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


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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Staying Healthy and Sane While Working for Change

All at the same time, Jen Chau was running her own nonprofit, working 45 hours a week at another organization, starting a small business, and taking three classes. And a lot of activists and nonprofit professionals find themselves with similar lifestyles: by following their passion to make change in the world, they often over-commit their time and resources. Is it healthy?

Chau recently changed her approach and was inspired to write “Activism—now for the sane and healthy too!” on her blog, The Time is Always Right—because, she believes, “Activism needs a serious make-over. I am living proof.” She recounts how she came to realize that while she does need to work (and work hard) for change in order to lead a happy and healthy life, she also needs to balance that work with more time spent with her family and friends; more purely fun activities, like allowing herself to read novels instead of only reading books about the issue she’s working on; and getting eight hours of sleep a night.

In a WireTap article, “Calling Activists to a Higher Standard,” Adrienne Maree Brown writes that she knows a lot of activists who work themselves too hard, become burnt out, and as a result, can’t produce high-quality work anymore. But “what is the standard of living we want for everyone? It’s not excess, and it’s not martyrdom. We must perpetuate a new vision for a lifestyle of plenty—taking care of ourselves and our communities, giving adequate attention to our health and our children, living according to the values we are fighting for every day. That means sleeping well, eating right, understanding your piece of the work and working it.”

Responding to the same issue, Julie Fiandt suggests—in “Creating a Balanced and Sustainable Activist Life” on—to take up spiritual practices such as yoga, meditation, and spending time in nature to complement and enhance one’s social justice work. She also lists several books that activists can use as resources to help them take care of themselves while working for change.

How do you balance work and life? Share your stories or tips in the comments below.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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