Avoiding Burn Out - Self-Care and Support in Activism


This is a glimpse into a process of investigation into ourselves and each other. It’s neither the beginning nor the end and so it’s open to change. It’s never static. For now, at least, it’s the culmination of a year of conversations around what it might look like to be part of a movement that cultivates an environment of collective and self-care, support, revolutionary love and self-determination. The opinions that will follow are my own but i will use the word ‘we’ throughout this piece to reflect that these ideas were inspired by others and created through conversation and dialogue. I take responsibility for them but am open to suggestions and the possibility that they will change where better versions replace them.

A little background – we have all come from different places in our political lives. We feel the need to be active in the struggles to effect change in our specific circumstances and beyond. We feel the pressure from the strain we put ourselves under and that we find ourselves dealing with. We have come up against burnout on personal and collective levels. Burnout, which in most cases would have been avoidable if we had had practices, structures and mindsets in place to deal with it. The participants are one of the most valuable assets in our movements and if we cannot sustain ourselves in healthy environments then how do we envision achieving our goals short or long term?

So we started to talk about all of this; the cultures we create and partake in; the martyrdom we act out within our organisations and workplaces; the oppressions we recreate; the bad practices which we continue to do. We recognise that change needs to happen on a societal scale, and we also know that change needs to happen on smaller scales; personally, collectively and within how we organise and act. The way we think motivates the ways in which we behave as individuals and as collectives, which in turn has a knock on effect on us and our movements. We are at once part of something bigger than us and at the same time comprised of smaller parts. Understanding the interplay between large and small scale change is vital. Understanding the interplay between personal and social change is imperative. We do not claim to know which place needs to change first and frankly we don't care (there are way too many good minds focusing on theories which we will never be able to know fully. Claiming universalised truths is not our game). What we do know is that we are ready to start challenging the taken-for-granted on all levels and we await the outcomes.

Self-care and collective-care within movements and campaigns is an area we find to be lacking. Too often do we overwork ourselves until we either drop-out or become disenchanted with what we are doing. We see each other running ourselves into the ground in the name of some cause which is 'bigger' than us and 'better' than us. Worthy causes no doubt, but worthy of our self/collective sacrifice? If our political work is so important to us and the notion of not working toward a better society is unthinkable, then why can we not step back and put our energy into reorganising in more healthy and balanced ways? If we can achieve this then we can sustain our resistance for longer and for the better. We can plan more efficiently and we can work towards our ends, together, keeping in mind, and in action, the ethos of how we want to live 'after the revolution'. So how do we go about this?

Firstly we need to rethink the idea of self-care. This notion has been colonised by neoliberalism. To many of us it conjures up images of over-indulgent consumers buying their karma tokens at the nearest yoga centre. Or individualistic new age practitioners who do not see a collective vision of enlightenment. This is not what we are advocating. But we are also not suggesting that there is no such thing as looking after yourself on a personal level and in the ways that appeal to you. We all have specific ways of sustaining ourselves and having fun and these are not things that we should feel guilty about. Guilty pleasures are a hangover from a time gone by. We should not condemn ourselves or each other for partaking in the good things in life now and again. If we are striving for a better world then that world is also for us to live in. This is not to say that we ignore our privilege where we find it but that instead of getting bogged down in guilt we use these feelings to harness energy to challenge these privileges and change the structures that created them.

People often relate to self-care in an instrumental way. One that has us periodically taking part in something that will nourish us. This, we feel, is flawed. We are not vessels that need to be cleaned every now and again to be kept in good condition. We are vast and complicated beings and self-care needs to be something we make part of ourselves, the way we think and the way we act and react. The type of self-care we are looking for is not an individual thing but a collective act. We do not exist alone, or in some vacuum, we are social, we exists alongside others whether we like it or not and the healthy functioning of the entirety will only do us good. If the people we are engaging with everyday are being cared for then we get to work in an environment which will be much more functional. I’m sorry if this is starting to sound like a managerial or marketing plan, but I am trying to sell this idea to people. Big businesses and corporations have team building and support systems in place because they want to make their workplace as profitable as possible. Our difference is that we are not out to get a monetary profit. We, as anarchists and activists do not view social change in terms of profit, instead we view it as a myriad of things that need to happen on different levels in order for us all to live in a world which is more equal, just and humane.

