How I Missed My Own Burnout on the Way to Victory
Burn-Out - the number one issue that affects change agents and is taking down some of our best people. Not to mention that we don't seem to be walking our talk. Intellectually we know high levels of stress are not good for us, our organizations or our cause. But it doesn’t seem to stop us from hitting the wall. Splat - down for the count - burned out, exhausted emotionally, physically and spiritually.
And we don’t hit the wall just once; we do it over and over again.
Surprisingly insane for such smart and committed people who want to create a more compassionate world. We're moving mountains with sheer will power without stopping to fill our selves back up at our spring of personal well being. We never stop long enough to look at what inner essentials we need to be healthy and effective social change agents.
And if you're like me, just underneath my passion is my critic telling me I am "not good enough."
I should work harder, longer, faster...anything short of that is proof we are not truly committed. We will celebrate when we are victorious, but on the way there we may miss the signs we are seriously burning out. And if that happens, we're not much good to the "cause".
Think about it, being a change agent is low paying demanding stressful work. In any given week you could be organizing a protest or benefit concert. You might be up late thinking through a difficult strategy response to government or corporate policy. You might be called to do some on the ground work like delivering fliers or working in a campaign on the weekends and weeknights in addition to juggling school, relationships and whatever. A sense of urgency and multi-tasking capability are requisites since there are often no job descriptions. You're just expected to do anything and everything necessary to get a project done. And you end up frustrated and annoyed with anyone who does not 'pull' their weight. Minor social ostracism is often employed to assure accountability.
This kind of activism asks us to become really wrapped up in our identities as "change agents." And if you're not "active", then you're failing to live up to the high standards you likely set for yourself. The problem with this is it doesn't allow you to take breaks. You're treading water, keeping your head above the surface so you can be seen as living up to your name, afraid of sinking, being seen as not doing your part. And with a scarcity mentality often fuelled by limited funding, you become competitive with fellow activists - you always have something to protect or prove.
Some activist communities are a little farther ahead in terms of recognizing the importance of self-care and supporting its staff and volunteers in practicing it. But at the end of the week the bottom-lines still have to be met; the grant reports have to be turned in, the appeal letters have to go out, next week's training's has to be scheduled, etc. The way this plays out is that self-care, ends up translating to little things like making time to eat better, sleeping and showering, rather than taking a vacation, building a personal support network, spending time doing personal development work or saying no to new projects.
And saying "no" is where we need to start.
First inner essential step: Say NO to new projects!
No matter what social change agent community you're in, saying no is frowned upon. No one ever tells you "you can't do it". (Well, maybe sometimes,) but we all know the "only" way to prove our dedication to a cause is to stand outside in the cold with a placard chanting, or go to a meeting, or several meetings or go to some conference or fundraiser, because if we don't our dedication becomes suspect.
As social change agents, we need to:
- Stop treating activism like it's an unending crisis that only we can fix
- Trust each other to do the work and live our politics in our own ways, which fit the amount of resources (time and money) we have instead of expecting each other to bend over backwards to go to every vigil and meeting. Otherwise how will we ever be effective at creating change in the world?
- Support each other in creating a social change culture where we actually live balanced lives. We need to set boundaries and stick to them - instead of just talking about it.
I know - easier said than done.
And it takes more than reading a few words in a blog, it takes knowing and trusting yourself and building a community of support helping you develop the discipline you will be called upon to exert as you 'being' another way.
Sometimes support of other like minded people can be the best place to start. Subscribe to our blog and you'll hear from others, who like you, want to work compassionately for effective social change.