ABC of Queer: B for Burnout: the label that keeps on not giving!

While I was at the Non-monogamies Conference in Lisbon recently a young woman in the Q & A section after a session asked about burnout amongst activists. She said that she was a poly-activist aged 26 who was already experiencing burnout after only three years as an activist. Nobody really answered her question. In fact, people quickly moved on to other questions.

To a large extent, this is my experience of the subject of burnout amongst academics, academic-activists and activists in sexual and gender social movements (I suspect it’s similar in most social movements). We kinda acknowledge that it happens, we think it’s awful for the individual, but the movement is the important thing so we move on.

I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been in social movement spaces where stock phrases have been used about people experiencing burnout. “She was too emotional… ””He didn’t understand what the movement was about…” “She took too much on… It was her fault.” In other words the emphasis is to exonerate the movement from any responsibility; the great tragedy is that there is an implication that burnout implies some fault that must lie either with the individual or the movement, so blame must be directed towards an already vulnerable individual.

At the same time I’ve been in other social movement spaces where activists have been incredibly supportive of friends and colleagues who were experiencing burnout. Indeed I would go further and say the best practice I have seen has been from activists who have chosen to confront the kind of narratives I’ve written about in the previous paragraph. I’d also go further. I would say that activist and academic-activist good practice on burnout I’ve seen acknowledges that burnout is part of the activist life/lifestyle cycle, not an aberration of it to be silenced. The real issue is the ease with which people are enabled to transition from an activist state to a more or less everyday state.

In fact, many of us who are activists or academic-activists may experience burnout 3/4/5 times across our lives. Actually the lifespan of a single activist role may only be 3/4 years. There is nothing wrong with that. As there is also nothing wrong with remaining committed to a cause for the entirety of your life.

But we have a tendency to fetishize that kind of commitment in social movements which makes people who aren’t able to match up to that kind of ‘hard-core’ identity feel less authentically activist. In reality, the history of sexual and gender social movements has been that the short-term activists have been as significant as the long-term.

As well, we need to consider what burnout is. It’s certainly not just people deciding to disengage from a social movement. It’s a complex cluster of practices and frames. When I started to write this I thought about the times of my life when I’ve felt burnout. I tried to consider the kinds of different meanings involved. For me, burnout can involve:

  1. Moments when your body physically breaks down because you have overextended it too much for too long (as a consequence of being an activist). You are experiencing all types of physical illnesses, especially illnesses that you should usually shrug off. The worry now is that some of these will stay with you.
  2. Moments when your mental resilience breaks down because you have overextended it too much for too long (as a consequence of being an activist). You are experiencing all types of cognitive illnesses, especially illnesses that you would usually shrug off. The worry now is that some of these will stay with you.
  3. The complexity of activist relationships which are often fuelled by the mission, but at the same time operate according to interpersonal dynamics. These can often involve issues of gender, race, social and economic mobility, et cetera.
  4. Simply the experience of living in this heightened state and space of activism which is different from being in everyday space. That there is something wrong with you if you can’t continue to live in this heightened space….

We need to learn to understand burnout, especially to understand it as natural and part of the cycle of activism.  Otherwise the great danger is that ‘burnout’ as a demonised and fetishized label becomes something that we carry with us as a traumatising narrative. I know someone who was an activist for 18 months, but she has been burnt out for 18 years.

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