Dealing with Activist Burn-Out and Self-Care

This article is part of our “Dealing with…” advice series, written by activists based on their own experiences.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” – Audre Lorde

Let’s be real: this work is hard. It takes time, it can be disappointing, and it sure is draining sometimes. For survivor-activists, our activism can be doubly overwhelming because we are in the process of healing and processing our own experiences of trauma, in addition to learning how to organize anti-rape culture campaigns on our respective campuses. We are also doing a million other things, from schoolwork to extracurricular activities.

Unfortunately, rape culture isn’t going away anytime soon, and that means that we need to be able to sustain our energy and ourselves. “Self-care” refers to attitudes and behaviors we engage in to honor our needs and prioritize our well-being. Too often, self-care is relegated as simply “taking a break.” This, however, can be extremely challenging for two reasons. On one hand, it is extremely challenging to actually value our own well-being in a victim-blaming, sexist world that constantly tells us that the needs and interests of survivors are insignificant. On the other hand, as activists, “taking a break” can seem like a drastic action, almost like a cop-out or even an act of betrayal against our co-organizers.

Yet, many existing dialogue about self-care do not provide concrete and productive ways of actually practicing self-care. While these are certainly relaxing activities, they do not address how we can practice self-care in our daily lives. Below, we offer a few principles that we have found helpful in prioritizing our self-care as activists who are in this fight for the long run:

Recognize that our activism is our self-care.

Why did we even get ourselves into this mess and cause ourselves all this stress? Because we care. Activism is our way of caring for ourselves, regardless of the extra difficulty it may bring to our lives. It is through activism that we find support networks, validate our traumas and healing, and envision safer schools without rape culture. There are aspects of this work that can be overwhelming and draining, but ultimately, we are doing work that is generative. You can read more about this at Organizing Upgrade.

Our feelings — good and bad — are real.

We are often told to just “feel better”: do some stretches, take a long walk, and treat yourself.

For some, this might be hugely effective. Yet, for many of us, “negativity” is our inspiration — it is inseparable from our activism. We would not be doing this work if we weren’t sufficiently angry about the injustices perpetrated by attackers and universities. Yet, we are told by classmates, administration, and even friends and families, that we are too “negative” or that we have too much “hatred for the school.” But anger is and can be generative. It drives us, it gives us insight, and it builds solidarity.

Besides, this “negativity” is often linked to the joys we experience from our activism: at the small victories and at new friends and allies. Validate your experiences — good or bad — as they are.

There is no right way to do self-care.

What are specific actions you take that relax you? These can range from taking a mini break after hours spent on your gmail and listening to music to cooking and taking a nap. Below are a few suggestions of concrete actions that include a time frame:

  • Turn off your phone or internet for X minutes

  • Set a bed time in order to get at least 8 hours of sleep, or as much sleep as you need

  • Eat meals regularly

  • Set aside breaks and make sure not to schedule anything during those times

  • Take a nap for X minutes

  • Take a walk or work out

  • Listen to music, play an instrument

  • Find funny websites like this

  • Spend time with supportive people

Self-care requires planning.

To reiterate: we “practice” self-care. This means that we have to concretize self-care into specific actions and plan them into our schedule so that they are integrated into our daily lives. Write them into your planner. For example, you can write in “take a X minute-long break after an hour of reading/emailing.” Or, make a to-do list in order of due-dates so that you can prioritize tasks by urgency. Involve people in your support network (i.e. friends, family, co-organizers), so that you have company who are holding you accountable to putting your well-being first. You can read more about this on Spectra Speaks.

We hope that these are helpful suggestions for integrating self-care into your daily life. But, we also want to recognize that, maybe, you are feeling overwhelmed because you are doing too much. If you feel that you have too much at hand, perhaps it warrants a conversation with your co-organizers about task delegation. We suggest calling a meeting with your co-organizers to have a frank conversation about how much everyone is actually doing: you may find out that someone is willing to take some load off you. Using “I” statements, be very specific about exactly which tasks you are doing and how much time you are committing to those tasks. This is helpful for two reasons: it itemizes what are you stressed out about and it communicates to your co-organizers that you need help.

Below, we have a few things that have helped validate our burnouts and re-energize us. Some directly address anti-sexual violence activism, while others discuss other anti-oppression activism.

Readings

Music

—Suzanna Bobadilla and Kate Sim