Oops, I Did It Again: Activist Burnout and A Beginner’s Guide to Activist Self Care

By Spencer Spotts

Congrats! You did it! Maybe you just finished your first meeting with your campus’ administration about increasing LGBTQ protection policies, or your #SayHerName protest was a huge success. You are feeling empowered and ready to conquer the battle against systems of oppression even more than you were before.

So you do more, and more, and more.

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Three to six months later, it finally hits: activist burnout. As much as you want to fight the notion that “it won’t happen to you,” it more than likely will and it is going to hurt when it does. You may start asking how you got yourself in the position you are now, why you are fighting anymore, and if all your effort and time even caused any shifts.

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Stop right there and take a moment:

Your feelings are valid.

Your actions have had an impact.

You have done incredible work and now the system is going to try to come back at you for that.

I’m proud of you.

Activist burnout is especially likely to happen to young college activists who are engaging in activism and social justice work for the first time. However, it can happen to anyone at any point in life – and it can continue to happen if you don’t intentionally develop a plan for loving and taking care of yourself. There is often this myth that we aren’t doing “the real work” if we aren’t constantly “on the front lines” or showing up for every single protest or getting two hours of sleep six nights a week.

I’m here to tell you that is false, false, false. In fact, our movements want the complete opposite of that. Audre Lorde, a Black lesbian feminist and a key figure in Black feminism, has a quote that reads, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

First, if we can’t be functioning in a way that is healthy and productive for ourselves and for those who we care most about, then our movements and our liberation will dramatically suffer. We need you and we need you at your best; this work is damn hard and we don’t talk about that enough. Second, to echo Lorde, your mere healthy and loving existence is in itself an act of resistance. These systems were meant to control us and we were not meant to survive in them, but we’re doing so much more than just surviving and that’s radical.

However, starting to engage in self care and self-love can be daunting. So if you’re ready to begin, here are some quick ideas and tips to get you started:

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Understand more about burnout, self care, and what that may look like for you! Activist Trauma Support has an awesome PDF brochure about this here. Read into Brené Brown or similar authors for more on self-worth, compassion, and honoring yourself. And remember, this is never selfish.

 

Self care is a practice

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It doesn’t just happen and then it’s done. Self care becomes more natural the more you do it, but it does require intentional planning and active use. The more you become comfortable and accustomed to self care and checking in with yourself, the more easily you’ll be able to physically and emotionally notice when you haven’t been as intentional with scheduling out self care time.

 

One of the main aspects of self care is that you get to design what your practice looks like for you – there is not one “right” way to do self care. Maybe self care for you is watching cat videos on YouTube for three hours. Maybe self care for you is buying a new bottle of Bath & Body Works lotion. Maybe self care for you is sleeping in thirty minutes later than you usually do. Keep a list somewhere of the self care activities and practices that work for you so you can pull it out when you need it the most! Need some inspiration? Check out this awesome list of various activities from Annie Wright.

 

It’s okay to say “no”

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Remember: you do not need to be at every event every time in order to be doing good work. Again, you do not need to be at every event every time. It’s okay to say, “No, I can’t make that protest tomorrow” and you don’t even need to provide an explanation as to why. Doing too much in a way that drains you is more dangerous for the movement than it is helpful. You are not alone and trust me – someone else can bring the permanent markers this time.

 

Practice this, practice this, practice this. Ask yourself why you want to answer “yes” or “maybe.” Start saying “no” when you need to.

 

Back to the basics

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We tend to forget the basic health techniques that keep our bodies and minds healthy. These are the building blocks and without them, activism and daily life becomes ten times more difficult. Turn these into a checklist and ask yourself if you:

  • Eat regularly (A balance of “comfort” and “healthy” is good)
  • Sleep, sleep, sleep (Find that 8 hours somehow)
  • Bring a water bottle around with you (And actually drink and refill it)
  • Take a 5 minute walk whenever you need it (Even in the middle of a meeting)
  • Get off social media for a little break (The tumblr trolls will be okay without you)
  • Exercise when and however you can. Exercising releases chemicals into your brain that will restore feelings of calmness, happiness, and peace. (You can access free yoga or Zumba videos on YouTube by searching “yoga for beginners,” then filter by the time length you’re looking for).

 

Write that down (or grab your phone)

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Reflection and mindfulness will be one of the greatest self-care tools to have in your toolbox. Mindfulness is formally defined as a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. However, mindfulness looks different ways for different people! Check if your campus or local recreation center offers free or discounted meditation and yoga classes (I especially recommend qigong, which is more of a physical-spiritual practice.) If you have access to a mobile device, there are a variety of great apps that focus on mindfulness, breathing, and meditative exercises (try checking out Stop, Breathe, & Think). Buy a journal (some come with reflection prompts like this one) or make a cute, budget-friendly one yourself like this for daily reflection and journaling. Journaling has a shocking effects on our bodies and minds, as well as being an activity that can be brought with you wherever you go.

 

Chapter by chapter – reading for the soul

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It can be especially hard during burnout to feel a greater sense of purpose or that our work is actually creating change, thus leading to intense feelings of isolation, anger, or resentment. Pick up a copy of your favorite author, especially those who are writing on feminisms, anti-racism, queer and quare studies, ableism, and radical activism. Have you read some Audre Lorde before? Or if you’re into poetry, maybe check out the work of Andrea Gibson. Reading work by these kind of authors will not only expand your knowledge but will also reaffirm your feelings, ideas, and identities. Check out this fantastic resource full of classic activist reads FOR FREE!

 

Connect with your community

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We can celebrate ourselves. We’re allowed to have fun too. Have a movie night, host a potluck, get together for a healing arts night. Go out on the town. Go to the Dollar Tree and pick out five cheap snacks, then go have a picnic somewhere. Our mere survival is an awesome form of resistance, especially when we come together as a group. Find out if your local LGBTQ center is hosting any free community events or if you can volunteer with them. Healthy alone time can be good but oppression thrives on isolation. 

 

Art reaches the heart

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Art has been found to have different physical and chemical effects on our bodies and brains, thus why so many artists and therapists are now collaborating for “art therapy.” Whether you are watercoloring for an hour or bringing out those old school box crayons to use in one of these rad coloring books, dedicating time to some art project will help with feeling grounded and provide quiet time for reflection. Your art time may also look like writing some slam poetry, improvising a new song on the piano, or redesigning your bedroom. Here are some really cool project ideas from Priscilla Frank.

 

In the end, remember…

  1. Self care requires planning and practicing. Schedule out time for it, no matter how busy your schedule may look.
  2. Your self care is your self care. Find what works for you and stick with it. Whatever pleasures you, regardless of how much time it takes or how simple it may seem, is an awesome form of self care.
  3. The movement needs you to take care of yourself. Self care is resistance.
  4. Learn how to recognize what burnout looks and feels like for you –  and plan accordingly!
  5. Your feelings are valid. Your emotions are valid. Keep reminding yourself that you are worthy, valid, and enough.

 

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Do you have other suggestions on what has worked for you or important reminders for activist self care? Tell us below in the comments!

 

Campus Pride is the leading national educational organization for LGBTQ and ally college students and campus groups building future leaders and safer, more LGBTQ-friendly colleges and universities. The organization provides resources and services to thousands of college students and nearly 1400 campuses annually. Learn more online at CampusPride.org.

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