Be The Change: Battling Activist Burnout

Welcome to Be The Change, a series on grassroots activism, community organizing, and the fundamentals of fighting for justice. Primarily instructional and sometimes theoretical, this series creates space to share tips, learn skills, and discuss “walking the walk” as intersectional queer feminists.


Last night, I got back to my hotel after a long day of meetings. I’m on a work trip in NYC, actually writing this after another long day of meetings right now, from the airport sushi-fusion restaurant. (I ordered bulgogi rice.)

Last night, I got back to my hotel after a long day of meetings and I was cold and wet all the way down to my bare skin. A snowstorm had taken the city by surprise and the trains were packed and the sidewalks and roads were impossible and my boots were not waterproof.

Last night, I should have finished up an overdue project when I got back to the hotel. Someone else was relying on me. Even though I’d been awake since 3:15 AM, I should have either gone to sleep or finished my work.

Last night, what I should not have done is go to a show many blocks away in the middle of a snowstorm on the lower east side. The tickets were only $30. I’d bought them weeks ago. What would it matter if I didn’t show?

Yet, I went. I could have gone to sleep early or stayed up finishing my work, but I went back out in the snow, armed with a fresh coat of red matte lip stain. I walked to the subway with my feet paddling through snow-slush puddles up to my ankles. I put my hood up and my head down and I went back out, by myself, to see an immersive show that I was truly excited about.

For two hours, I let myself escape into a magic surreal environment of Inside the Wild Heart, let myself fall silent and wander around a historic brownstone turned foundry turned art studio turned Brazilian dreamscape. I listened to paper roses whispering stories, watched a woman fight with her lover, wrote my secret desire on a slip of paper and tied it to a tree, and just let myself reflect on the question posed by the Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, the theatre piece was developed around: “If you were you, how would you be and what would you do?”

It was exactly what I needed, despite the fact that I had other needs. There were ramifications. I was too tired to finish my work when I finally returned to my hotel. My boots are still wet today which is very, very unpleasant for airport travel. I had to get up early the next day to finish the work I was supposed to already have done before my next day of meetings started. Still, it was worth it.

Staying hydrated at the airport. How ’bout you?

Is it just me or is everything exhausting lately? Sometimes — okay, often — I feel I’m overcommitted and burned out. I want to do everything. I also want to do nothing. Neither everything nor nothing feels like an achievable goal. So I push through.

What I’ve learned from teetering on the precipice of activist burnout fairly regularly is that I need to re-prioritize when I get to that place where my brain just can’t. I need to do things or be with people who help me disconnect from work and from The Work. I need to let myself enjoy sensory pleasures without guilt.

It can be spending time with my two-year-old and just being silly and attentive. It can be escaping into theatre when I have the opportunity. I can take the time to catch up with an old friend or curl up with the cat and take a midday nap while my toddler is napping. It’s a luxury to be able to relax at all, but that doesn’t mean I don’t deserve it.

I wrote about self-care and community care for this column almost two years ago, about why it’s important and how to do it. Despite that, I struggle to actually do it and I want to name that. The very biggest hurdle is to let myself release the guilt of not being able to Do It All.

Prioritizing self-care means that I may sometimes disappoint people. It means I may be late on or for something else. It means I sometimes don’t get things done at all. I have to be OK with that and take responsibility if it causes harm to another person. More often than not though, I find that I’m the only one putting pressure on myself and the other person is completely OK with it.

I share all this because I feel like everyone I know is struggling to keep it together lately, to have-it-all or to be-everything-to-everyone or to fight-the-good-fight. It’s exhausting and often unattainable and I just want you to know that you, too, have the power to put down all the things you should be doing and focus instead on what recharges your soul energy. You are a better person and a better activist and a better human when you’re taking care of yourself.

It takes courage to say to someone, to yourself, I need to take care of me. It takes a strong commitment to self-care to admit and affirm, I know people are depending on me, but I’m also depending on me to take care of myself. It takes a powerful self-awareness to look in the mirror and say I matter more than any other person’s happiness.

