The care and feeding of an activist

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, and if you’re particularly astute, then perhaps lately you’ve picked up on certain words that don’t often show up in my writing.  Like “Capitola.” Or “pool.” These are words that hint at the goings-on of my life, barely revealing the subtle shift from my regular day-to-day routine into a different reality. If this was my personal journal, and if I wanted my life to be center stage, I’d be dropping words regularly like Beach. Boogie boarding. Sand castles. Wetsuit. Surfing. Sand dollars. Sea glass. You get the idea, I’m sure. If you haven’t figured it out, I am On Vacation.

All Summer Long.

And let me tell you, it is much-needed.

I love my work. I care about my work, particularly when it comes to teaching, writing, and activism. And when I care about something, I immerse myself deeply into it. I don’t do stuff because it’s just a task that needs to be done. I do it because I care about it. And if I don’t care about it initially, I find a way to care (Sociologist Arlie Hochschild, in her classic book The Managed Heart, refers to this behavior as “deep acting.” Instead of pretending to care – which she calls “surface acting” – you dig deep and find a way to actually care). In addition, I’m not someone who does things on a superficial level. When I do a job, or take on a new task, I dive in hard, putting in 150% – not because I have something to prove, but because I’m excited and energized about what I’m doing. I run on super-charged, Energizer batteries, because I care.

But even Energizer batteries eventually run down. And if you keep trying to work on a dead battery, you’re going to experience burnout – especially if you’re a sensitive, caring, passionate, deep-acting kind of person.

Burnout is a common phenomenon. Hundreds of studies have been conducted on the issue, and scores of books dish out all kinds of advice about how to deal with burnout. Most of the studies I’ve seen tend to focus on two types of burnout: workplace burnout (which is especially common in the helping professions and in education) and caregiver burnout (which, in some cases, poses more health risks than what the actual patient being cared for might be facing). However, I can’t seem to find a single study that addresses activist burnout. And that, frankly, is surprising to me.

Watch the film Made in L.A. (Hecho en Los Angeles), which documents the three-year struggle to win basic labor protections from the retailer Forever 21. Notice how many people were involved at the beginning of the movement – and how few stuck it out for the entire three years. Watch How to Survive A Plague, a film that chronicles the activism of ACT-UP, and see how years of government indifference led to infighting within the organization – and almost caused the entire movement to implode. Burnout among activists is rampant, in my opinion. Because, if you think about it, activists are determined, caring, passionate, and persistent individuals, pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into their efforts. However, activism can be exhausting, and many activists have been doing the work so long that they’re running on fumes. Often, activist efforts are completely ineffective (and, in many cases, these efforts are met with open and blatant hostility). And exhaustion combined with ineffectiveness can transform even the most idealistic person into a burned-out cynic.

Christina Maslach, a researcher at the University of California, has conducted dozens of studies on the issue of burnout. (For you psychology trivia junkies, Maslach was the whistleblower in the classic Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted by social psychologist Philip Zimbardo. A graduate student at the time, Maslach is now married to Zimbardo.) She has written several books on the topic, including Burnout: The Cost of Caring and The Truth about Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do about It. Maslach has also created an instrument called – you guessed it – the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which has been utilized in hundreds of burnout studies. And through all of her work, Maslach has found that burnout essentially boils down to three toxic risk factors:

  • emotional exhaustion;
  • ineffectiveness; and
  • cynicism (Maslach refers to this as “depersonalization”).

Sound familiar?

Here’s where, I imagine, you might expect me to launch into a discussion of ten-simple-ways-to-avoid-burnout. Accept what you can’t change, and change what you can. Step back periodically and recharge your batteries. Find your tribe, and develop a strong support network. Relax. Meditate. Practice mindfulness. Feed your body good, nutritious food. Exercise. Get enough sleep. Ask for help when you need it. All of these are good suggestions (and I do my best to take these suggestions regularly – hence the Extended Summer Vacation).

But all of these suggestions rest on the assumption that burnout happens because of some individual flaw. Psychology as a field tends to default towards that approach, operating on the assumption that, when problems manifest within an individual, it’s that individual that needs to be treated. In The Truth about Burnout, which addresses burnout within the workplace, Maslach (who, as a social psychologist, is more likely to look at the individual within a social context) makes the case that employee burnout is not an individual failing, but is instead a symptom of a deeply flawed organization. If we extend that logic to activist burnout, we can say that activists who experience this are not weak, or flawed, or inadequate. Rather, they are the symptom-bearers, the “identified patient” in a deeply dysfunctional, oppressive society. And “treating” the individual isn’t going to do anything to eliminate that dysfunction.

By far, the most common suggestion I’ve seen in the burnout literature (particularly in books about workplace burnout) is this: Know when to jump ship. Of course, in many cases, this is very good advice, for there’s nothing worse than feeling stuck in a job you hate. But when it comes to activist burnout, we can’t just walk away from it, or ignore it, or pretend it’s not happening. We may feel tired, frustrated, angry, hopeless, and helpless. But we also know that giving up is not an option – because what ship are we going to jump onto? The only option is to change the one we’re on – because we can’t afford to let it sink.

So we’re back to ten-simple-ways-to-avoid-burnout – you know, the ones that reduce a societal problem to an individual solution. But individuals make up groups, and groups make up societies. And if we have a lot of individuals with common activist goals, and every single one of those individuals is practicing radical self-care, then imagine the possibilities.

That is why I am On Vacation. All Summer Long.


Filed under human rights, mental health, psychological research

2 responses to “The care and feeding of an activist

  1. David

    Some of what you call burnout may simply be the individual having achieved their goal and not feeling the personal need to continue the protest, e.g., a gay marriage activist may live in a state that grants legality to gay marriage and, having achieved personal victory, no longer feels the need to fight. On a different front, I was once involved in a union strike but chose to become a “scab” since I was on a fast track to a management position (which I got) and had to appear to be a team player. Neither I, nor the activist are necessarily unsympathetic to the desires of others similarly placed but when the goal has been reached, sometimes it’s fruitless to continue climbing, and in my case would have been counterproductive.

    These examples may not say much for the activist’s or my altruism but we each fight for causes important to ourselves, not necessarily what is important to others, even when it is the same thing.

    That said, there are many others, like yourself, who achieve their goal and continue the good fight, and I applaud you for that.

    • I think there’s a difference between burnout and complacency. It’s easy to get complacent once a goal has been achieved. With same-sex marriage, part of DOMA has been overturned, and same-sex marriage is legal in California, but the fight is far from over. However, I’ve heard many people voice concerns that people will give up and rest on their laurels, rather than continue to push for a full overturning of DOMA and legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
      There are other issues the LGBTQ community has been fighting for years over, such as employment rights (ENDA) and inclusive health coverage (particularly for transpeople). With both of those issues, activists have had to be persistent, slowly chipping away at oppressive practices, and slowly making gains. But these gains have taken time, and people get tired of fighting, and it’s easy to throw in the towel and give up.
      I think you make a good point that we have to choose our battles, and we have to look at the short-run goal vs. the long-run goal. That involves making some difficult (and sometimes very unpopular) choices, but all the while trying to keep the long-range goal in mind.
      Thanks for reading, David!

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