On Burnout

Burnt toastI’m exhausted. The past few weeks I’ve wanted to do nothing except curl up in a ball under a blanket and shut out the world. It’s not depression, and it’s not cynicism; it’s just apathy resulting from utter exhaustion at trying to keep up with all the social movements that I consider myself a part of. In my head, I find certain ideological standpoints to be important: feminism, animal rights, environmentalism, leftist politics, skepticism, and so on. But lately, I find myself just not being able to care about taking any action toward these ends. My resources are completely depleted.

Of course, some of this is due to external demands that have left me depleted. I just finished writing my MA thesis, so that’s taken enormous time, effort, and brain-power. I also have other demands on my time, as we all do. But I think the problem runs deeper. I am simply burnt out from moral outrage.

These movements I mentioned—feminism, animal rights, environmentalism, etc.—to a large part, they run on a great deal of moral outrage (feminism probably to the greatest extent). Of course, this outrage is often justified. There is rarely a week that goes by without some idiot politician saying something sexist, without some climate change ‘skeptic’ making ludicrous remarks about the consensus of scientists, or about the polls showing that people think this, that, or the other thing. In the past week, I’ve seen updates on Facebook about the trial of George Zimmerman, about a police shooting in Toronto, about the murder of a sex worker, about Bradley Manning, and about the reduction in government spending on science and technology in Canada. Actually, that’s just from the past two days. And while in principle, I recognize that these stories warrant outrage, I have reached the point where I’m just fresh out of it. I’m unable to care, because I cannot continue to be outraged at every story that warrants it. Perhaps if I were Bill O’Reilly, I could manage it, but I’m not. And I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I suspect that there are many supporters and activists who get burnt out even on the issues about which they are most passionate. I don’t know of any research to support that (and quite frankly, I don’t have the energy to go look for any right now), but I can’t imagine that it’s not the case. Passion always has the danger of leading to burnout, especially for folks who are single-minded in their efforts and devote all their mental and physical resources toward one goal. But getting burnt out is not pleasant. It can lead to other negative effects other than just the feeling of burnout itself.

A couple weeks ago, I ate chicken for the first time in about a year or so. As a vegetarian, this troubles me. I had come home from a long day of working on my thesis, and was just mentally depleted. This led to poor impulse control, and I decided as I stepped off the bus that I had no energy to cook. So, after contemplating my particularly strong craving for some fried chicken, I went to a fried chicken place near my house and got that instead. Then I went home and ate it all and essentially did nothing productive all night. At the time, this made me feel very guilty. It still does, to be honest. I am a vegetarian for ethical reasons, and so this feels like an utter (and utterly preventable) moral failure. Thankfully, in this case, it didn’t lead me to throw up my hands and continue bingeing, but it certainly could have. And all because I was exhausted and burnt out.

I'm all burnt out.I don’t have answers for how to avoid burnout. I’m sure others have written about it and researched it, and you can go find it yourself. This article is not an article about “six steps to avoid burnout”. It’s an article about why constant moral outrage is not a productive way to run a social movement. In the past, I’ve subscribed to various Facebook pages, subreddits, and blogs about issues like feminism. But often I end up unsubscribing because the content is entirely comprised of news story after depressing news story designed to garner moral outrage. And like I said, this outrage is often justified. But it is unrelenting. It is all-encompassing. The constant stream creates a pervasive atmosphere that reminds me just how awful the world is. Sure, there is the occasional story of progress and victory, but this simply does not compensate for the continual sense of miserable failure that some of these news feeds provide.

And let’s be clear here: I often have conversations with my feminist friends trying to reassure them that not everyone in the world is a terrible human being. I am the optimist of my social circle. When I hear horrible stories, I try to look on the bright side, or at least think about how action can be taken to correct such injustices. But when it comes to these continually depressing news stories, the only method I have found to provide me with a bit of a buffer is to force myself to evaluate the links I am about to click according to the criteria: “Is this going to upset me more than it is going to help me glean more information?” If the answer is yes, I try my hardest not to click it. And this is a terrible strategy, because I’m intentionally making myself ignorant of current events just to shield myself from the constant barrage of bad news. It really shouldn’t be this way.

The problem, as I see it, is composed of several factors that amplify each other. First, the news media itself capitalizes on stories intended to shock and outrage. In the process, they can distort stories or use clichéd narratives to increase their readership. In addition, the 24-hour nature of the media means they have to amplify minor incidents into major crises in order to fill space. Then, of course, they take those minor incidents and bloviate about them for a week and a half in the editorials section. This then gets compounded by the news aggregators and blogs, who, in their genuine attempt to provide people with information and stories related to the topic at hand (e.g., feminism, environmentalism), take those stories and concentrate them into their purest form. At least if I read the news directly, I am greeted with one depressing story about sexism diluted with ten stories about different topics. When I subscribe to a feminist page on Facebook, I am fed ten depressing stories every day, each and every one of them about sexism, plus the commentary about those stories, the sexist comments that are left by people who read those commentaries, and then the analyses about those sexist comments. It is enough to make one believe that the earth is on the brink of completely imploding in on itself due to the sheer gravitational pull of sexism that threatens to end life as we know it.

I don’t mean to trivialize these issues in any way. I am only trying to say that my brain has forced me to take a self-imposed vacation from these issues. It has done this by making me simply exhausted and thus unable to care about them. I would have preferred to be able to choose the timing of this vacation, but apparently my brain had its own plans.  I have been drowning in a sea of moral outrage, caught in the undertow of a deep current of news stories, each more depressing and horrifying than the last. I will eventually drift back to shore, I’m sure, and be able to wade into the water once again. But for now, I am doing the dead man’s float (dead person’s float?) and have no energy to devote to the issues that I wish I could care about.

Break glass in case of outrageIf I were to offer any advice on how to avoid such burnout, it would be as follows. First, it doesn’t seem like this trend of super-concentrated moral outrage is going away anytime soon. This means that it is up to individuals to control the flow of information they receive. This may mean unsubscribing from some services, or it may mean doing what I do and evaluating the titles of links according to how much it seems like the content will upset you. Don’t worry, you can still be a feminist or an anti-racist without knowing the details of every sexist or racist event that occurs. Second, I think it is important for activists and supporters to make sure that they take breaks from even their strongest passions. Of course it’s true that every second you don’t spend actively campaigning and petitioning is a second lost, but there are limits to what people can conceivably do. By going full-steam all the time, you risk getting burnt out and taking longer to recover than if you had scheduled breaks to take control of the situation. Taking your time out to relax can facilitate the ability to give 100% to your passions at other times. Third, people who contribute to blogs or run some sort of news aggregator services need to recognize that a constant stream of moral outrage is not only unhelpful, but may be actively detrimental. I know that you are passionate about these issues, and some moral outrage is needed. But try to temper it with a good dose of information about success stories, progress, and victories. That reminds people that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it provides good examples of how they themselves can take action as well. It decreases the chance that people will simply get overwhelmed and need to go find a place to hide from the scary, dark world.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a blanket to hide under.

Cat hiding under blanket

One response to “On Burnout”


Best of luck with your self-imposed vacation! Don’t forget that there are a million little victories each day too… it reminds me of the research on goal progress and commitment. You’re hoping for these causes to be making progress, but the readily available information suggests that goal is slipping further and further way. It is little wonder that is demotivating!