Preventing Activist Burnout by Stepping Back

Have you ever felt like a plastic bag drifting through the wind wanting to start again? This analogy of activist burnout may be one of the only things Katy Perry got right in a long career of being a problematic attention seeker fave. From Tray Martin to Renisha McBride to “Jane Doe” to Veronica Bolina to Freddie Grey–it’s enough to make someone feel like nothing will change as it hasn’t for centuries. It’s enough to give anyone paying attention activist burnout.

What is Activist Burnout?

Activist burnout is when you lose your passion, spirit or energy, generally as a result of working hard and perceiving no gains or losing sight of your place in the work. Symptoms of activist burnout include: procrastination (more than usual if this is your normal personality trait), a sense of overwhelming despair in the face of tasks, serious doubts about the effectiveness of your activism, irritability and anxiety, among others.

Contextualizing Activist Burnout

Something that bears remembering is that we must take time for ourselves even when we are passionate about justice and equality. Our world is large, our societies have extended into the digital, and powers that are much larger than we do not hesitate to show us the force they wield even if we speak up as a collective voice. Personally, that doesn’t dissuade me from speaking up about injustices against communities under siege, but it does put into perspective the limited effectiveness of my individual actions and just how entrenched injustice is. And that realization that you aren’t gonna change everything in a day (or even your lifetime) can be daunting.

activist burnout self love self care
Geez Aunt Mae… Harsh much? How DARE you bring up my limitations for my own health and well being because you care and… oh.

So I’ve decided to take a step back from responding with much emotional energy to every OUTRAGE and THING FLAWED CELEBRITY DID AND HOW IT COMPLICATES THINGS FOR US.


I have a partner, I have family and friends, I have a job and projects, I have bills, and I have a kitten (who’s gunning for that number 1 spot in my heart with claws and teeth of fury and affection).

In the spirit of transparency: I only wrote this post to share the image of my smokin’ hot kitten.

Seriously though, every life taken and every step backward for human rights is disgusting and disheartening, but there’s a line between helpfully mobilizing for a situation and lashing out ineffectually. We share a lot of relevant news solely for the purpose of being outraged sometimes. That’s not a good habit.

Our health and well-being are important. As upset and outraged as we are, we sometimes serve only to short our own circuits by mishandling our fire. That said, I think that we must take regular breathers for ourselves and the people we love. We need to reconnect with ourselves before we can be trying to do right for everyone else.

Personally, I’ve taken to perfecting the art of sunday (that’s sunday-as-a-verb). It’s a way for me to remind myself of my values, spend time with myself and loved ones, learn about things I don’t usually focus on, and the release stress that comes with, you know, surviving in a world where equality is 2 parts lip-service, 1 part performance. It reminds me that I can thrive.

And I’m not the only one who’s taken a step back to reflect and do better. I know others who have:

Saved up to take day trips

Experimented with new hobbies (cooking, writing, photography…)

Called up friends they haven’t spoken to in ages

Taken staycations by travelling from the Island of Bedroom to the Country of Living Room on the Netflix Express

Decided to learn a language in their spare time

Oppression and exploitation have proven that inequality will be around for the long haul. When we resist it, we lose a lot of energy that we often forget to replenish. We burn out. I, for one, plan to be alive for long enough to take swipes. And for me, that means the occasional time out.

Check out this great EXTENSIVE blog post on HANDLING ACTIVIST BURNOUT.

Also this one about DEALING WITH ACTIVIST BURNOUT that is awesomely tooled toward Millennials!

This post originally appeared on the old CQ zine site. This is an updated version and you can see the original there if you’d like.

Sage Nenyue

Sage is a twenty-something Millennial who lives with his partner and two cats in Recife, Brazil. He graduated with a Bachelor's in Communication Studies (Media Studies) from The College of Wooster and now teaches English to some of the most wonderful people you will ever meet.