How Advocates for Inclusion Keep from Burning Out

  • September 2, 2020

As a result of today's volatile social environment, we're witnessing historic levels of anxiety: 83% of Americans say our nation's future is a significant source of stress, the highest ever reported. And no wonder: we're dealing with a global pandemic, a struggling economy, civil unrest, systemic racism, polarized politics, and unprecedented levels of pressure at work and at home. Advocates for inclusion are particularly susceptible to increased levels of anxiety since we tend to take on other people's experiences as empathetic allies. As a diversity, equity & inclusion (DE&I) consultant, I know firsthand the pressure to advance our collective mission without pausing to consider personal costs. For members of historically marginalized communities, the burden to outperform yourself is even worse. For example, as an LGBTQ+ woman and a vocal ally to other groups, I understand how the pressure to cover my more stigmatized identities depletes valuable energy that could be utilized elsewhere.

Whether you've encountered a resistant workplace culture or discrimination from disinterested leaders, the feeling that advocacy is an uphill and thankless battle is a natural reaction. As people look to you to be brave and bold, you may become overwhelmed with the daunting task of sustaining your efforts, and you may risk burning out.

What is burnout?

First coined in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, "burnout" refers to an emotional, physical, and mental state of cumulative stress brought on by severe exhaustion. It occurs when you've taken on too much, and can lead to impaired concentration, cynical detachment from your work, or emotional breakdowns. Advocates for inclusion typically expend energy as if it were sourced from an endless well; burnout, or compassion fatigue, occurs when that well runs dry.

Using my own experiences in the DE&I industry, I've compiled ten strategies and self-care tips that agents of change can employ to avoid burnout. These techniques will help sustain efforts in the long run and act as healthy alternatives to maladaptive coping mechanisms that ultimately hinder your ability to inspire change.

#1: Voice your inner distress

Advocates often feel pressured to present themselves as fearless, especially if they have any degree of privilege they believe should render their problems irrelevant. Conversely, advocates that exist at the intersection of marginalized identities may be simultaneously managing their own experiences of oppression while advocating for others, forcing them to prioritize their battles. In any case, repressing your frustrations will only exacerbate them.

When in doubt, talk it out! If you feel you're on the brink of burnout, externalize that concern. Write it in your journal, share it with a close confidant, or even say the words out loud to yourself. Contact your health insurance provider for referrals to mental health professionals such as counselors and therapists, or research free virtual therapy apps that are becoming increasingly popular. Giving yourself the space to vent and engage in catharsis—however self-indulgent it may feel—will distance you from your problems and grant you a stable perspective from which to analyze them.

#2: Disentangle your sense of self from your work

Similarly, advocates should differentiate between their selfhood and their livelihood, which is easier said than done. Although one of our greatest assets is our personal investment in inclusion, anchoring your self-worth in the tangible successes of the movement is a slippery slope. As any ally can attest to, inclusion is a marathon, not a sprint, and delayed progress can make our efforts feel futile.

Try to reframe your work as merely one facet of your character, rather than an all-consuming lifestyle. Re-evaluate the ratio between energy spent at work versus energy spent outside of work, and contemplate if this division of emotional capital is truly balanced. To ensure your career is a self-sustaining journey, devote significant time to other hobbies, passions, and interests.

#3: Learn to say no, even when you want to say yes

I myself continue to struggle with the impulse to say yes to every request. Those of us who are passionate about inclusion are especially poised to take on overwork because of our purpose-driven mentality; we feel compelled to agree to every committee, every employee resource group, and every side project if it means we're playing our role in making a more equitable world. But there is no quicker way to burn out than signing onto every project. Let go of the guilt of not doing enough and the fear that you're being complacent. There's no shame in properly managing your mental bandwidth and suggesting others who could help out in your place. Saying no to one request will better prepare you to say yes to the next one.

#4: Integrate self-care blocks into your schedule

If you consider yourself someone who lives and breathes according to a carefully curated plan, the easiest way to carve out time for yourself is to literally weave it into your schedule. The act of blocking out an hour, half an hour, or even five minutes to do any of the aforementioned activities proves to yourself that you are indeed a priority. Avoid wasting time regretting the things you didn't have time to do, and instead focus on how to best utilize the energy you recoup during "me time."

#5: Work incrementally, and celebrate the small victories

The systemic issues that contribute to inequitable workplaces have been decades in the making, which makes for a pretty significant head start. We can't be discouraged when we fail to solve every form of discrimination in one day, or when we don't see the fruits of our labor immediately. Establish small, achievable goals and rewards, and celebrate these victories. Try listing three successes per week (however minor), and use these moments as fuel for motivation.

