Activist Burnout: Tired, Overwhelmed, and Hopeless

Vicious Circle

–By Shauna Aura Knight

Do you ever get exhausted? I’m not talking physically, I’m talking about that kind of emotional state of being just empty, drained. Or perhaps for you it manifests more as being overwrought, stressed out.

However you experience it for yourself, almost all of us who are fighting for something, working towards some larger goal, get burned out at some point.

Years ago I took a class at Depaul University with Wayne Teasedale, author of the Mystic’s Heart. He was both a Catholic monk, and a Hindu Sannyasi renunciate. As part of his class on mysticism–the state of achieving union with the greater divine–he took us to a lecture on activism.

I was a little clueless at the time; I didn’t think I’d ever call myself an activist. But I remember dutifully taking notes, and the activists in the panel discussion talked about the stages of activism. Getting fired up, reaching a plateau, and reaching the state of exhaustion. I made an informational graphic showing the flow of this process; it’s one of the things I do with processes as an experiential designer, so the idea of a consistent process like this made sense. It’s also one of the ways I seal things into my memory.

As I began doing leadership training, I recall my mentors talking about the seasons, how the seasons naturally create a resting time during fall and winter, however, our modern culture expects us to be in the high energy level of summer.

Expectations of High Energy and Eternal Summer
I thought about that a lot over the subsequent years. One of the professional hats I wear is that of a graphic designer and artist. And absolutely, as a professional web and graphic designer, not only is there an expectation that you will be in the highly-creative, high-producing phase of “summer” all the time, but that you can whip up a stunning concept within a few hours or days.

In the past years, I’ve also been working through my own cycles of depression. What causes it, what makes it worse, what makes it better. I’ve tried to get a better sense of, when is it a depression, when is it a seasonal dip, when is it a post-project crash, when is it grief, when is it a reaction to eating the wrong foods for my body.

Thus, while I’m no expert on depression, I thought that I’d offer some thoughts on the very natural part of the process of activism, of being an activist, and that is the phase of burn out.

On most projects or initiatives that you are a part of, it’s natural that you may hit the wall of “This is totally hopeless.” The past weeks, I’ve found myself there on a few projects. Partially, this is my natural inclination around Mabon to begin to hibernate for the winter. The days get colder and darker, and my energy levels drop like a stone. But it’s also partially due to my body and brain response to being overwhelmed.

As some of the physical projects I’m working on–such as getting my mom’s house ready to sell–drag on, I hit that wall of hopelessness. I start to think, this is never going to be done. There is no way to succeed here, we’ll never get through it all. And then that hopelessness tends to bleed out into other areas of my life–my artwork, my writing, my career. At least, it does for me. Indeed, when I’m caught up in the undertow of “the suck,” it can be too much to even go out to the post office or get basic things done.

Maybe I’m more prone to going down into the “dark side” of the tired/overwhelmed/depressed headspace than other people are, maybe not. But, for many of you reading this, being overwhelmed in one area can impact the other things you are doing.

Project Lifecycle and Burnout
Applying that to activism, and that long-ago presentation from activists who have suffered burnout, I see it as the same process that any of us go through when we are working on something, whether that’s a house rehab, an art project, a community-building project, an awareness campaign, a struggle to change legislation, interfaith work, or any other kind of project.

And perhaps activism is more susceptible to some of the energy-suck of the wall of hopelessness, because some of the “projects” we are working on, the initiatives, are so huge that we alone cannot make the change. A hundred of us cannot make the change. And the changes we seek, we may not see in our lifetime. I know that when I have put in my heart and soul into something, and then I don’t have the feeling of resolution, of success, that I can easily get sucked into the “overwhelmed” head space.

With the elections coming up, and with so many initiatives under Occupy and other related movements, it can be easy to get sucked into that headspace. And I’m not here to offer easy solutions–indeed, I wish I had better answers for myself, because there is nothing that I loathe more than being drawn down into “the suck” of a hopeless, uninspired headspace.