This is not easy. It’s not always practical. It’s definitely not perfect. For every night I prioritize my own needs, there’s another where I’m completely out of energy and pushing myself to the very edge of my mental capacity. In those moments, I try to forgive myself for not being able to take adequate care of myself. Feeling guilty about it is inevitable, but I don’t have to internalize that guilt. I can release it. You can, too.

For some of us, by choice or by circumstance, a well-balanced life is just not possible. What I think we can strive to achieve instead is a life well lived and where we invest in our own happiness as fiercely as we invest in others. We need to take care of ourselves, too.

If you’re struggling to stay on top of your life right now, whether that’s about the activism you need to do or the circumstances of your world, you can take a pause. You can be generous to others who are going through the same thing. You can understand your mistakes as opportunities to do better next time. You can be just as responsive and responsible to yourself as you typically are to others.

If you’re feeling tired lately, weary of the world’s hate or doing too much or feeling too much, I want to let you know that the work will not end if you take a night off. Yes, you may end up later writing an almost-late article from an airport terminal. You may end up having to take ownership of turning in an assignment late and facing whatever consequences there are. If you are working multiple jobs or managing work-family-life balance or marginalized in a way that impacts your ability to be safe, free, and happy, it may feel like you can’t take time off. I want to promise you that you can because you deserve it.

Sleep in. Call in to work. Eat something yummy. Talk to a friend. Invest in a hobby. I want you to be whole because you are a whole person. I want you to be ready for the next fight. For now, I give you permission to invest in yourself, to own your own happiness.

“If you were you, how would you be and what would you do?”

KaeLyn is a 35-year-old (femme)nist activist, word nerd, and queer mama. You can typically find her binge-watching TV, over-caffeinating herself, standing somewhere with a mic or a sign in her hand, eating carbs, or just generally doing too many things at once. She lives in Rochester, NY with her spouse, a baby T. rex, a xenophobic cat, and a rascally rabbit. You can buy her debut book, Girls Resist! A Guide to Activism, Leadership, and Starting a Revolution if you want to, if you feel like it, if that's a thing that interests you or whatever.

KaeLyn has written 182 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. YESSSS!!! Get your rest and be proud about it KaeLyn!!

    Heather’s AM/PM post here was a breakthrough for me on taking enough care of myself. Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown, and her discussion about burnout with her sister Autumn (“The impossible things about us” episode of How to Survive the End of the World Podcast”) really helped too. Also Michelle Obama’s instagram post saying that we can only take care of others if we take care of ourselves. <3 <3 <3 Loving ourselves and going at a sustainable pace IS the work – it is creating what we need right now, liberating right here and now!

    • Also from Rachel Remen, a brief story: there was a a banker who got cancer in his thirties. He emerged from treatment a changed man. He threw himself into conservation, working harder than ever trying to save endangered species. His wife and child grew lonely, then built a life without him. When they finally left, his therapist (Rachel) asked him “When was the last time you ate with your family? Do you remember the last time that you played a game with your children? Would you treat a spotted owl this way?” Rachel says “If I wished to defeat those who wanted to use their lives to make a difference . .. I would use their own dedication against them, driving them to work until they became so depleted and empty they could no longer go on. I would make certain they never discovered that blessing life is about filling yourself up so that your blessings overflow onto others.”

  2. We all have to take turns, so that we all can get enough rest that we can respond to conflict with creativity and compassion. If we’re too tired to be patient with each other in tense moments, we will be divided and conquered before we finish the work we’re working so hard at.

  3. If I knew how to post a screenshot, I would, but alas.

    Here’s something one of my fave queers on twitter said awhile ago and it’s stuck w/ me ever since:

    queer people: take a second and take care of yourself today

    what do u need? what will make today easier and more beautiful? give it to yourself

    lord knows the rest of these motherfuckers won’t give it to u

    ❤️

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