It’s hard to leave something you love. But when those somethings cause me as much stress and tears as they do joy and fulfillment, I question my role in them.
I’m a queer feminist. When I arrived to campus, I found the spaces that were seemingly designed for me in several identity-based and activist organizations. I lived for those weekly meetings, and I volunteered to help out with all kinds of events and actions, assuming that the “right” way to be a queer feminist involved being loud and proud 24/7, stopping to teach everyone about my identities, organizing events while others would flake out last-minute. Often, I would come back to my dorm and collapse. Eventually, I wondered, was this what activism was supposed to feel like?
As someone who is passionate about intersectional feminism, I wondered how much of my passion had to be painful. I found myself feeling bitter at those who could let go, those who felt less obligated to constantly participate, educate and mediate. I was exhausted by the amount of work that needed to be done: getting outsiders to understand who I was and what my politics were. I felt obligated to justify myself and my priorities to others.
I still feel that way sometimes. I have a word for it now: burnout.
I no longer engage with queer groups on campus because of what happened to me. I burned out on them. At times, I felt the weight of an entire organization on my shoulders, as others prioritized themselves above the causes that I mistakenly believed we were collectively fighting for. An environment of toxicity exists within queer spaces on campus in particular, rooted in the competitive nature of activism and organizing conversations here. I’ve stepped out of the running for the “most progressive” award in favor of my own mental and emotional health. In the microcosm of activism at Harvard, existing is not enough, as we’re encouraged to prove our legitimacy through event organizing, rallies, and meetings with administration.
I’m working on being done with burnout, but I don’t think it’s that simple. Cyclically, I find myself crying, stressed, overwhelmed because of activism, at least once a semester. Ideally, activism is supposed to be good, feel good, and function for the greater good. Sometimes activism is challenging, but most of the time, it functions as a positive outlet for concerns rooted in the everyday. When it takes over your life, though, it’s impossible to see it that way.
So how can we overcome burnout?
Learning how to move out of the personal and into the structural way of thinking is helpful; this isn’t about a conflict between people, but instead, this is about the contentious ways in which we are influenced by power structures. Shifting from product to process is also key; changing my focus from outcome to methods has allowed me to continue vocalizing support, organizing, and engaging without feeling pressure to meet an often-unreachable goal.
I am trying to make myself understand that saying “no” is okay. I am trying to realize that taking care of myself is not betraying the causes that I care about. Rather, bringing a whole and healthy self to the activist work that I want to do is the best way for me to contribute. When I am unable to do that, verbalizing or expressing solidarity in some other way will have to do.
Part of this shift in understanding comes from my realization that activism is labor. It is physical, mental, and emotional work. Strategizing, advocating, and organizing require large amounts of time and energy, and thus, choosing to engage with activism can mean sacrificing large parts of your life in the name of this labor.
I am making a conscious choice to prioritize myself. I deserve care and love from others and myself– we all do. Learning how to perform the actions necessary to make myself feel good is key to existing healthfully. Recognizing that my existence in certain places on campus is radical enough allows me to recognize the activism in my everyday life. Other forms of activism are necessary, but taking a break to love myself is important, too.