“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” wrote Audre Lorde in her 1988 essay collection A Burst of Light. Black, feminist, lesbian, poet, and mother, Lorde aimed her rallying cry at those who had been marginalized: Society may tell you that you don’t matter; fight back by showing yourself that you do.
Three decades later, the concept of self-care has morphed and mainstreamed — it now encompasses everything from yoga to a long bath once the kids are in bed. Yet its importance for activists is more relevant than ever — especially among those whose voices have historically been silenced.
Recent years have seen a surge in activism. A 2018 Washington Post–Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that one in five Americans reported participating in a political rally in the preceding two years; 19 percent of these people identified as first-time rally-goers.
In a highly charged political climate, staying engaged while establishing healthy personal boundaries can be especially tricky. Activism doesn’t have to involve protests or rallies, or even be expressly political. But to be an activist is to fight for a change in the status quo, and any fight — no matter the issue — takes a toll on those in the trenches.
That price is often described as burnout, an interplay of physical and emotional symptoms that can be devastating if left untended. Consequences range from heart disease to type 2 diabetes to depression, and burnout has also been linked to feelings of ineffectiveness, detachment, and cynicism. In other words, the advocacy can end up compromising the advocacy.
Mental-health therapist Pete Noteboom, LGSW, learned this lesson firsthand. Reflecting on his past as a field organizer for state political candidates, he remembers sacrificing his health, relationships, and any semblance of self-care. “I ate poorly and smoked; I wasn’t spending time with my good friends — all of my social interactions were centered on the campaigns.” He eventually left the professional political arena for a career in clinical social work.
Liz Young, director of advancement at Women Winning, a nonprofit dedicated to electing pro-choice women to political positions, spent several years running political-finance and fundraising efforts and continues to volunteer on behalf of local candidates. When you work in politics, she explains, you need to stay tuned in to every issue; for her this led to burnout. Specific incidents and events, such as family separations at the U.S.–Mexico border, triggered feelings of anger, and depression.
Similar symptoms are also common among those who aren’t actively stumping for candidates. Outside of her day job as a clinical social worker, Brianna Klatt, MSW, LGSW, volunteers on behalf of numerous causes including women’s rights, Black Lives Matter, criminal-justice reform, and LGBTQIA equality. She loves her work, but it can take a toll. Klatt notices an uptick in irritability and a tendency to be more short-tempered when she’s pushing herself too hard. Burnout also shows up in her body: Klatt has experienced exhaustion, loss of appetite, migraines, tunnel vision, and hair loss.
Other activists say burning out can translate to tuning out. Mariah Rooney, LICSW, RYT, is a psychotherapist and adjunct professor at the University of St Thomas. “I am passionate about a large number of causes and frame my engagement around issues through an anti-oppression lens,” she explains. At times, championing those issues in the midst of continued social strife fuels a sense of disillusionment. “I’ll feel utterly down and immobilized and find myself numbing out, shutting down, and disengaging.”
Activists may require “radical self-care,” according to life coach and author Joi Lewis. She describes this as “the intentional practice of attending to our mind, body, and soul in ways that oppose the forces of oppression that want us sick.”
Lewis believes that everyone should make time to care for themselves, but especially activists and marginalized populations such as people of color. “Many activists are experiencing suicidal ideation, sleeplessness, depression, loss of appetite, and deepening addiction to substances that help numb the pain,” she warns. And so self-care can be key to survival.
Research shows that self-care is essential to battling burnout — and those who tend to themselves across multiple domains are most likely to reap the benefits. Here are some options.
Lewis believes tuning in ultimately keeps us from tuning out. Rather than using self-care as a means of escape, using it to remain present and connected even when things get discouraging allows activists to clarify and enrich their commitment to the cause itself.
“Radical self-care is not the way out,” she explains. “It’s the way in.”