From fired up to burnt out: 7 tips to help you sustain a life committed to social justice

Zen

Kim Crosby, 2012 SOUL Sanctuary participant (photo credit: stone circles)

When she was an organizer in the 1990s, Claudia Horwitz began to notice that many of the people she worked with were overworked, exhausted, and stressed out. Responding to the urgent need she saw in the activist community, Claudia founded stone circles, an organization that works to strengthen and sustain people committed to transformation and justice.

Since 2007, stone circles has been based in Mebane, North Carolina at The Stone House, a retreat and training center on 70 acres of land. One of stone circles’ primary goals is to address high rates of burnout among activists and organizers.

Burnout is more than just a busy week at work—it’s the long-term result of carrying continual stress, exhaustion, anxiety, or isolation.

Here are some tips from stone circles for addressing burnout:

1. Develop a personal practice.

A practice is simply a habit that gives us energy and reminds us of what matters most. Having a practice helps us pay concentrated attention to the inner voice—a presence that has the power to continually re-inform the activities of our daily lives. Mindful breathing, yoga, meditation, prayer, and journal writing are all examples of personal practice. Choose a practice that replenishes you and commit to doing it daily for a month. This can help make it a habit.

2. Come back to your body.

When we are disconnected from of our bodies, we separate ourselves from essential wisdom about what we need to thrive. Reconnecting with the body might mean establishing an exercise routine, practicing an embodied awareness tradition like yoga or t’ai chi, seeking the support of a holistic healer or medical doctor, or simply scanning the body with awareness before laying down to sleep at night.

3. Connect with the natural world.

Find some way to connect with the rhythms of the ecosystem you live in. This might mean paying attention to the changing of seasons, planting a small garden, or finding an open green space in which to spend time regularly. There’s infinite wisdom in the dance of life, growth, and death.

4. Identify the specific causes of your burnout.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory identifies six areas leading to burnout:

  • Workload (too much work, not enough resources)
  • Control (micromanagement, lack of influence, accountability without power)
  • Reward (not enough pay, appreciation, or satisfaction)
  • Community (isolation, conflict, disrespect)
  • Fairness (discrimination, favoritism)
  • Values (ethical conflicts, meaningless tasks)

After identifying the source, name it out loud. Brainstorm with someone you trust about how to specifically change this aspect of your work life.

5. Tell your story.

Exploring your own history and learning from others’ can be a powerful way to understand both the factors of your stress and your capacity to thrive. Questions to consider include: Why did I enter this work? How do my family, community, and educational background impact my work? When do I feel most alive and happy? When do I feel most overwhelmed?

6. Cultivate hopefulness.

It’s easy to be consumed by short-term and immediate tasks; be sure to take time to imagine the world you’re working toward, alone as well as with the people you collaborate with. The more clarity you have about your intentions and dreams, the more you will radiate the power of possibility.

7. Take a well-structured pause.

Make space in your schedule for extended silence and discernment. Look for a retreat center or rent a cabin for one. Look into retreats specifically for activists, like SOUL Sanctuary, offered by stone circles at The Stone House, or the Windcall Institute. Take a few days to remember what you love about your work and what makes you passionate about your cause. Get away from your workplace (and even from the community(ies) for which you work) on a regular basis to identify the source of your stress, and to give yourself space for renewal.

Taking the time to do these things can feel selfish, but addressing your own needs will make you a healthier, more effective agent for change—and give you the strength to continue your work for many years to come.

 

mulllj12Lindsey Mullen is an intern at stone circles at The Stone House. She studied social justice at the University of Alabama, and is currently a Master of Divinity student at Wake Forest University. She is interested in sacred rest, restorative justice, and intentional living.

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Comments (5)


  1. Benjamin writes:
    August 26, 2013 at 11:24 pm

    Thank you Lindsey for this great piece. I very much appreciated the body-based, mindfulness approach to transforming burnout and sustaining a life of social justice.

    One important area I would add to this list (or expand from the ‘values’ domain of identifying burnout [#4]), is how we incorporate existential challenges to our social justice worldview. I work in the area of trauma, and there’s been some interesting new research on the idea of ‘moral injury'; the notion that sometimes the greatest factor in trauma experience isn’t necessarily the specific act witnessed or experienced, but rather that an experience with someone you trusted (military buddy, family member, the country that deployed you, your idea of God, etc.) shook your foundation.

    Stepping away from trauma, I think many lifelong advocates for social justice experience their own version of ‘the dark night of the soul’. Framing these sorts of challenges (i.e., burnout) as wellness or self-care issues is a problem, in that it risks working only on the individual level. As social justice advocates, we do well in helping each other through the difficult road of articulating and–especially when our foundations are shaken–re-articulating a new, better developed worldview around social justice.

    Thanks again for a great piece.

    Ben


  2. Robert Stephen Higgins writes:
    August 27, 2013 at 9:31 am

    Having thot considerably about justice and what the term means to people I am sure that can be defined as the idea that a person gets what he/she deserves. The subject of justice, therefore, is the individual person, not the group. Consequently, the term “social justice” has no real meaning. Actually, it is a socialist concept that has meaning only in that way of thinking which is on a group basis. I have seen social justice applied here in Canada and real justice (on an individual basis) has not been part of the process.


  3. jose luis writes:
    August 27, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    Wow, thank you Lindsey for sharing this amazing piece. What serendipity particularly as I am seeking to re-enter the arena of social justice as a union or community organizer either here in Los Angeles and/or another city, state within USA.

    Robert, to you I say, “I hear you.” One of the ironies I’ve found having been in the trenches is organizations who have a mission of social or economic justice be unjust, unfair, and unequal with their very own

    Again, thanks Lindsey.

    Peace,

    Jose Luis

    PS I’m interested in either joining and/or forming a stone circle like the one Lindsey refers to in her article. Please contact me at (323) 376-8960 or joselgut0802@gmail.com


  4. […] A practice is simply a habit that gives us energy and reminds us of what matters most. Having a practice helps us pay concentrated attention to the inner voice—a presence that has the power to continually re-inform the activities of our daily lives. Mindful breathing, yoga, meditation, prayer, and journal writing are all examples of personal practice. Choose a practice that replenishes you and commit to doing it daily for a month. This can help make it a habit. Conitinue reading here. […]


  5. […] guest post by Lindsey Mullen first appeared on the Idealist blog. Lindsey is an intern at stone circles at The Stone House. She studied social justice at the […]


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