Last week I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Kathy Obear‘s book In It For the Long Haul: Overcoming Burnout and Passion Fatigue as Social Justice Change Agents. Her book is out today and available for free download.
In It For the Long Haul is a much-needed look at burnout and sustainability in social justice work. Kathy explores the challenges and systemic roots of burnout as well as strategies for healing and sustainability in social change work. A great tool to help readers recognize, normalize, and address burnout in themselves and others.
As with her previous two books, Kathy generously agreed to do an interview for her book launch.
Keith: You describe your own life experiences with burnout as well as the experiences of your clients and workshop participants. What is pushing you to address this topic now? Do you see this issue worse now than before in yourself, in social justice circles, or in the broader culture?
Kathy: I am finding more and more people in deep burnout these days ~ and they are still getting up every morning to work for social justice. The challenge is they are depleting themselves, endangering their health, and undermining their long-term capacity to sustain activism and change work.
The cumulative impact of the increasing oppressive dynamics in society and in organizations is taking a deep toll. For decades, change agents have been resisting and creating greater liberation in the face of seemingly unrelenting systemic oppression. AND, in recent years, I have observed a significant increase in incidents and institutionalized oppression (whether there really is more occurring or we are just hearing about them more through social media and cable TV). For example, the seemingly daily or weekly news about another people of color, especially black men, being killed while interacting with police and the complete lack of justice in most every single death; the pervasive racism in the anti-immigration rhetoric that seems to be exponentially expanding everywhere I look; and the assault on health care that will endanger millions of people across intersecting identities, including age, disability, socio-economic class, immigration status, race, gender, etc. I could keep going because this current administration and their accomplices across the nation are persistently dismantling decades of progress through shifting policies, laws and practices that have created some degree of access and social justice over the decades.
It is time for everyone to step up their game, to do more, to be more, to create true equity and fairness for all. And we can’t do this if we are exhausted, overwhelmed, and burned out. We need immediate self-care and community care to sustain our change efforts for the long haul.
Keith: You described how much better you are when you are “spiritually grounded, emotionally present, and physically healthy.” Are these the three-legged stool of sustainability in social change work?
Kathy: Yes, though at times I may need a 6-legged stool! It seems easiest for many to start to create better balance in their physical health. Shifting how we eat, drink, sleep, exercise, play, and rejuvenate ourselves can result in a pretty rapid change in our energy and stamina.
As we eat nutritiously and cut back/cut out foods and beverages that deplete our immune system and energy, we most likely will notice we have more emotions than before and are more easily triggered. When we stop using food, alcohol, sugar, and other substances to cover over emotions, our feelings will resurface, often when we least expect! Deepening our capacity to effectively experience and navigate our emotions is critical to sustaining our change work. For most people I know, this will involve doing some deeper healing work to identify and resolve past issues and traumas that fuel our unproductive triggered reactions so we can be emotionally grounded and present in the work.
Finally, for those who have a spiritual practice, it may be useful to explore how you are currently using spirituality and/or religion to support your social change work. When I engage others out of ego or resentment or fear, I am far less effective and usually escalate dysfunctional dynamics that undermine my goal of greater equity and inclusion. However, when I ground myself in my faith and show up in ways that are consistent with my values, I am far more useful in the work. When I come from a space of respect, passion, compassion, empathy, authenticity, relating to the people I am engaging, curiosity to understand ~ then I am more likely to build relationships and deepen understanding, two critical criteria for creating and sustaining social justice.
Keith: You also describe seeking to engage with “compassion, humility, and accountability.” Is this another key three-legged stool?
Kathy: Compassion is a fundamental element of self-care and social justice work. I need to nurture deep compassion for those I am supporting and serving, including those with whom I disagree. People do not usually change when they are confronted out of anger or shamed into changing. One might see a short-term shift and “win the battle” as they say, but you will lose the war. I am in this for the long haul. I believe we need to build meaningful connections and relationships with people whose behavior we find disruptive and unacceptable. I find people only change when they are coached and supported by people they know and trust. We can be these change agents in people’s lives, but only if we engage them out of compassion and humility.
When I judge others, I am rarely effective as I interact with them. Yet, if I ground myself in humility and “see myself in them” instead of judging and distancing myself, then I am far more likely to build a fruitful connection. When I am stressed and burned out, it is so difficult for me to find any compassion or humility. I usually react with a depth of self-righteous anger and arrogance that completely undermines my ability to be useful and effective. I find more humility when I remember how I am just like those who I am judging OR how in a split second, I could say and do oppressive behaviors just like they are.
Accountability is critical to forward movement, yet so lacking in my experience. I need to hold myself accountable for my self-care and health so I consistently show up as a powerful, effective change agent. We also need to create greater community care among those with whom we work so we are all accountable for helping each other maintain the depth of stamina, passion, energy, and follow-through that we need to create meaningful institutional change. In addition, we need to hold each other accountable for our behaviors so that our actions do not collude and contribute to perpetuating the very oppressions we say we are committed to dismantling. This includes how we interact and engage other change agents as well as those whom we hope to educate along the way.
Keith: You cite a Brené Brown quote about how when we are overwhelmed we not only suffer but we get resentful as well. I can relate to feeling that myself. Do you think feeling that resentment can be an indicator of burnout?
Kathy: When I feel resentful of others or myself, it is a clear sign I am in dire need of self-care and healing work. I have an old pattern of over-doing and care-taking for others as I sacrifice attending to my own needs and desires. My guess is many people can relate! Many of us are socialized to ignore ourselves and taught that setting boundaries and meeting our needs is selfish. I think these messages perpetuate oppression and maintain the systems of privilege and power. If we push ourselves past exhaustion, feeling resentful towards others, then we often stop out, possibly drop out, or if we stay in the work awhile longer, our resentment and rage fuels unproductive behaviors that undermines group effectiveness and team morale. We may keep showing up to planning meetings, but others will drop away. And without consistent, persistent effective organizing and strategic action, oppression continues to escalate.
It is critical that groups create the space to discuss how people are feeling as change agents and explore any sources of resentment that may be creating dysfunctional team dynamics. If we don’t, resentment and anger will fester and corrode efforts to create change.
Keith: I have been thinking a lot about “healing” and “self-care,” both as concepts and terminology in the context of social justice. You use both. Do you see them as interchangeable or different?
Kathy: I see self-care and healing as overlapping to a great extent. And both are essential to sustaining our change work. I need to focus on the more current dynamics of my life to create greater self-care: the quality of my relationships, how I take care of my body and spirit, how I balance work and rejuvenation, how I navigate conflict and triggering situations, etc. And I also have to hold space for doing deeper healing work so old issues and unresolved dynamics do not fuel any unproductive choices or reactions in the moment.
For me, healing work includes identifying and shifting old assumptions and beliefs that drive my workaholic tendencies as well as untangling old traumas and wounds so I take back my power, release pent up emotions, and rewrite my stories about those experiences. Self-care and healing are so inter-connected. We need to focus on them both as we commit to reclaiming ourselves and our lives as we create the stamina, clarity, and passion we need for the long haul.