SURVIVAL STRATEGIES FOR ACTIVISTS
HOW TO STAY IN THE STRUGGLE WITHOUT LOSING YOUR MIND
BURN-OUT: WHAT IS IT?
Burn-out is an experience of frustration, fatigue, confusion, sadness and anger which occurs when you no longer feel effective in what you are doing and when you do not receive any personal satisfaction from continuing. You can become burned out on a job or career, a marriage or relationship, volunteer work, a hobby, a religion, or political work. The combination of feeling ineffectual and the lack of satisfaction usually add up to mean that if corrective action isn't taken, you will either quit what you are doing because you just can't stand it any more, or you will become so dysfunctional that you will act out in other ways to relieve the stress.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF BURN-OUT:
The sooner you recognize the problem, the sooner you can intervene to correct it, so watch for these warning signs manifesting in your political work:
1) Procrastination and avoidance of tasks, meetings, and other political commitments you have made
2) Loss of interest in your usual political activities
3) Feeling harassed and overwhelmed by demands on your time and energy
4) A sense of hopelessness and despair about ever achieving your political goals
5) Nagging confusion and doubts about your political direction and strategy
6) Difficulty working with people in your organization or movement
7) Feeling irritated and angry with your comrades for not doing enough or not doing things right
8) Blaming yourself of your comrades for the current state of the world and lack of progress of your movement or cause
OTHER DANGER SIGNALS:
Most activists also experience other symptoms which spill over into other areas of their lives outside of the political arena:
1) Mood swings, outbursts of anger, tears, withdrawal, anxiety, and insecurity with family members, co-workers, and friends
2) Physical symptoms with no obvious medical cause: insomnia, headaches, fatigue, stomach trouble, frequent colds and flus, tense muscles in the jaws, neck, shoulders, back, or legs
LOOKING FOR RELIEF IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES
Most people try to "fix" burn-out in all the wrong ways, usually by maladapting through some type of addictive behavior. People generally are drawn to addictive behaviors because they temporarily soothe, comfort, relax, or reward us in some way. Some people use substances like alcohol, prescription drugs, recreational drugs, tobacco, coffee, and junk food to numb their emotional pain, relieve stress, or reward themselves for working so hard. Other people use behaviors like gambling, over-spending money, compulsive sex, watching television, or obsessive computer time to distract themselves from facing their feelings. These coping strategies can be helpful temporarily in getting through a rough week, but in the long run they mask the very symptoms you need to see in order to make positive changes. The first step in counter-acting burn-out is to recognize that you have a problem, and take a good hard look at the situation to identify solutions.
CAREFULLY ASSESS THE POLITICAL WORK YOU ARE DOING
Start by making a list of all the various political organizations and causes you are currently working on, and under each group or political issue, list each and every task you are doing for it. Be brutally honest with yourself about how you really feel about the various political activities you are doing. Identify the positive and negative aspects of each task and each movement. Which types of work do you find most satisfying? What aspects or tasks do you just hate doing? If any or all of these activities leave you feeling frustrated, sad, empty, or angry, admit it to yourself and take action. Commit yourself to phasing out of the tasks you can't stand doing, and see if you can recruit or train a few other people to take over these jobs. If you feel exhausted by doing too much, cut back on the hours you spend on particularly difficult or onerous tasks, and appeal to your comrades for a few volunteers to help you. If you are committed to the cause but hate the tasks, consider switching to a different role within that movement which may be more satisfying. For instance, one woman was completely burned out on the aggravation and stress of being a shop steward and of being on the Executive Board of her union, but she was still passionately committed to the union. She trained a co-worker to be shop steward, and then organized shop stewards training classes for her local. She quit the E-Board, and then organized a women's committee in her union, and started writing articles for the union newspaper. She finds these tasks very satisfying, and feels more effective. Another woman who was totally burned out on running election campaigns decided to drop out of all electoral work, but agreed to serve informally as a consultant to others running campaigns who had much less experience. This way she felt valued and appreciated for her knowledge an expertise, and felt she could still contribute her skills without the stress and chaos of being in the middle of a campaign. Another woman was so burned out after over a decade of AIDS activism that she quit doing all political work for a year. She rested, grieved her losses, and focused on her lover, her vegetable garden, and taking art classes. After a year, she "re-enlisted" in the movement and is much happier and healthier. Most activists experience ambivalence, guilt, and confusion in trying to change their political work or temporarily dropping out, but in the long run they are more effective. No one ever said class struggle was going to be fun, but it shouldn't make you miserable or ruin your life either. You may have to just quit some tasks or even quit an organization or movement in order to feel better and accomplish more.
