Why do some activists not burn out?
July 1, 2017 2:27 AM   Subscribe

A friend and I were discussing this, and I would like book, research or article recommendations to pass to her that have more insight. We're reading a young activist's book and talked about burn out and people who stayed in politics/activism for decades when it would be far easier to step back. Not looking for individual accounts but larger frameworks or ideas.
posted by dorothyisunderwood to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Also because while I can clearly explain my own activism career prior, I'm deep in the grip of burn out right now and have no idea if this is it.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 2:29 AM on July 1, 2017

One article I read called burnout "a crisis of efficacy." I could imagine that one way to stave off burnout would be to constantly have one's activism yield victory. (Now there's a realistic solution.)
posted by salvia at 8:10 AM on July 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Not a direct answer, but you might find some interesting material in this this video of Bernadette Devlin McAliskey's 2016 Seamus Deane lecture
posted by Morpeth at 9:03 AM on July 1, 2017

It's been a while since I've read it, but I remember Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky to be helpful.
posted by lazuli at 9:15 AM on July 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Some make it into a job. Jobs have wins and losses you move on from, jobs have clock out times and days off, jobs aren't the sum total of your life, jobs have jerks you tolerate or ignore without letting make you crazy, jobs pay you, and most importantly it isn't the job of your job to make you happy and fulfilled every hour.

And on the other side to keep it as a hobby. Career, family and health are always more important than hobbies. You can have more than one hobby. Success or failure of your hobby isn't life changing. Nobody judges you for quitting a hobby or feels guilty for doing so. There are no minimum hours. People with one hobby can have amicable friendships and family relationships with people another hobby -- even one that has a very different implied worldview or value structure.
posted by MattD at 9:55 AM on July 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

The people I know who have been activists for longest (like 50+ years) see it as their job to turn up. They are not looking to win, or to gain change, but simply to mark injustice and opposition on a nearly Buddhist level. They may do this in the moment with anger, or with food deliveries, or by marching, or by barricading, but they do not judge the intent of the action by the outcome.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:06 AM on July 1, 2017 [17 favorites]

Here's a study about using CBT to address anxiety, increase comfort with uncertainty, and increase the sense of efficacy as a way of decreasing burnout. (The already-"stressed" control group also experienced lower burnout, which they speculate is either regression to the mean or that those stressed students likely found other ways of handling anxiety comparable to those provided to the experimental CBT group.) It might be a useful starting place into some other studies on burnout and its relationship to things like anxiety and efficacy.

In activism, a lot is outside of your control, so the sense of efficacy can be challenging to maintain. I've found it helps me if I try to focus on accomplishing the strategic campaign objectives (e.g., "get 1000 people to sign our petition to the governor") rather than outcomes (e.g., whether or not the governor signs the bill). That's what's more within our control. Sure, one can have curiosity about how well various strategies impact the outcomes, seeking to improve the campaign plans over time. But it's also important to cut oneself a lot of slack, acknowledging the role of luck, the opposition (and their often greater political power), and other factors like that.
posted by salvia at 11:49 AM on July 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Let me plagiarise and paraphrase the link I posted above which is a condensed version (pdf) of a chapter from the 2012 book The Activists Handbook - a step-by-step guide to participatory democracy by Aidan Ricketts.

Sustainable activism can only be achieved once you accept that all your work may come to nowt, and that you may lose your struggle. Be humble. Don't carry the world on your shoulders and don't try to be a hero. Respect your feelings of smallness, vulnerability and sorrow.

The world may end in catastrophe despite your efforts, but as a human you awaken each day with energy, and your choice is about what you do with that energy. You owe the world and other people nothing more than making the choice that feels right to you.

Ricketts writes about what sustainable activism looks like - not putting your other life on hold, pacing yourself, the importance of fun, not indulging in guilt of being less than the perfect activist for your cause, seeking inspiration in the role of humble change agent, limiting exposure to bad news, and remembering that your health is at least as important as every other living thing.

He also talks about internal and external resisting. Internal resisting is where we we don’t accept that the world is the way it is and we make ourselves miserable inside by ‘resisting’ the facts. We think "It shouldn't be this way!" and that makes us internally angry, says Ricketts. External resistance begins after you accept internally that the world is the way that it is. When you stop making yourself feel bad inside about all the pain destruction and injustice and save all that energy to apply to external resistance. External resistance is where you do whatever you can (however small) to bring about positive change.

Both Ricketts and myself came to activism in the 1980s and we have both experienced burnout in our early years. My experience manifested in a deep bout of depression characterised by absorption in my failure and a substantial reduction in my self-esteem. Fortunately, I found my feet again after along break, by only doing things that were convenient for me; handing out leaflets etc, rather than running part of the campaign. These days I am selective but regular in my activism and work to get the most bang for my energy buck.

Some activists are professional; they can afford to remain in an activist roles within an organisation because they are paid, often quite well, and they have learned how to manage time and demands; while others are volunteer. I've been both and I prefer the latter because it gives me autonomy to pick and choose my engagement. I don't have to fix all the problems.

One of the major elements sustaining my activism now is seeing the amazing young activists building on and finessing the work of prior activism and moving social justice campaigns ever forward with a deepening understanding of the principles of non-violence and inclusion.

Take care and good luck in your work, dorothyisunderwood. The best thing you can do for your burnout is to recognise you have it, respect the work you performed in the gaining of it (battle scars), and remove yourself from negative stimulus to recover, including guilt and self-recriminations. Remember, there is no problem so big it cannot be run away from. Putting oneself first so you can return to health is yet another part of the positive activist role.
posted by Thella at 9:27 PM on July 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

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