An Antidote to Activist Burnout

Pursuing a career that’s cause-driven can be a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because you get that fire-in-your-belly feeling of waking up every day to fight for something you fundamentally believe in. You get PAID to help make the world a bit better. It’s something of a privilege to be able to pursue cause-oriented work, and that’s not to be forgotten.

But at the same time, working in the for-purpose or non-profit sector can feel like an enormous burden, too. When your work is so closely tied to your soul, your core values, your fundamental beliefs, it can feel like your day is never done. It feels like your work failures are personal failures. It feels like you must martyr yourself for your career, because the people you serve are counting on you.

In my forthcoming book, I talk a lot about the martyrdom mindset, this weird way in which that Protestant Work Ethic our nation was founded upon seems to combine with gender stereotypes to leave women susceptible to burning out in the name of our careers and caring for the people we serve. In the nonprofit sector – the vast majority of which is made up of women workers – this is especially true.

And in today’s incredibly polarized political climate, it feels like even those of us not in the nonprofit sector are susceptible to activist burnout, too. Whether it’s because you take action in the form of protesting, volunteering, running for office, donating to causes you believe in, or organizing in your community, all that can take its toll and set you up for activist burnout.

So what’s my antidote? Well, first I have to acknowledge, it’s not mine. It’s a gem I picked up on while listening to one of my favorite podcasts – that’s unfortunately no longer running. Another Round, co-hosted by two incredible black women, Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu, covered all kinds of topics and interviewed all kinds of amazing guests, but the dynamic duo somehow always brought the show back to the radical act that is self-care in a world in which women and people of color feel under constant attack.

They always ended their show with this simple 3-step reminder: 

While I could absolutely do an entire episode about the importance of drinking water and taking your meds, that last one stuck with me most: call your person.

So often when we feel buried in work, overwhelmed by obligations, and drowning in a world so full of hostility and heartache, we want to retreat. We pull in, almost instinctively, as if by receding we’ll protect ourselves from the dangers that lurk around every corner.

We have to push back on that instinct and pick up the dang phone. You know, that device you use for texting and listening to podcasts? It’s a phone! You can call someone and hear a real live human voice on the other end.  You don’t even need to text them first. You don’t need to send emails back and forth to find a good time. You simply need to acknowledge that damn, you’re having a rough go of it right now, and talking it over with a pal or family member is what you need to get back on track. Dial them up and ask “Do you have a minute?” and unload. Seriously. Do it!

And if for one moment you’re feeling like, “Oh Emilie, I could never impose on someone else’s time like that,” just imagine if your friend or loved one was having a bad day and called you. Wouldn’t you want to make time to hear them out? To just listen? To give advice or feedback if they asked? Of course you would. So why are we so shy when it comes to reaching out ourselves – especially when we need it most?

The next time you’re having a bad day or feeling overwhelmed, I want those three words from Tracy and Heben to ring in your memory – call your person.

Take the minute to ring them up and talk it through, and you’ll feel so much better and rejuvenated to get back in the ring afterwards. Just trying to “push through” and ignore the warning signs of burnout is no strategy at all.

And hey – if you feel like you don’t have a person to call, this community is here for you. Make sure you sign up at and you’ll be invited right away to join our Courage Community on Facebook, where you can ask for help and get the support you need, when you need it most.

If you’re looking for even more on how to bounce back from burnout, my newly re-released Bossed Up for Life VIDEO course is just what you need. 

Have you ever battled with activist burnout? What strategies for sustainability work best for you? Let me know on social media at @emiliearies and @bosseduporg, leave a comment below, and as always, weigh in on the conversation in the Bossed Up Courage Community on Facebook. I can’t wait to hear what you think!


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