DLRE Blog: Saving the World vs. Saving Yourself

by Julie Rigano  Lately I have been finding myself thinking back to an exercise we did in last year’s Coming of Age class. The class was told to choose between two options and then defend their choice. Some of the options were being kind or being popular, being independent or being cooperative, accepting all viewpoints or taking a stand against some viewpoints.

One of the choices we asked them to make that day was saving the world vs. saving yourself. This was one of the hardest to choose between and we had a fairly even split in the room. After an engaging debate, the group felt there was no one right choice, no one right answer. It was fun to debate hypothetically, but both sides felt the other side had made valid points and were equally right.

One year later and that debate no longer feels hypothetical. You can feel the heightened sense of responsibility in our intensified social action programming, from the Women’s Huddles to the event with Rep. Paul Tonko and the webinar with the ACLU. There is a sense in our community of a charge to save the world and we are less than two months into the new administration. Certainly, there is more to come.

The thought of the social justice work we feel called to do can be overwhelming. How many marches and rallies can we attend? Do I choose to go to a grassroots organizing event or watch a movie with my friends? Can I even enjoy a movie with friends without seeing the stereotypes I’m sure will appear? How do I keep going? This is enough to make anyone want to hide under the covers.

I believe we can save the world and save ourselves. We need to do both simultaneously. We cannot ignore our own needs for self care if we hope to keep the work going and we must keep the work going. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

If this kind of extremely active social justice work is new for you, you may be experiencing “activism burnout.” This is a phenomenon that occurs when a political or social activist feels overwhelmed, frustrated, hopeless, or depressed, usually after a period of extensive activism. Many things lead to activism burnout including the stress of the workload, inexperience, bad habits like procrastination, and not having a support system in place.

The stresses activists have to deal with on a day to day basis will affect everyone differently. Mental/emotional, physical, and behavioral symptoms are all interrelated and can exacerbate each other. This means that to resolve one symptom often means dealing with several. Some symptoms include irritability, fatigue, anxiety, cynicism, lack of motivation, and a sense of hopelessness or helplessness. Burnout can look different in different people, so you need to determine what it looks like for you so you can identify it for yourself.

We don’t want our energy to burn out, so in this article, I want to give you some strength. Here are some self care tips to avoid activism burnout

  1. Get off social media. No, really. I give you permission. If your guilty pleasure is making you scream at your screen, is it still giving you any joy? Find new ways to get those moments of joy throughout the day to sustain you.
  2. Give yourself time to heal when you feel broken. No one expects you to be strong all the time. It’s okay to wait to read that Washington Post article everyone’s talking about and watch an episode of Chopped with a bowl of ice cream first. In fact, I recommend it. The trick to saving the world and saving yourself at the same time is balance.
  3. Know your coping mechanisms. When you are feeling low, it can be hard to find ways to bring yourself back up. Instead, have a list of activities or practices that you know will help you- getting out into the sun, deep breaths, cooking, talking with a friend. Whatever it may be, identify it before you need it so it’s there ready for you.
  4. Just say no. We have to know our own limits. Activist guilt can be real- how can you say no to helping people, you monster? I assure you that by saying no you are helping people. You are helping yourself to continue and you are helping others by not committing to something you can’t do.
  5. Spend time with your community. The work we are doing does not exist in a bubble and neither should you. Spending time with your community here at UU Schenectady can help revitalize you, whether you are coming for the sermon and Sunday service, discussing logistics at a team meeting, or drumming under the dome on a full moon. We are here to support you.