Burn Brighter, Faster, Do More, and Don’t Stop: On Activist Culture

What drives me to go to work (an advocacy job), go home, and write blog post after blog post about the work I do, share more news of oppression, and sometimes try to stay up later than I should and over-caffeinate, and not set aside time for myself? If you guessed, “Activist culture,” either from experience or the title of this blog post, you are correct. Recently I came to the startling conclusion that taking time off was, in fact, necessary to prevent me from going into total burnout at some point. An article in the Journal of Human Rights Practice notes “Social justice and human rights (SJHR) activists, whose work renders them susceptible to emotional and physical exhaustion (Maslach and Gomes 2006), need tools to tend to their own well-being.”
Working so hard that someone makes themselves physically and emotionally exhausted does not make them more virtuous, it makes them physically and emotionally exhausted. As I requested PTO from work, during which I plan to not write any advocacy-related blog posts, but maybe work on my magical realism novel, and visit a friend in another city, I felt incredibly guilty. But I need it to prevent activist burnout. The same article notes, “The combination of the emotional toll of SJHR work and the culture of selflessness can hasten ‘activist burnout’, a condition, described in more detail later, which often results in people scaling back on or fully disengaging from their SJHR activism.” This is a polite, academic phrasing of “imploding” for the most part. Many activists do not end their advocacy and activist careers well.
Further, not only can trauma travel down generations, it is still occurring to marginalized people. Discrimination can also impact mental health, and activists have a higher rate of mental illness (I recommend two posts in particular; Larkin Taylor-Parker of Traveling Show wrote a two-part series on Talking About Suicide and Healthier Advocates in which all of this is discussed, along with links and methods for self-care).
Activist culture perpetuates the late nights, and the lack of self-care; it calls upon the idea that the only ones worthy of virtue are those who sacrifice everything. The causes of activist burnout, according to 22 interviewed activists in the article, were: Infighting and tense relationships within activist communities, deep sensitivities to injustice, and lack of attention to burnout and self-care in activist communities.
For example:
Eight of the participants cited disharmonious or hostile environments in their SJHR activist organizations or movements as a primary cause of their activist burnout. They felt that the politics within their activist communities were often cruel and deleterious to themselves and other activists…. Several participants shared how they had been ‘bullied’, ‘attacked’, and ‘undermined’ by fellow activists.’
Further:
 One factor that distinguishes SJHR activist burnout from other forms of vocational burnout is the stress and self-inflicted pressure that comes with a deep awareness of injustice and exploitation (Kovan and Dirkx 2003). Eleven of the participants noted how their sensitivities to injustice, and the related stress and pressure, contributed to their burnout, especially as the injustices they were battling appeared too ‘unwieldy’.
Finally:
…all of the activists interviewed for this study experienced some level of activist burnout that required them to leave their activism at least temporarily. Other than one participant, none found in their activist organizations or movements mentoring on coping with burnout or opportunities to have open, honest conversations about burnout. Many of the activists attributed their burnout to the absence of these opportunities.
I have not seen a functional discussion about activist burnout in the disability and autistic communities save for private discussions, Taylor-Parker’s posts, and a slightly irritated post I made in 2015 that got backlash for things it never said. Perhaps there are discussions that I’m not seeing. Or they’re just not happening.
Again: someone working themselves to emotional and physical exhaustion is a thing that should be discouraged, not praised. We need to stop encouraging people to sacrifice themselves to movements and burn out quickly. We need advocates that can sustain this long-term without burning out and keep movements going, and grow to become community leaders and elders.

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