Shame: The Supervillain in Activists' Burnout Stories
Updated: Apr 24, 2019
And how to win this battle.
I recently realized that even if the topic of self-care and well-being in the activism, NGOs and non-profit world is more widely spread, there is still a powerful mechanism preventing us from even looking at that direction.
Shame is a mechanism of group control, it has been deeply rooted in us, so when we break the culture of a group – we know it and feel bad about ourselves without being reminded even. The rules of behaviour were imprinted in our identities and the punishment for it is rejection. In the times of living in a cave, being thrown out of the cave equalled death. That is why the shame-mechanism is so powerful. It draws us back to our most primal experiences, without us understanding what is happening.
The Only Bad Activist in the World
What is the core of the activist's identity? An activist is a person who cares, who is passionate, a person who never gives up hope and has immense strengths and stamina that allow them to overcome adversities. A changemaker. Somebody who cares about others, environment, animals, communities. Somebody who is sensitive, who sees injustice, who sees space for improvement and better results and getting things done. A person who gives up their own comfort and luxuries in order to commit to working for the cause and the change.
It's a beautiful picture, but it's as shallow as most Instagram pictures from holidays. (the remedy: Celeste Barber instagram feed)
Activists are so much more than that, and this identity is limiting us in getting the balance between our multi-layer human side and the activist identity (remember the Humans not Robots layers' concept?).
Additionally, for many of us making change is not only identity, it is the purpose of life, this is how we find meaning, and our activist circle is this is where we belong. It's our cave, our tribe. When we are too tired to work towards change, we are disappointing our people. Often, failing in any way means that we are the failure.
It often feels like for the sake of the cause, we just can't have any other layer. It could weaken our strengths and misdirect our attention.
But the secret is, it is impossible to pretend forever there is only this one layer.
And when the superheroine's powers are running out – it feels like it shouldn't be happening and there is something wrong with us and basically, we are the bad ones here!
In order to avoid rejection for being the bad one, Shame forces us to hide and isolate, and that amplifies the shame even more. Lack of outside perspective makes the issue seem bigger. Can you see the genius evil mind of Shame?
By comparing our mistakes or feelings against the highest standards of who we are, Shame takes advantage of our identity. Then it gives us the worst evaluation we could get, and then punishes us severely for not being good enough. Isolation keeps bouncing it back and makes it bigger the longer we don't share our thoughts with anybody. All in all it makes us feel like we are the only bad activists in the world.
Weak minded, self-indulging losers...
What shame does to us is making us feel inadequate and unique in it. So we stay silent and suppress it as much as we can. We can't have a bad day, and leaving the battlefield earlier ( aka office, community meeting, street action) is for the weak minded, self-indulging losers and it contributes to injustice in the world. On the other hand, quietly suffering from shame, we can even start to feel remorse that others don't see our sacrifices. We judge ourselves, but often also we silently start judging others for not committing enough.
And isolation gets even bigger.
How to win with Shame
Step one: Don't run away.
Basically, let yourself observe when do you feel stupid and inadequate and not enough. That doesn't mean to engage in this thinking and feeling. Just see it as it is. You are human and it happens, don't treat yourself bad because it happens. The truth is, it happens to almost everybody.
Step two: Fight the urge for isolation
Unshared shame can transform into sadness, into anger and aggression, it can also make us behave compulsively just so we are able to forget it . Suppressing the feeling of shame is one of the worst strategies one can choose, even if it is one of the most popular ones.
So fight it and talk about how you feel and when it happens. For instance, many of us feel exhausted when responsibilities are piling up, everything needs to be done parallelly and some additional firefighting is often needed - all that lasting for months (sounds quite a good reason for feeling exhausted, doesn't it? I know many activists who would put their brave faces and never admit how hard it is).
This doesn't mean you need to talk to everybody about it all the time, nor it means more complaining. Sharing vulnerabilities means being OK with yourself, OK enough to admit it. And it's a great first step to get stronger and to provide yourself with help or ask for it.
If you are on the receiving side and somebody is sharing feelings of shame with you, you can help first of all by listening, then by sharing your story. What is helpful with shame and what helps in fighting isolation urges is showing that it happens to most of us. It's not just them, who have those moments. And it doesn't make them bad people or bad activists.
When you're burning-out, shame will probably attack, and from my experience, only after overcoming it, we can reach out for help. Only then we can look at ourselves and the conditions we found ourselves in and really see what is going on. Without this powerful villain distorting our perception of reality, we're able to decide if this is how we want to carry on.
As a coach, I support individuals in finding their tailor-made ways of dealing with shame and burn-out. Contact me if you feel it's all too much and I can help you fighting the supervillain as well as working towards a more sustainable activist's life.
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