A Call to Prisoner Activists: Fighting the Burnout


A Call to Prisoners’ Rights Warriors: Fighting the Burnout

Engaging in work that seeks to improve some aspect of the lives of others, society or a particular area of society is healthy on many levels. Aside from lending yourself to a particular cause, this type of work enable individuals to get out of their own heads, the benefits of which are countless. Despite this, avoiding burnout is no small feat after going at the daily grind for months or years. So how do you know if you you may be burned out from activism?

Symptoms of burnout may include any of the following:

Your symptoms of burnout may include one or some of the following:
• Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness or cynicism
• Non-enjoyment of activities you once enjoyed
• Irritability
• Inability to concentrate or stay focused
• Difficulty making decisions
• Fatigue, lethargy or other physical effects
• Inability to get motivated to work

Remedies for Burnout

The following are just a few measures and attitudes you can adopt and hone to help prevent or cope with activism burnout:

• Maintain meaningful relationships with activist colleagues.

• Live one day at a time so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. You can only accomplish so much in a day, so set realistic goals.

• Make sure to use your unique set of talents in your activism work.

• Engage in those work activities that you find enjoyable and those at which you are effective so that “work” becomes more like creative play doing work that is transformed into creative play.

• Engage in those work activities that you find enjoyable and those at which you are effective so that “work” becomes more like creative play.

• Prioritize your activities and start on the more important items first

• Avoid spreading yourself too thin. Cut back on certain commitments and activities so that you can do those you choose to focus on better.

• Focus on where your work started for particular cause and the progress you have made, as opposed to where you’d like to be in your activism work. Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan outlines the progress in social movements not always recognized over the course of change. His plan calls attention to how little progress would have taken place without our efforts, thereby underscoring we do have an “influence,” if not always so-called “success.”

• Accept that feelings of sadness or despair around your work and/or causes are legitimate and normal, Maintain hope by recalling your personal, group or movement accomplishments.

• Participate in a workshop related to activism in general, or one more specific to your cause.

• Accept that is not always possible to control everything in your work and personal life.

• Take time to participate in activities that rejuvenate the self.

A Call to Prisoners’ Rights Warriors: Fighting the Burnout

The following piece, which comes from Prison Law Blog writer Christopher Zoukis , offers more insight into combating activism burnout:

As a prisoners’ rights advocate I get tired.  Some days, the projects I work on seem so large and unwieldy.  They just seem too troublesome or cumbersome to get off the ground.  And worst of all, it becomes harder and harder to convince others — those who will benefit from the movements I work on — that the movements are actually in their best interest.  Suffice it to say, I get tired and worn down.  At times I suffer from the type of burnout that even Red Bull and a pack of Marlboros won’t cure (since my prison’s commissary sells neither, imagine the state that I’m regularly in!).

When I feel like this it can be easy to take a day off.  Heck, a few days off.  But when I do, I feel bad about being lazy and unproductive.  I take a look around after sleeping in and realize that the extra time in the rack was a failure, not only a failure to my morning, but a failure to those around me who are in need.  I realize that as a prisoners’ rights advocate — one who certainly agitates for reform — my life and my time are more than just mine.  They are a collective property.  And as a collective property, personal whims or feelings (like fatigue or boredom) shouldn’t even enter the equation when scheduling my day and week.  Thus, I push myself to get back to the grindstone.  But sometimes the grindstone grinds not the sword, but my very being.

I have heard from others in the prison reform movement that they get worn out too.  A friend recently shut down a longstanding prisoner newsletter because she just couldn’t summon the energy to sort through another batch of prisoner letters, most of which wanted something from her.  She was burnt out, she said.  And now the newsletter is on hold after five years of successful outreach.

To combat this burnout, I try to vary my projects as much as I can.  For example, when I’m working on a book project and just can’t stay focused, I’ll switch to a blog project.  Or, when I’m neck deep in a huge blogging project and just can’t take it anymore, I’ll pick up a content aggregation project.  And when I can’t stand reading other’s articles on prison reform, quoting from them, and analyzing them, I’ll work on my own studies.  After all, the best resource that I have to offer is me, and the knowledge which I possess.  Thus, developing my knowledge and skills is an investment in the movement, an investment in those I serve.

What I’ve found is that variety helps to keep me going.  Asking for a helping hand also helps tremendously.  Even collaboration can be a lifesaver.  The point is simple: when you feel the effects of burnout approaching, vary your routine.  When you want to lay it down, find a different angle or a different project that also fulfills the overall mission.  And when you just don’t know where to go or what to do, ask someone you trust — someone in the prison advocacy community.  Chances are, those of us out there in the trenches with you will have just the right spot for you to fill.