Something that we have noticed is how we don't have a metric for failure within our organisations. Big businesses have this as a self-serving rule in order not to waste time, energy and resources on dead ends. But what structures do we have in place when we try to evaluate how effective we are being? How do we know when we are doing something wrong or when we should stop when we haven’t collectively figured out what failure might look at? How do we know what to change when we’re doing it wrong when we don’t organise around this possibility. And does it not seem irrational to ignore these ideas?
This might be one of the reasons why we find ourselves repeatedly banging our heads off walls. It seems to make sense that we should try to understand the warning signs if we want to be more effective. Putting this into practice is another challenge. Accepting our own vulnerability on personal and collective levels may also be quite useful. Failure and making mistakes is human and can be immensely helpful in teaching us how to do it right the next time. If we can communicate this to each other then maybe we won't feel like we need to be ashamed of needing a break, or time out, or just working less. People accept that self-care is important, who would say otherwise? But when it comes down to it we think it is for other people, and rarely ourselves.

If, as anarchists, we believe that domination needs to be understood on a person-to-person basis, as well as on a wider level then it seems that the idea that self/collective-care becomes integral to mutual support, sustainable communities, self- determination and an effective working practice. Any politics we wish to create become representative of the selves we bring to it. With these ideas in mind we have another way of looking at how we recreate self-oppression, mirroring how we are viewed under capitalism – not worth the care and love that we know people deserve and only good for our incredible self-abasing work ethic.

So how do we do this practically within our groups? What would a reorganised workspace look like if self/collective care were vital parts of the structure? From our perspective we first need to rethink the idea of self-care, critically asking everything we can about how to go about it, what care is, what the self is and how we relate to each other. We don't have answers here that will fit everyone’s circumstances and so it is up to us to begin talking about this together. We have found that simply communicating these ideas to each other or talking about our worries and issues in a group context is a great way to understand our common experiences and so to begin to question how we can do things better. People create themselves in relation to others and so it will only be through others that we can really try and change ourselves. In this sense we see that people are in an ongoing process of constructing ourselves anew and so self-care becomes an ongoing process instead of a periodic one.

We need to adopt a really critical perspective when it comes to thinking about what we think about and why we think it. It also means radically intervening on ourselves and each other when we see the need. An example is about how we relate to others who could be described as 'broken people'. We recognise the damaging effect that capitalism has on all of us – 'breaking' us, in a sense. But when it comes down to it we find it hard to deal with broken people and fittingly we find it hard to see ourselves as part of the broken bunch. If this sounds dramatic I don’t intend it to. Broken doesn’t have to mean damaged irreparably. Instead think of it as something waiting to be reconstructed anew. It’s good to keep in mind here that our thoughts and behaviour may be deeply colonised by our oppressive societal structures.

Simply identifying as anti-capitalist or disproportionately focusing on domination in ‘traditional’ institutional terms – state, patriarchy, race etc. – and forgetting about the selves that make up these institutions and continue their oppressions, ultimately is not enough. It also undermines our abilities and goals to reach out to, learn from and support people around us who don’t identify in the same terms or with the same lexicon but who are nonetheless involved in social change.

Decolonising our brain and our responses is an extremely political act. One that challenges the supposition which much of our groups have that we are doing everything in the best way possible, again leaving no room to talk about possible failure on some level. This is disempowering for those involved who feel that things aren't being done right but who lack the capacity to voice their opinion in an environment which doesn’t hear it.

Consciously organising with collective-self-care in mind makes our unconscious domination over others more tangible and open to challenge. If we maintain cultures of rationality and over-work we undoubtedly push those away who have felt the immense oppressions of living in a deeply unequal and divided society. Caring for ourselves and each other in an autonomous fashion has been one of the building blocks of the feminist movement. Taking the control of our minds and bodies away from others and putting the decisions back into our own hands has been undeniably empowering. But it is not just within the boundaries of the feminist movement that this should happen. Capitalism has devalued the emotional, the spiritual, and the feminine as weak and unproductive. Re-instituting these aspects into our political work can be a subversive act in itself.

We propose collective forms of self-care because in doing so we lessen the potential for care to become exclusively a privilege for white, middle- class activists. Political activism as an act of solidarity with others enlivens the passions and drives us forward and through hard times. It’s ugly sister being the left-wing vanguard rhetoric of work- more, gain-more, martyrdom. This model doesn’t seem to suit the majority in the long-run. Especially not those who for physical, mental or emotional reasons just plain cannot work themselves to the bone and often only survive because of a clear understanding of their necessity for care, love and support.

So how can we protest differently? How can we organise ourselves so group cohesion, fun, positivity and self/collective care can be part of our practice? How then do we also politicise the ideas and realities of failure and sadness and make them part of who we are and how we learn? How do we create spaces for these ideas to be fleshed out more and discussed openly? How can we notice the warning signs along the way so we don't run ourselves and each other into the ground? What do we do when our groups aren't receptive to these ideals? And how do we not pathologies what we do and why we do it along the way?


Many questions. Many answers. We would love to hear your ideas and experiences.

WORDS: Amber O'Sullivan


This article is from Irish Anarchist Review no7 - Spring 2013