From burnout to balance: 5 ways to protect ourselves while still changing the world!
“What small but purposeful steps can a person take to tackle sexism, racism, climate change or other important causes?” “How do you find the motivation to keep going when you are facing not just the challenges of lockdown but also some of the significant barriers to progress that exist in our societies?” These two questions emerged during a recent recording of an episode of A Life More Extraordinary, poignantly titled “Rage Against The Machine: Enough is Enough, Part 2”, in which I featured as a panellist. They made me pause and contemplate the thought that our experiences and feelings often swing like a pendulum between the extremes of not caring enough to get involved with a cause and caring so much that we run the risk of burning out. The pendulum might swing between feeling deactivated or even paralysed by fear or anxiety and feeling activated and fully engaged, whether through inspiration, love or simply a sense of urgency to act. Reconciling self-care and care for others is a balancing act most of us struggle to master. If you feel some of these tensions, here are a few tips that aim to still the pendulum at a point where self-care, care for others and care for the planet are in relative equilibrium.
Avoid burnout: take time and take stock
It is not easy to campaign for causes such as the climate emergency, or gender and racial equality where so little progress, if any, has been made in the 21st century. Often the statistics we read are overwhelmingly negative, leaving us upset, if not desperate, and wondering how on earth we could ever make a difference. If these disempowering thoughts become increasingly frequent, they are a sign that we are in danger of burning out. The following tactics might help us avoid this:
- Take a very long-term view of progress: If the cause you support allows it, taking a very long-term view of progress that goes beyond the 21st century can help you feel more optimistic. For example, if we think of gender inequality at worst widening or at best remaining static this century, we can remind ourselves of women’s circumstances in previous centuries. Only sixty years ago women were not allowed to vote in some countries. Progress has been made.
- Find and connect with like-minded peopleto create a shield for yourself and others. The deeper we get into a cause, the lonelier it may feel because we leave behind our friends and family who are not as deeply immersed in the problem as we are. I recently had a conversation about this with Johanna Lynn, founder of The Family Imprint Institute, who stressed the importance of connecting with like-minded individuals as a way of maintaining strength when the pressures on our mental health become too acute. In this time of pandemic, when our ability to connect with people is so severely curtailed, we can perform visualisation exercises instead. For example, imagine that you have locked arms with hundreds of individuals who care about the same issues as you do, forming a mile-long straight line. Imagine all of you stepping forward together as one. Feel your shared power. Do this exercise a few times a day to boost your resilience.
- Dial up pleasure and dial down purpose. Sometimes we just need to take a step back. When we have read yet another statistic that, despite all of our work, in the last 12 months more than 234 million 15-49 year old girls and women globally have been subject to violence by an intimate partner; that politicians in some countries reject net zero carbon targets as ‘pie in the sky’, or read the Sewell Report claiming that: “put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”, we are in danger of crashing. When the determination to act turns to pain, and the pain turns to anguish, we know we need to protect our mental health. Research shows that happiness is a combination of two things: purpose and pleasure. When we experience too big an imbalance between the two in favour of purpose, we should amplify pleasure to take some of the weight off our shoulders. In situations like these I connect with my children to enjoy moments of silliness, of having a laugh. We sometimes watch a comedy together (so grateful to Superstore and Kim’s Convenience for having provided moments of great family joy and escape in the last few months!). Meditate, dance, have some fun, whatever that means to you. And do not apologise for it. It is ok to have a good time if that means continuing working on your cause in the longer term rather than burning out.
Ways to inspire other people to act
- Shine a light - make the unconscious conscious:
Sometimes people do not care enough about a cause simply because they wrongly assume that enough progress has been made already, when in fact, it has not. In my experience this is frequently the case with both gender and racial equality. Consequently, exposing the existing biases which fuel the problems is of paramount importance. For example, did you know that out of 10 people in a room, 9 are likely to hold at least one anti-women bias, regardless of their sex? Indeed, 90% of the world’s population hold at least one pro-male/anti-women bias. Accepting that almost all of us are at least a little bit sexist may help us to “own” the problem and choose to care.
When it comes to racial issues, it is vital that firstly, we all become aware of our own privileges to ensure that we campaign for those most in need. While reading the chapter on privilege in Ijeoma Oluo’s ‘So You Want to Talk About Race’, I was shocked to discover that I had 28 privileges! My top ten privileges are: being cisgender; heterosexual; neurotypical; able-bodied; white; born in Europe; having been raised by two loving parents; having benefited from good nutrition as a child; being a legal immigrant; and having two parents with university degrees. Listing all of my privileges was a deeply humbling experience I would recommend to everyone. Reading the book, I realised that it was not enough simply to be a champion of women because I could unwittingly fall into the trap of campaigning for the dominant identities within this group (e.g. white educated middle-class women) rather than also for the most underprivileged (e.g. Black-African single mothers). We should strive to improve the position in society of the least empowered identities within a group we campaign for, rather than the most.
When it comes to the climate crisis, it strikes me that we would benefit tremendously from acknowledging the increasingly prevalent eco-anxiety that exists. Addressing this explicitly and unpacking its consequences may be a powerful way of unfreezing the dormant activism that lurks in many of us.
- Create ripples but avoid creating echo-chambers: Speaking about the cause(s) we care about with our families, children, parents and friends creates a ripple effect in society, like a pebble thrown into a lake. It may seem like a tiny transient impact, which in some ways it is, but it is an important one nonetheless whose effects may be cumulative.
At the same time, it is also critical to reach out beyond the like-minded people we know to those who are not naturally aligned to the cause we believe in but have the power to act. When I campaign to amplify the missing perspectives of women in news globally, I often find myself presenting in sessions which consist entirely of women. I frequently wonder where the men (who happen to be the vast majority of decision-makers capable of making change happen) are. To make progress in achieving gender equality, we need to make the narrative for change more inclusive of men. We may need to shift it from one which sees women solely as victims of patriarchy and men solely as beneficiaries of it to a viewpoint that sees both women and men as being on the same side of the problem.
We are unlikely to ever completely still the pendulum, perfectly balancing self-care with care for others and for the planet. But if occasionally we are able to create moments of calm equilibrium, we should consider ourselves proud winners in a gruelling ongoing battle that will last for decades if not centuries to come.
 UN Women, December 2020
 Clover Hogan, at A Life More Extraordinary”, episode 6: “Rage Against the Machine: Enough is enough, Part 2”
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