Avoiding Activist Burnout: a crazy critique

I have been active in the radical/anarchist community for a pretty long time now, and through my interactions with that community as a crazy person some things have become obvious to me. I have noticed that most of the folks active in the anarchist community hold themselves up to a standard that most cannot achieve. This leads to activist burn-out, and says something about how accessible and accountable we are to people who cannot achieve this ideal. There are many reasons that the activist community at large needs to deal with the problems that this paragon of revolution presents.

It seems to me that there is an ideal of what an activist should be that exists in the community that I have primarily been a part of since I was around sixteen; the anarchist punk community. I have seen this model both discussed and personified. Most of the people who are revered in this scene are involved in numerous projects and do an incredible amount of work. Most radicals know someone like this; they are the people who volunteer at a space, have six collective meetings a week, are organizing a conference, writing a book, run the local chapter of fill-in-the-blank, and still find time to do all that other stuff like work and eat and sleep, though perhaps not often. There are various differing reasons why these people are capable of doing so much. In no way do I want to negate the valuable contributions of all the people around the country single-handedly running various projects with talent and passion. They are indeed admirable. What I find is that there are many reasons that this model is not sustainable, at best, and problematic at worst.

One thing I have experienced a few of times in my life is activist burn out. There has been a time or two where I have just had to step back from the work I was doing and take some time to myself. Unfortunately, this time was taken after I had reached crisis and was in a very unhealthy space, rather than before I had gotten to that point, when I would have had a chance to maintain stability. When I stepped back, it was frowned upon by other activists. It seemed that the people around me felt I was taking some kind of “easy way out” or that I was being lazy. It was certainly not seen as a positive, healthy decision. In the past, I was embarrassed to admit that I am bipolar and that it greatly affects my life. People’s reactions to my admission of being crazy ranged from mutual embarrassment, to open disgust, to being just plain unsure of how to handle the information. The negative reactions made me feel like a burden to my community and taught me to try to hide that aspect of myself and keep striving towards being the Most Productive Person Ever. There were a couple of people who handled my craziness in an awesome, supportive way. I will always be grateful to them. (xo Sera).

I have seen burn-out in my friends as well. Most friends who have dealt with this agree with my assertion that there is not enough active support in the communities and projects we work with to be able to deal with the incredible amount of pressure we are under. Often, it seems that to complain about workload or to seek support is seen as “weakness.” Dealing with mental health, whether it is being crazy or simply striving to support someone who is having a hard time, has been largely neglected by the one very communities that needs to address it most. Having a radical perspective on society and institutions in this country can be a very tiring and frustrating position! Between the wars abroad; those here at home against people of color, women, trans folk, queers, poor people, disabled people, etc; and the capitalist system this country runs on being the antithesis of mutual aid, outrage can be overwhelming. Without systems of support in place, it is easy to become lost in despair, not to mention floored by the sheer amount of work it takes to make any kind of change. This is a reality that all radical activists have to deal with, so why shouldn’t we be trying to support and help each other deal with the world we live in?

It is especially in the interest of the activist community to deal with these problems. Every time an activist burns out and drops out of whatever work they are doing, we lose a valuable person who cares about things and is willing to work towards change. Within apathetic, mainstream American culture, people involved in the various movements fighting for real change are a minority, and can be taken for granted. Not only are we losing incredible people with a lot to offer by not supporting them, we are also failing them as a community. If our goal is to make the world a better place and forge new societies and communities based on mutual aid and sustainability, what does it mean when we can’t even take care of each other and keep things running? It is incredibly important that we set up systems of support to combat activist burn-out. We need to respect and affirm the need to take breaks, or retire altogether. Self-care is radical! Be sure that not everything that you do is activist-focused. It is okay to take some time for yourself! In order to maintain energy you must have it to begin with; recharge in some way that suits you, whether it be sleeping in till noon, spending a weekend camping, calling in to a meeting and going to a movie instead- take some time off! We should all be working towards a community in which it is possible for people to do this. If one person is in charge of an entire project, how can they ever take time for themselves? Or, for that matter, live their lives? Work forty hours a week? Raise their children? If our project would fall apart if one or two people took time off, then we need to look at the model. That isn’t very sustainable.

This leads me to another problem I see in this model of the “perfect activist.” Not all people are capable of funneling endless amounts of energy into activism. I know that for myself, there are days that I can’t even get out of bed. There is a myriad of reasons why someone couldn’t dedicate the majority of their life to “The Revolution”, whether it be that they are a single mom with three jobs, or they are a bipolar, socially anxious crazy kid (like me); many people can’t maintain that level of energy. This is not to discount the work of the many people who manage to devote boundless energy to projects even while having the cards stacked against them. I just find myself wondering why the activist community holds up this ideal that is not within the capabilities of so many types of people; often times the very people activists claim to be fighting for. Often, progressively minded folks do not recognize this behavior in themselves until it is pointed out to them. Some questions to ask yourself are:

What privileges allow me to be working on this project?

What are my attitudes towards my fellow activists?

What are my attitudes towards the people I am “fighting for?”

Am I contributing to the self-empowerment of people or are my attitudes more paternalistic?

Do I think I am “saving” people?

Do I recognize the work of others, even if it is not how I would do it?

I think this last one is important to note. There are all different types of activism and resistance. There is no “one way” to do things. That mentality is very counterproductive, not to mention ableist and symptomatic of the white supremacy culture that dominates this country*. If we only praise people who do activism “our way,” we are excluding others. We are creating a dynamic that places the “ideal” at the top and implies that other models are inferior or nonproductive.

One important solution that should be discussed is creating a culture of appreciation. The dominant culture in this country does not teach us to appreciate the hard work and contributions of the people around us. We need to change this pattern. To do so will take commitment; it is unlearning an aspect of our socialization. Next ti
me you are working on a project with someone, take some time out to think about the amount of work that the both of you have put into the project, not how much more you have to do. Recognize and respect the time taken to work on the project and any sacrifices either of you have made in order to get things done. Be vocal! Give praise; don’t just assume that because you aren’t criticizing someone that they know you think they are doing a good job. Focus on constructive criticism rather than destructive criticism. Be sure to be aware of the people who have come before you. Not only is it comforting to know the stories of people who have fought before you, but we can learn a lot from history. No need to reinvent the wheel! Give credit where credit is due.

This problem cannot be solved by one article, and I don’t think the solution is to come up with an alternative ideal. We should each be setting our own standards and not trying to live up to someone else’s. That flexibility is what attracted me to anarchism in the first place: do what works best for you while maintaining accountability and equality. I think that what is important is that we have dialogue on the topics discussed in this piece. How can we support crazy folks? How can we support non-crazy folks having a hard time? How can we prevent crisis or activist burn-out before it happens? It is up to us to create the solutions. The only thing stopping us is an ideal that many of us erroneously hold ourselves up to; it is time we stopped looking up to that person we are trying to be and look to each other instead. We are all valuable, productive and creative people; it is time to scrap the model that tells us otherwise!

* See Tema Okun’s article “White Supremacy Culture” on the Challenging White Supremacy website.