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  • Writer's pictureAnna

The Unspoken Problem of Burn-out in Activism

Updated: Jan 10, 2019

Why putting your own oxygen mask first before assisting others is the right approach for activists*

Empathy for Activists hand-painted sign
Picture from The Open State of Politics Camp, September 2017

Let's start a bit personal...

My name is Anna, and I went through the activist burn out.

For over 10 years I was an activist, I was volunteering, working full time and then volunteering, I was supporting other activists in their work (capacity building). My focus was mostly on the democracy-building: as a member of young city council, as a volunteers' coordinator, freedom of information watchdog and other watchdogs’ educator, then in the end, for last few years, working with civic tech and innovation, I always promoted and worked towards better democracy and stronger human rights.

And I have seen it all. I have seen the overexcited-myself, the believing-all-change-is-possible-(and in a short time)-self, I have also seen myself being overwhelmed with all the troubles of the World; I have been cynical and I have been tired. After about 14 years of ups and downs, it happened to me to give it all up and be too tired for over a year to do essentially anything.

I saw it not only in myself but I saw also similar traces in my colleagues, in my fellow activists, in my bosses (leaders of organizations).

And from the purely logical point of view, this situation is not beneficial to anybody: not to us individually, nor to organizations and initiatives, but most of all it's not helping in making the change we all came for when we were starting our work.

The danger of burn-out is one of important reasons why it is so hard to achieve sustainability in activism.

Advocating for change

That is how and why I become a strong advocate for the logical shift in our approach and for the beginning of normalising activists' self-care and well-being as something we rationally need in order to sustain our efforts towards change. Even if that sounds like self-indulgence, which will make us all spoiled and lazy. Thinking reasonably, investing in keeping people alive and in good health makes more sense than looking for replacements, who would be most probably less experienced and less knowledgeable. No matter the level of the ladder: volunteers, coordinators, leaders and everybody around, in the interests of the change we need more people, not less.

Brené Brown said in her TED interview

we can't give what we don't have.

When we lose inspiration and motivation, it is hard to engage anybody and persuade them that this change is important and possible.

Coming back to the oxygen mask comparison, our responsibility is to keep pursuing our goals, being able not only to survive but also to have the physical and mental strength allowing us to learn and to be able to constantly adjust to the complex reality and engage more people (communities, decision-makers, founders) in our vision.

What coaching can do for you and your organization?

As a coach, I work with organizations on creating an environment cultivating the rules of the oxygen mask, supporting implementation and basically in keeping it real and not letting false assumptions (humans, not robots!) make false expectations. The process focuses on prototyping solutions and trying them in real life situations, adjusting them on the go and learn what actually works in your organization and with this particular group of people.

I also work with individual clients on creating their own strategies and tactics for their individual well-being. We work together on testing different methods, observing results, and dynamically responding to constantly changing conditions, creating not only real resilience for present difficulties but also strong fundament for future challenges.

Don't hesitate to contact me, if you feel you are in danger of burn-out or your organization would use support in this regard. It is always good to talk.

ps. I'll be speaking about this topic at The Heros of Tech - Code for All Global Summit - tickets are still available! Let's meet in Romania in October!


*By "activism" I mean any goal you might have as an activist: building/saving democracy; fighting injustice; taking care of other people, environment, animals; generally whatever can be your or your organization's/initiative mission.

If you're here, maybe you would like to sign up to my Newsletter? Once a month I send carefully curated content from the "Humans, not Robots" perspective.

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