Read the entire article on Prison Law Blog.

Activism Burnout

Photo Credits: aidanricketts.com

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One thought on “A Call to Prisoner Activists: Fighting the Burnout

  1. I read this and I have something very important and perhaps somewhat radical to add. I think you offer some really good advice, but I think there’s a new way of thinking about this that might take the discussion to the next level.

    I don’t see you mention it here, but when I read this article, my mind immediately went to the topic of depression. “Burnout” is one way of describing this, but the things you list, particularly feelings of hopelessness, lack of enjoying activities you used to enjoy, difficulty making decisions, lack of physical energy and lack of motivation, are all key symptoms of depression.

    I’m someone who has struggled with (and successfully overcome) depression, and over the years, I’ve come to view it less as an individual mental disorder, and more as something that also has social and cultural factors–including “subcultural” factors. Activist groups have their own subculture, and I’ve noticed that the sort of burnout you describe often moves through a group in waves, with a lot of different people succumbing to it at once.

    What helped me overcome depression most was Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT involves a lot of different aspects, but one key aspect that I think may be relevant here, is that it helps people identify errors in their reasoning that are causing them to tell a more negative story about themselves or what is going on in their life than is warranted by the facts of the situation. These errors often involve exaggerations, or over-generalizations (after a failure, assuming everything will turn out that way), selective focus on negative events or negative facets of a situation, or jumping to negative conclusions, which often involve attributing negative intentions or motivations to other people. When I learned to identify these errors of reasoning, and see things more objectively and truthfully, I found myself feeling dramatically better, and I found my emotions were flowing in empowering directions again, making me more motivated.

    How does this relate to activism? After coming out of depression, when I went back to some of the activist circles in which I used to spend a lot of time and thought energy, I saw something rather shocking and disturbing–I saw that the subcultures and ideologies in many of these activist circles, were exhibiting some of the same errors of reasoning that I myself was falling into when depressed. Some example of these include:

    * Attributing negative intentions or motivations to all people who opposed the group’s goals. This is a huge problem, as it often cuts off or alienates people. Activist groups often need to expand their size, build allies, enlist external help, and turn former opponents over to their side in order to achieve their goals. Assuming bad faith, approaching a person who isn’t giving you what you want, with the idea that they’re out to get you or only care about yourself, is a sure way to poison the relationship, and when it happens on a group level, it can lead to an us-vs-them mentality that can cause the whole activist movement to become gridlocked. I think this is a major cause of burnout–and I think a lot of activist subcultures seem to show little awareness of the ways in which attributing negative intentions into perceived opponents can actually block the movement’s progress.

    * Selectively focusing on negative aspects of a situation, or putting negative spin on events that could have a positive interpretation. As an example, I’ve seen many instances where LGBTQ activist groups are pressuring a group, like a church, government body, or corporation, to make a certain change, and the group will make a small change, but instead of the activists being like: “This is great, this is a step in the right direction, and it means we’re making progress, now let’s keep working towards our full goal.” they’ll have a negative interpretation like: “This is not enough. They’re just throwing us a bone. They aren’t really committed to our goals.” and so on. I find this really frustrating, because progress is often patchy, incremental, and slow, and like…the first narrative is one I find inspiring and energizing, but the second one is one I find mood-killing, it leads into the exact sort of burnout you describe in this post.

    * Exaggeration. Exaggeration often runs rampant in activist circles. While this can sometimes lead to a higher energy level, temporarily increasing motivation, I find it also allows burnout to run amock. If people develop habits, and a subculture develops widespread practices of exaggerating in response to events, blowing them out of proportion, then it might lend the movement energy when they’re doing well, but the minute they hit a major roadblock or setback, it can lead to crippling frustration, leading to burnout.

    I firmly believe that activist burnout is more a function of subculture, ideology, and patterns of thinking in a group, than it is a function of the objective constraints. I look at the constraints faced by some successful activist movements of the past, like the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. and it seriously blows my mind…the objective obstacles (legal, financial, even physical threats) faced by groups nowadays seem much smaller in some regards. Yet that movement persisted through those obstacles and led to massive reforms. I see a lot of movements nowadays which seem to be facing smaller challenges, get completely stuck, even fall apart, and I think it’s not the outside constraints, but the inside culture that usually causes it.

    Virtually any form of activism will have its challenges and setbacks. I think that by starting by rooting out the unhealthy forms of thinking in the group’s ideology and subculture, and building a culture that is resilient in the face of setbacks, and has a healthy, rational, and optimistic approach to setbacks and opposition, this burnout can be minimized or even completely eliminated.

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