REACH OUT FOR SUPPORT
Once you recognize burn-out and start to make changes, most activists find that having support makes the transition easier, and give you the strength and the energy to do your work more successfully. There are many ways to reach out to your community for help, and some may be more useful to you than others. Here are a few strategies that have helped many activists survive burn-out and stay in the struggle:
1) FIND ALLIES AT WORK OR WITHIN YOUR POLITICAL GROUP.
Identify one or two people you can talk to, who can support you in your work. For instance, one union activist was able to find two other union members at her workplace who would cover for her if she had to do union-related tasks on work time, who would do copying, help with typing up grievances, post flyers, and pass on information, as well as keep the boss off her beck. This enabled her to continue being shop steward, when she was so burned out she was ready to quit. Another woman who spent many years doing prison-reform work developed two close friendships with other women who were involved in similar work in another prison. They frequently called each other on the phone to laugh and cry about frustrations and successes in their work, and this reduced their feelings of isolation, fatigue, and confusion. Other people find they can count on their spouse or a close friend to be available to them if they need to let off steam, get feedback on their work, or just have a good time to counteract feelings of frustration and loneliness.
2) CONSIDER JOINING A SUPPORT GROUP.
Many people benefit from joining some type of support group which meets regularly to talk about issues, feelings, and problems they are experiencing in their lives. The group provides a safe and supportive environment to express painful feelings and hear helpful feedback and problem-solving ideas. There are many different groups available to you, from general support groups, to groups for women and groups for men, to groups for parents, people with HIV, people with disabilities, People of Color. For people who have an addictive relationship with drugs, alcohol, sex, food, or money, there are a wide variety of recovery groups which can literally be life-saving. Twelve-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as other types of recovery groups such a Smart Recovery and Secular Organizations for Sobriety, are important tools for activists who have developed addictive behaviors.
3) INDIVIDUAL COUNSELING OR PSYCHOTHERAPY CAN BE HELPFUL.
Some activists have found that one-to-one counseling can facilitate a dramatic improvement in their quality of life and help them resolve many long-term problems. For someone experiencing burn-out, even a few sessions with a counselor can help you get some perspective on what's going on in your life, give you support and validation in your work, and help with problem-solving ideas. If you feel that counseling may be right for you, seek out a therapist who has a political analysis and a clear understanding of class struggle, racism, sexism, homophobia and political activism. Otherwise, you will end up having to educate the therapist instead of receiving the help you need. I am always glad to assist activists with referrals to counselors who understand what they are going through and have experience with these issues.
PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR HEALTH
While reaching out for support is crucial to overcoming burn-out, it is equally important to respond to your body's signals of distress. Nagging physical symptoms like fatigue, headaches, insomnia, and aches and pains without any obvious medical cause are frequently related to stress and overwork. This is not meant to imply that these problems are your fault,: instead they are often caused or aggravated by the incredible demands on us in the very difficult times we live in. They are usually signs that you are trying to do too much, and your body is rebelling against these unreasonable expectations. While we have only limited control over the conditions of our lives under capitalism, with some thought and effort we can often find ways to reduce stress.
If you are experiencing physical health problems, see your health care provider to rule out any medical cause. Treating the problem with medication, chiropractic, physical therapy, or other medical treatments may be appropriate to get some immediate relief. However, in the long run, you will probably need to make some changes in the way you run your life and your political work.
These symptoms are most common among women with children, who are stretched to the limit by wage jobs and family responsibilities. Working-class women do not have the same choices as more affluent women who can hire live-in professional child-care workers and house-cleaning workers. Instead, we must develop other coping strategies. If you have a spouse, negotiate with him or her to do more housework and child-care. Ask older children to make lunches, get younger kids ready for school, do laundry, and start preparing dinner before you get home from work. Ask grandparents or friends and political comrades to drive kids to school or other activities. Trade child-care with other activists who have kids in the same age group.
Some women have decided to change their priorities. One woman realized , "I could either have a life or have a clean house, and I decided to have a life." Another said, "My kids could care less if the house is clean but they do care if there's no food in the refrigerator or if they run out of clean clothes for school. So I focus on what makes them feel loved and taken care of and forget the rest." Still another confided, "I don't feel guilty about feeding my kids pizza or fast food a couple times a week. It's better for my kids to have the extra time with me and for me to have a break from cooking, than for me to spend hours cooking fabulous meals and be too exhausted to be available to them."
