When I was in graduate school for social work, my professors (particularly in my first year of grad school) told my classmates and I two things: 1) As a social worker, people will expect you to run around and put out fires and 2) you have to make time for yourself. It’s no wonder that many activists tend to be social workers themselves (or in some other profession that sounds social work-y.) When you’re working directly with populations that are marginalized and constantly being denied basic human rights, it’s hard to sit back and ponder on all of the injustices in the world and not have the urge to take action.
I’m in New York City, the biggest activist city in the world. During most weeks, you can find some sort of rally or protest going on that causes streets to be shut down, or people standing in the middle of sidewalks to ask for your signature on the latest campaign. I’ve experienced my fair share of rallies and protests in my day, and while it is exhilarating, there is more to life than fighting the good fight. The good fight isn’t so good when it costs you some peace of mind.
The most successful activist is the activist who strikes a balance between advocating for others as well as making the time to take care of self. In order to advocate for someone else, you have to be able to advocate for you first. It reminds me of safety instructions whenever you’re on a boat on preparing to take off on a flight. You’re asked to place the safety vest or the oxygen mask on you first before placing it on the other person. How can you advocate for people living in low-income neighborhoods to have health care clinics in their neighborhood when you haven’t gone to your primary care physician in over two years, or how can you fight to get better grocery stores in your neighborhood yet you spend more of your time in fast-food restaurants than walking down a grocery aisle?
The two biggest things that separate the well-off activist from the worn-down activist are self-care and burn-out. Self care is a very social justice terms that focuses on the ability to engage in this work while still being able to maintain and outlook on looking and feeling well. Burn-out, on the other hand, is when it feels as though you’ve hit a wall, literally and figuratively. You’re physically and emotionally drained, and maybe a little cranky towards the people you’re working with (and even working to help).
Here are 8 of my tried-and-true tips for preventing activist burnout and getting back to the person that matters most—You:
Create a “Here’s What I Love” list and choose one item to indulge in: I got this idea from Christine Kane. Create a list of sights, sounds, and experiences that simply delight you, and begin to add more of these things into your week. Baking cookies, taking a long bath, watching your dog chase its tail, exercise, listening to music, and reading a novel (or watching reality TV…whichever you prefer) are great choices. Pick some things that make you happy and bring you a sense of peace.
Create a weekly “I Don’t Care” Day: This is your “Here’s What I Love” list in action. It’s fine and perfectly OK to not care about a cause for one day. Begin by choosing one day a week (it doesn’t have to be the same day each week) and spend that day devoted to other things besides whatever cause you’re participating in at the moment. Sometimes stepping away brings not only a sense of relief but also a sense of clarity. It’s amazing what 24 hours away from a cause can do, and trust me, the cause will still be there when you return.
Agree to no activist talk while you’re relaxing with your activist friends: You and some of your activist friends make plans to go out to dinner or to a bar or to a fellow activist’s apartment, and what starts off as a lighthearted conversation turns into the deconstruction of race, gender, and class and how it relates to the latest cause you’re working on. I’ve been in this situation more times than I’d care to admit, and it does get old quickly. Sometimes it’s hard to step out of that activist role, but make a resolve to try discussing other topics besides activism. You might learn something new about your friends.
Think in terms of ROI: ROI is “return on investment”. When you invest in self-care, the people you’re advocating for can see how important your physical and mental wellness are to you, and in turn it can encourage them to invest in themselves as well. The more you invest your own self-care, the more authentic your activism can be.
Spend time talking with people who really don’t care: You know those awkward moments of silence where you speaking with one of your family members about the latest cause you’ve found yourself drawn to? It’s not that they don’t care (or maybe they really don’t). Utilize that moment to discuss what’s going on in your loved one’s life.
Create atmospheres where self-care is at the forefront: At times it feels as though you want to be the activist who is doing the most compared to other activists, which can create a lot of competition. At times, many organizations we work for foster this as well. Don’t think of it as a competition. This can lead to burn-out in the worst way. While working on a project, take frequent breaks to talk mindlessly, take naps, or think about the positive aspects of what you’re doing.
Encourage self-care among your activists friends: Have your friends create their own “Here’s What I Love” lists. Share it and collectively choose an activity to do as a group (and don’t forget to leave the activist talk at the door.)
Say NO, and say it often: As tempting as that new campaign sounds, and as excited as you may be for being asked to lead it, sometimes saying no can bring you more peace of mind. Saying no can be uncomfortable, especially if you know it’s going to disappoint the other person. Sometimes as activists, we feel that saying no is a big no-no. You feel that you have to prove your dedication by showing up to yet another rally, phone bank, vigil, meeting, or people will wonder why you’re not there. But here’s the thing: saying yes too often can often lead to anxiety, feeling annoyed, and frustration. If saying no means that you’re more rested to take on another campaign at another time, then it’s worth it.
I feel very fortunate to be in a collection of people who have the opportunity to be activists. There’s nothing like it. But I’ve found that in order for me to be the best advocate for other people, I have to take care of myself first.