6. Three More Facts About Burnout

A large fraction of my activist and other students were experiencing burnout by the time they took my classes. From witnessing them, discussing their experiences with them, and from my own research, I have concluded these three things about burnout:

1. Burnout is a Process

It typically starts small and gets worse. Sometimes it happens quickly, and a person who was perfectly happy doing activism a month ago suddenly wakes up one morning and realizes he can no longer stand it. Usually, however, it happens slowly, over a period of years or decades.

2. Events Don’t Cause Burnout—It Always Comes from Within

Often there appears to be a precipitating event that leads to a case of burnout, such as a failed campaign or a fight with a colleague. Sometimes it’s a personal event such as an eviction notice or relationship break-up.

In cases such as these, it is tempting to come up with a simple cause-and-effect explanation for the burnout, but such an explanation is usually not accurate. Because burnout is a process, often what appears to be the precipitating event is really just the last straw: in other words, the person was mostly burned out before the event even happened and, being burned out, lacked the resiliency or will to cope with the crisis and carry on with his activism. Often, the event merely serves as a convenient excuse for doing what the activist has been wanting to do anyway.

For all the activists who burn out, however, there are others who keep on doing their activism despite having many other personal and professional commitments. And there are many activists, especially in the developing world, who keep on doing their activism even in the face of horrendous persecution and personal risk. When you ask these activists how they can
keep on doing their activism, they often respond something like this: How could I stop? This is who I am. I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t do it. In other words, their activist work doesn’t drain them; it sustains them.

For activism to be sustaining, it has to derive from your values and also occupy the right place in your life. If you are an activist who is feeling burned out, your challenge will be to figure out what type of activism is right for you, and where that activism fits in with your other priorities. Coming up with your Personal Mission Statement using the process described in this part of The Lifelong Activist will help.

3. Burnout Often Happens at a Subconscious or Semi-Conscious Level

Often, we’re not really aware that we’re burning out. We may not be aware that we’re in a bad mood a lot of the time, or that we’re not getting as much work done as we used to. Or we may be aware of these symptoms, but not recognize them as symptoms. Or we may recognize them as symptoms, but of the wrong problem.

That last one happens all the time and it’s a real pickle. Obviously, if you misdiagnose a problem, then you’re not going to be likely to solve it—and a misapplied “solution” can even make things worse. Many burned-out and burning-out activists, for example, misidentify their problem as laziness, lack of commitment or lack of discipline. Their solution—to try to work harder—often makes them feel even more burned-out than before.

The vast majority of burned-out activists are not lazy. They are not uncommitted. They are not undisciplined. They are, in contrast, some of the most energetic, committed and disciplined people around. They are, however, blocked from using their energy and talents in the service of their movement; and the block is invariably caused by trying to live a conflicted life where one’s actions do not derive from one’s values and needs.

The solution, once more, is honesty: about yourself, your situation and your needs. So, let’s return to your Activist Project Histories, and, in particular, to what may be your toughest honesty-related challenge: facing up to “bad news.”