But what I think it’s important to acknowledge, is that this is a thing that can happen. And it’s natural. And it doesn’t mean you’re bad, or you’ve failed, or that it’s going to feel that way forever.

Stewardship of One’s Self
I think that one of the critical balances for any activist–indeed, for any leader, if not for every person–is finding the balance of self care, and self responsibility. In Reclaiming, I learned the concept of “self care”–caring for yourself, taking it easy when you need a break, doing things to recharge your batteries, saying “no” when you need to. At Diana’s Grove, I learned the concept of “stewardship of self” as adapted from Buckminster Fuller. The idea that, we owe it to future generations, to the divine, to our highest selves, to use the gifts we’ve been given in service.

As activists, we are working in service. Whether your activism is environmental sustainability and making a better/healthier planet for future generations, or Pagan interfaith activism like helping Pagans to be more accepted by other religions, or reproductive rights activism to keep the goverment’s hands off our bodies…all of these are service. And sometimes you may hit that wall, you may find yourself in the phase of hopelessness. Or perhaps you realize you’ve hit that wall because everything makes you cranky, overwrought, overwhelmed.

Knowing Yourself
So what do you do to shake it off, to get out of your funk? My own process involves tools for both long-term and short-term emotional maintenance.

Long term: I have worked to get healthy. I have worked to lose weight to get to a body size/weight that is healthier for my frame. I take vitamins, which has significantly reduced my long-term depression. I have eliminated most gluten (wheat) and casein (dairy) from my life, as I find both make me lethargic. I have worked to eliminate toxic people from my life.

Short term: The past weeks, I’ve found myself experiencing the energy-drain of the seasonal shift, as well as what I call a post-event crash, which is the exhaustion of having just put out a lot of energy to make an event happen. What I find works best for me is letting it ride for a little bit. Hiding out in my “cave” for a bit.

I’m an introvert, so I try to give myself some introvert recuperation time, read a book or two. Let myself heal up before trying to put out major energy. What I find helps me too is doing something small scale that I can succeed at. In my case today, that was unraveling a big ball of yarn and metallic thread. It might sound silly, but the satisfaction I got from sorting out all those pretty shiny pieces of yarn and ribbon helped put me into a better mood. Of course, jump-starting my engine with a (rare for me) cup of coffee probably helped a lot too.

hands holding candleWhatever work you are doing, no matter how hard it gets–there is always hope. Finding and creating resources to help get you out of the suck is one of the most valuable things you can do for yourself as an activist.

So…what do you do when you’re burned out? How do you cope, and get ready for the next challenge? How do you refill your tanks? Or how do you stave off burnout?


BioShauna2Shauna Aura Knight is an author, artist, ritualist, community builder, activist, and spiritual seeker. She travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and spiritual growth. She’s the published author of books and articles on leadership, ritual facilitation, and personal transformation, as well as an author of fantasy fiction. Her mythic artwork is used for magazines, book covers, and personal shrines. Check out her blog on Pagan leadership and community building or her web site for more information on upcoming classes, rituals, books, and articles.

4 thoughts on “Activist Burnout: Tired, Overwhelmed, and Hopeless

  1. Soli

    I have yet to figure out how to avoid burnout, as I tend to be a full speed ahead/overdrive sort of woman. But I have gotten the hang of recovery. It means rest, spirit-feeding activities, restorative yoga, massage, and breathing.

  2. Michelle Hill

    Excellent post, Shauna. And like Soli, I have yet to avoid burnout though I am getting better about pacing myself so it doesn’t come as quickly as it has in the past.

    Right now I’m in the “hopeless” hole. Climbing out seems so impossible that I’d rather it just rain so I’ll drown. But I know this will pass and I’ll be back to my “ra ra ra” self.

  3. Briana

    So eloquently put. Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to have reminders that we are all striving for something more, something better and that it is natural to feel overwhelmed. Self care is essential to the bigger picture and is most important in order for us to be as effective as we need to be in redesigning our world into the more beautiful world we know is possible.

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