I often advise, "don't make the perfect the enemy of the good," meaning don't let the pursuit of perfectionism distract from the very real and immediate work you're doing along the way. In my experience, the people who sustain lifelong advocacy are those who embrace the small wins when it otherwise looks like losses across the board.

#6: Practice emotional hygiene

In his TEDx talk, psychologist Guy Winch introduces emotional hygiene, or the practice of taking care of your mind with the same diligence with which you take care of your body. As an advocate, you might believe your own emotions come second to those you're helping, and this sense of obligation can negatively affect your inner wellbeing. Winch suggests a few actions in these moments of crisis:

  • Rather than defaulting to self-criticizing behavior when in emotional pain, treat yourself with the compassion you'd expect from a supportive friend.
  • Resist the urge to ruminate on failures. Instead, learn from them and quickly move on to protect your self-esteem.
  • Develop emotional resilience by battling negative thinking, adopting a positive mindset, and reaching out for help when you need it.

Depending on your unique combination of identities, you may have been conditioned to neglect your emotional hygiene and just "get over it." With effective emotional hygiene, the goal isn't to bury negative feelings, so you don't have to deal with them but confront them in a safe space and use them to grow.

#7: Listen to your body

Mental or emotional stress usually manifests itself physically. To resist burnout, you should learn to recognize these somatic signs of stress and heed them. Are your muscles stiff? Is your skin breaking out? Are you constantly exhausted? Ask yourself these questions on a regular basis, and get into the habit of observing the messages your body is sending you. Your biological instincts are designed to protect you; listen to them.

#8: Create a mindfulness practice

"Mindfulness" has evolved into a buzzword in corporate circles, so it's critical to be specific when touting its benefits. The umbrella term refers to the practice of purposefully bringing one's attention to experiences happening in the current moment and achieving a clarified mental state. While this may sound like a universal salve for any sources of stress, mindfulness is not a "one-size-fits-all" solution. What may be soothing for one person may be tedious for another.

If you feel you're suffering from burnout, create your own mindfulness practice. Perhaps you burn off steam through creative outlets, such as art, writing, or cooking. Maybe you prefer physical activities, like walking in nature, doing yoga, or partaking in recreational sports. Maybe you decompress through relaxing pastimes, like daily meditation, listening to music, or an at-home spa night. Regardless, reflect on what rejuvenates your headspace, and identify a few sensory-soothing activities to calm your nervous system.

#9: Reconnect with your support network and lean on your loved ones

There is a well-documented link between a lack of social support and higher rates of burnout. Chances are the more isolated you feel, the more likely it is you believe there's no light at the end of the tunnel. Plug back into your network of peers, friends, family, and loved ones for the emotional recharging you need. Check in with your colleagues, and remain open to receiving support from them to work smarter, not harder. Self-care includes activating your own circle of allies, relinquishing some of your duties, and delegating the work you fear is slipping through the cracks. Reconnecting with the human side of your work will remind you of the core purpose of your mission.

#10: Try a partial or complete emotional detox

If all else fails, you can always cut yourself off from stress triggers completely. Take a few days off social media, avoid checking the news as often, email your colleagues that you'll be unavailable for a while; allow yourself to focus on something other than the work that got you into this hole.

However, this comes with an important caveat: tuning out is a privilege and should be exercised responsibly. The notion of self-care shouldn't be an excuse to seal yourself off and forget the long road ahead, so be critical of your want for self-care. Is it because you truly feel drained from arduous work, or is it because you're not used to expending mental bandwidth advocating for equity, and the initial discomfort is off-putting? It'll take time to find this balance between being generous with yourself and holding yourself accountable, and it will vary with your own intersectionality.

Why should I be aware of burnout?

In a viral Tweet from earlier this year, poet Lindsay Young wrote, "resistance is NOT a one-lane highway. Maybe your lane is protesting; maybe your lane is organizing; maybe your lane is counseling; maybe your lane is art activism; maybe your lane is surviving the day. Do NOT feel guilty for not occupying every lane. We need all of them." Self-care includes advocating in ways that honor your health and safety needs. If we do too much too fast, we'll end up burned out by our passion, resulting in less effective advocates.

Self-care is not about selfishness; it's about filling up your own glass so you can continue to pour from it. When we adopt a balanced self-care routine, we're able to do the most good without causing harm to ourselves or others. To model responsible advocacy, pay attention to what re-energizes you, and find where you feel valued and seen.

I'll leave you with this: in a 2015 study, Research Fellows at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being Cher Weixia Chen and Paul Gorski interviewed social justice activists. They discovered a disheartening pattern: roughly half the activists who experienced burnout didn't take a break, they left their movements for good. Inclusive leadership is a lifelong commitment, and we cannot afford to lose accomplices because they burned too bright. We need all hands on deck, and to be there for others, you must first be there for yourself.

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