How I Hit My Burnout Point as a 22-Year-Old Activist
The tough part about burnout is that you’re completely fine — until you’re not
I didn’t see my burnout point coming. Maybe I should’ve.
When I was an activist, I was also taking full-time university classes and working 30 hours a week at my student union job. I was constantly on campus. Whenever I wasn’t working or studying, I was organizing volunteers, teaching workshops, meeting with committees, or writing to decision makers. The work was endless, but I didn’t find it tiring. I was energized by the hope we had to make university campuses free from sexual violence.
As part of our movement’s awareness work, I taught a couple workshops a week on sexual violence prevention. I loved it — it felt good to connect with students and equip them with tangible tools to help them make their communities safer. I had done the research and developed the program myself, so I knew that workshops with small groups were the most effective way to make change.
After nearly every workshop, at least one participant would approach me after — hesitantly, carefully — and disclose a sexual assault that had happened to them or someone they knew. Just like that, they would tell me about the most traumatic moment of their lives and ask for help.
I was trained on how to approach the disclosures. I knew that right things to say to help the survivor understand that the assault wasn’t their fault. I knew how to offer resources and options without putting pressure on the individual to act. I felt confident responding and I liked to help.
Sometimes the disclosures would come outside of the workshops, too. People at work and in my classes knew what I did, so occasionally someone would bring up an incident from their past and ask me for advice. And in the committees, many members were survivors — for a lot of sexual violence activists, an assault in their past is the reason they started doing this work in the first place. For that reason, it was rare to go a whole meeting without discussing trauma.
And of course, there was the internet. I was a sexual violence activist at the peak of the #MeToo movement when new stories of horrific abuse were coming out every hour for months. I followed piles of news sources, activist groups, and non-profits, so my feed was packed with the faces of people who had experienced terrible violence, often at the hands of people they knew and trusted.
Still, I felt fine — in fact, I felt good. Every story I heard only made me more motivated to make lasting change on my campus and across the country.
That’s the weird part about burnout. You feel completely fine until you’re not.
I remember the moment that put me over the edge. I had just come home from spending more than 12 hours on campus working and teaching and studying. It had been a long, exhausting day and I was ready to pour a glass of wine and put my work aside for the night.
But my roommate had a friend over, so I sat down and joined them to be polite. The friend asked me where I had come from and I told her I had just wrapped up a sexual violence prevention workshop. She smiled and told me it sounded like important work.
Two drinks later, she told me about her sexual assault.
It was an awful story. He was a professor. The school wouldn’t do anything to protect her from him and there wasn’t enough evidence to press charges. Eventually, she changed universities to get away from him.
From what I remember, I mostly held it together, even though her story was heartbreaking. I said the right things and offered some resources. We hugged and she got an Uber home. But once she was gone, I went to my room and cried until I had no tears left.
After that night, I never felt the same. Something had broken inside of me. Instead of feeling energized from my work, I felt exhausted and anxious and constantly sad. Activism didn’t motivate me anymore. Committee meetings took everything I had, and the workshops I used to love now left me feeling drained and empty.
I wanted out — desperately. But I knew it wouldn’t be fair to the activists I worked with and the people we were helping to leave cold turkey. Instead, I spent months training fresh, energetic new people to do my work. Slowly, I handed over the committees and the teaching and the writing. Every time I gave something up I felt a little bit lighter.
That’s how I retired from activism at the impossibly young age of 22.
I felt like a failure. None of the other activists I knew appeared to be struggling the way I was — even the people who had been doing it for many years longer. But the more I read about burnout, the more I understood how endemic it really is. Recent research from George Mason University shows the deep emotional toll that burnout takes on individual activists and their movements.
In the sample of activists they interviewed, about half who reported experiencing burnout said they left their movement for good. The stress and anxiety had mounted to such a high level that they couldn’t imagine going back, even after a hiatus.
Especially for women and activists of color, trauma is also a significant factor in burnout. I later learned that what I experienced was called vicarious trauma — I was taking in the emotional distress of others and feeling it like it was my own.
Still, even when I developed a better understanding of what happened to me, I felt constant guilt about quitting. I still do, especially in times like these, when so many activists are taking to the streets to fight anti-black racism.
Even though it was the right choice for my mental health, I also know that my decision to give up the work was a privilege. Because I’m white and cis gender and college-educated, I had the option of quitting when it got too tough and the trauma overwhelmed me. Others don’t have that alternative. For people born with a different skin color or background or gender identity, they don’t get to opt out of the fight — the battle is just part of their everyday experiences.
We need to protect our activists right now. In a time when so many people are already running on empty due to the pandemic, activists are risking everything to fight oppression. Black folks are jeopardizing their safety to protest for their right to simply exist. Teens who aren’t even old enough to vote yet are sacrificing their education to fight for climate justice. Young people in places like Hong Kong and Venezuela continue to fight for freedom from oppressive regimes at tremendous personal peril. And trans and non-binary activists are continuing to put their bodies in harm’s way so future generations of queer people don’t have to face the same violence that they did.
In the worst moments of my burnout, I remember feeling so afraid to show any of the fatigue I was feeling — it seemed like weakness. But my hope is that the next wave of activists won’t have to feel that way. The most powerful lesson I learned was that social movements are a marathon, not a sprint. We need to teach activists how to care for themselves so they can go the distance. That means taking breaks, controlling their media diets, maintaining a support system, and having spaces and friends outside of this work.
Most of all, it means having an open conversation in activist communities about the realities of trauma and burnout. Now more than ever, we need to take care of each other.