered activist burnout was a couple years ago when I was organizing a SlutWalk rally. I was putting a new issue of the magazine together and had started organizing the rally meetings – but suddenly I was overcome with so much anxiety from all the work I was doing I started missing meetings because I was feeling sick. I ended up going to the hospital because my anxiety turned to bouts of nausea and a constant fever, and despite begrudgingly telling people I was feeling unwell, I was forced to quit the rally and even lost friends who didn't believe I was as sick as I was and thought I was making excuses.

As someone working in the social justice field, I know how difficult it is to give ourselves permission to take care of ourselves without feeling guilty. The thing that we have to remember is everyone in our community may be working hard at the same thing – but not everyone has the same limits and it's not fair to compare each other. By taking care of ourselves we're actually benefiting the causes we're working for by having more energy to put into them.

When we're suffering from burnout we're just going through the motions – and that doesn't benefit anything or anyone. People pick up on your attitude towards them and if we're not excited about what we're doing then they're not going to be excited either. This is why it's so important to work on self-care every day.

Recently I pushed myself to my limits and the signs of burnout started to creep up. I couldn't get out of bed when I usually look forward to starting my day. I was irritable when generally I would be even-tempered. I started to feel depressed when I haven't felt like that in a long time. I was so drained that I couldn't even stand to look at my phone. The biggest sign was that I was Googling things like “signs of burnout” and visualizing being out in nature with no cellphone reception – and by this point it was too late. As I sat there completely exhausted and unable to carry on until I recharged, I took out the following tools from my self-care kit and got to work on becoming myself again.

1. Reach out to a support system.

Even if you're the backbone of our social justice community, there are so many other aligning communities that intertwine with yours. It's important to get to know people who work in similar fields and have them there for friendship and support.

At the end of the day our friends and/or partner/s are great, but they might not fully understand our field and this makes a world of difference when all we want to do is talk to someone who understands how hard it is and how much we want it at the same time.

2. Make time for yourself.

In order to ensure we don't get to the point of burnout, we need to set time in our day to do something that gives us time to relax – like taking a hot bath, going for a run, meditating outside or reading a good book. Doing something every day that gives us time for ourselves makes sure that we'll continue to be at our best.

My favourite way to recharge is to be around nature – such as going for a hike in the mountains or swimming in the ocean. Watching powerful films about strong women also works wonders because it reminds me that I'm not alone in my struggles.

3. Have a backup in place.

If burnout hits, we need to make sure that we're not caught off guard. Having a team to take over for us in the worst case scenario helps immensely if we need time to recharge but still have deadlines to meet.

For example, I've begun to look for more people to help me with the magazine not only for emergency purposes but to take the pressure off myself in my everyday life. Just because we can do everything ourselves doesn't mean that we should.

4. Follow a routine.

Of course not everything can go according to plan, but as a general rule it's a good idea to follow a routine of self care every day. It's so easy to overwork ourselves when we don't have set times to eat proper meals, get enough sleep or turn off work mode.

Setting a daily schedule for when we plan to do these things helps keep them in the back of our mind so we can develop a routine. I find that writing a list in the morning of things I need to do that day – including when I'm going to eat, sleep and relax – helps me feel less guilty about putting in time for myself.

5. Laugh.

This one is so important and so overlooked. In the social justice field we have a tendency to take our work so seriously that we forget life doesn't always have to be serious. As someone who spends long hours working at home, I have to make more of an effort to go out, socialize and laugh.

If you find that you don't have time or money to go out with friends as much as you'd like, turn on some standup, a YouTube video or a funny movie. Calling a hilarious friend or partner also works great to remember what it's like to laugh again.

What are your tips for overcoming activist burnout? Let me know in the comments below.