Some women have looked at their family budget and decided to work part-time or to job-share, even though it means less income for the family. "It's still cheaper than going crazy," as one woman confided to me after changing job classifications from full time to 30 hours a week when the part-time position became available. Another explained that her switch to part-time work actually saved her family money, because they paid less taxes, they didn't have to pay for after-school child-care, and eliminated commuting and other expenses. One woman insisted that her husband stop working voluntary overtime every week, even though they really needed the extra money. She convinced him that she needed him to be home in the evenings to help with the children and household tasks.
Many women find that while they are committed to their political work, they are so overwhelmed by the demands of wage jobs and family responsibilities that they must curtail or even eliminate political activity until their children are old enough to fend for themselves while Mom goes to meetings or organizes picket lines. We must find ways in our political movements to make it easier for women to continue to participate to whatever extent possible, rather than harassing them to do more than is realistic.
While chronic physical symptoms are most common among women with children, many other activists experience them as well. It may mean you need to cut back on some of your political tasks or shift to other tasks that are not as stressful. It may be that you could continue with all your political commitments if you weren't working so many hours at your wage job, and it may be possible to negotiate for a shorter work-week or a vacation or leave of absence to rest and get your energy back. Many activists find that they can only keep up with all their political commitments if they work less than full-time at a wage job, because otherwise they have no time to have a life. Working full-time is a financial necessity for many. However, many activists have found that they need the free time more than the money, in order to be more effective politically as well as have a little precious free time for themselves and their loved ones.
EAT WELL AND EXERCISE REGULARLY
While it may seem like overstating the obvious, eating well and exercising regularly are very important in fighting against burn-out. Many of us are so busy that we skip meals, eat junk food on the run, or grab whatever is handy in between work and meetings. This can lead to fatigue, indigestion, ulcers, and cause a general decline in health and well-being. And most of us don't have the time, inclination, or the money to work out at a gym or undertake some major exercise program. Eating well and getting regular exercise is important to reduce stress, give you energy, improve your mood, and help you sleep better, all of which help to alleviate burn-out.
Take a few simple steps to start eating better. Try to make mealtime a refuge from your busy day, and sit down an enjoy a peaceful meal. Some people make a rule that they will not attend meetings or other political activities that force them to miss dinner, and they unplug the phone during dinner to let the answering machine take calls. Try cooking a casserole or a pot of soup on your days off, so you will have something ready to heat up on the days you are too busy to cook.
And even a little exercise can make a big difference in your health and your mood, so start off with modest goals and try to stick with it. Take a 20-minute walk during your lunch break once a week, go swimming at the "Y" once a week after work, buy a stationary bicycle and ride it while you watch TV a couple evenings a week. Many health plans such as Kaiser offer free or inexpensive exercise classes specifically designed for people who are not used to exercising. One activist told me that she hated all exercise but discovered that dance classes were a lot fun, and great exercise! Another activist found that karate classes and tai chi were a great outlet for his anger and greatly reduced his stress level. Even walking picket lines or marching in demonstrations can be good exercise.
MAKE TIME FOR THE THINGS THAT REALLY MATTER TO YOU
Take a good look at your every day life and figure out what could possibly be changed to make it work better for you. Make a list of all the things you do on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, and see if some of them can be eliminated. Are they really necessary? Drop activities that are not nurturing you or bringing something positive into your life. Think through all of these activities, and whether you want to continue them, or whether you could delegate some to others or reduce the time they take or the frequency of doing each activity. Then, make a list of all the things you really enjoy doing in life, that revive your spirit and create positive feelings. Whether it's playing poker, sleeping late, baking cookies, gardening, going to football games, cuddling with your spouse, going to the movies, spending time with friends or family members, put it on your "to do" list and make time for it! If you can manage to go to work, go to meetings, and everything else you do in life, you deserve to make time for the things that, for you, really make life worth living. In studies done of senior citizens, most said they regret not spending more time with friends and loved ones, and they wish they had spent more time having fun, traveling, pursuing artistic and creative interests. You deserve to reduce the aggravation and drudgery in life and spend time doing the things that "recharge your batteries." And you'll find that if you're having more and feeling more fulfilled and satisfied, you'll be more effective, more productive, and more willing to do all the other things you have to do in life.