Postcards from a journey through burnout

I’ve been thinking a lot about burnout this year. I’ve been there a few times. It’s a known hazard of being brought up in an activist family. It’s a known hazard of being a member of an organised religion. It’s a known hazard of working for a trade union.

It’s what happens when you’ve signed petitions until your email inbox is nothing but Avaaz and 38degrees, and when you marched against pretty much everything, and when your weekends have disappeared into doorknocking or leafleting or selling flowers of solidarity, and you’ve bought fair trade, and you don’t own a car and you haven’t travelled by air since 2007, and you can’t remember which of the cereal brands you’re meant to be boycotting, and buying cheap stuff is exploitative and buying expensive stuff is extravagant, and the personal is political, and the political is personal, and you’ve voted, and you’ve badgered several other people into voting, ruining your relationships in the process, and after all that the world is still a mess and you’re still feeling guilty because you haven’t fixed it.

For example, this was me in 2012:

It was all very well when I was fifteen and had no life and was all idealistic, but these days I do not have the energy to be any more political than I am paid to be, and I am sick to the back teeth with everyone else’s Causes, while simultaneously feeling guilty for Not Caring and therefore obviously being a Horrible Person. I don’t think I have any causes left myself. I am so tired of them all.

I have been back in that place this past year. It probably dates back to before the general election in May 2015. I have felt so burnt out, so powerless, so useless, and it’s been particularly difficult because of the way that things have been falling apart. I’ve been feeling that I should be doing something and knowing that there is very little I can do and that nevertheless that’s no excuse for not trying. Filling the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, and all that. So you keep going either until the world is fixed, or until you fall apart, whichever is the sooner. Guess which is the sooner.

I think it might be a defence mechanism. I think it’s what happens when your body works out that the reason you won’t rest is because you care, so it stops you caring.

In August, trying to channel a version of myself who wasn’t exhausted and jaded and burnt out, I wrote this to myself:

you are loved, you are enough
even though you don’t know how to be an activist and an introvert
even though you think you have probably had it with activism of any sort anyway
because so much activism seems to have become about telling people that they aren’t enough and they don’t do enough
and however much you do it’s never enough
because guess what, you can’t fix the world by yourself
and you’ve learned enough to know it’s not your job to bully other people into fixing the world with you
even though you stopped volunteering to do stuff ages ago and the desire to volunteer for stuff has yet to re-emerge and maybe it never will
even though you can’t tell how much of this is predictable August head-stuff and how much is real
and you fear that everyone will think it’s head-stuff while it’s been co-existing with being OK, actually
this thing goes two ways and you’re allowed to be the one who says NO
and do you know,
yes, the thing that is right is often costly and challenging
a) not always, sometimes it can be easy
b) just because something is costly and challenging does not mean that it is right
and you can’t make something right by making it harder
you are loved, you are enough
[and no, this is not a trick designed to make you get up and start doing stuff just because you’ve been told you are enough as you are]
[you think you’ve met that one before]
if you stayed in bed forever you would be loved, you would be enough
and I’m not even going to tell you that you won’t stay in bed forever
because I don’t want you to think that this is in any way conditional
you are loved, you are enough
you are loved, you are enough
that’s it.

And yes, of course some of it was predictable August head-stuff and I feel better now. And at the same time I do not want to get into that state again.

A few weeks ago, having been recovering gradually through September and October, I wrote this on Twitter:

I have been feeling guilty for most of my conscious life for not fixing the world.

Logically, one has to stop fixing things well before all the things are fixed, perhaps before any of them are.

The question is, how to stop feeling guilty about stopping.

Because eventually, you reach the point where you have to stop because you’re feeling burnt out and exhausted.

Perhaps so much so that you can’t imagine ever wanting to start again. And yet your sense of worth is tied up in fixing things.

Meanwhile the rest of the world carries on fixing and breaking things, depending on your point of view, and always wants you to help.


This is where I’m trying to break the pattern this time: to move my sense of self-worth away from what I do or don’t do, and towards the simple fact that I’m human.

I was giving myself permission to stop trying to fix things, to accept that there are certain things that are basically unfixable, that there are certain people’s opinions that won’t be changed, that push push push all the time doesn’t work. That even if I’d managed, for example, to get to the Stop The War march, the war wouldn’t have stopped.

The next day – obviously feeling better for having got all that out – I continued the conversation with myself, and wrote in my diary:

I think that if I am ever to fix anything it will be by writing fiction. It is the way that I share the ways in which I fix myself. And I can’t fix anybody; they have to work it out for themselves; and fiction helps us make the jump, because we have to put in the work.

It made more sense at the time, but what I think I meant was this: fiction – reading it, writing it – has been instrumental in helping me understand that I am human, and that being human is enough. Whether I’m writing, whether I’m working, whether I’m falling apart, being human is enough. Who knows, maybe that will stick. Maybe that was my last burnout. Maybe next time I’ll remember to stop before I fall apart.

In the meantime, I’m going to avoid putting the same pressures on myself, and on anyone else.

Telling people that they’re not doing enough to fix things, or that they’re trying to fix things the wrong way, is not going to get things fixed, or get them to do more.

Or, if it does get them to do more, it won’t last long, because it will hasten their inevitable burnout, and things will remain unfixed.

Guilt is not a sustainable motivator.

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