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Feminspire | April 16, 2014

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Feminist Burnout: What To Do When the Patriarchy Gets You Down

Feminist Burnout: What To Do When the Patriarchy Gets You Down

This was inspired by Jessica Valenti’s piece in The Nation – I highly recommend it.

One of the biggest struggles I see people facing who engage in any kind of anti-oppression work is the process where their passion, dedication, and hard work ends up overriding their own system and they experience burnout. This manifests in many different ways – for some people, it further complicates their experience with mental health, especially for my friends who have depression, anxiety, or some combination of the two. For others, it means they stretch themselves too thin and then have to drop out of some projects they’ve committed themselves to, and they feel terrible both in their exhausted selves and because of “failing.” For myself, I find it often means that I put my work before my education – I’m a university student, which is a tough grind to be in.

I had a lot of trouble figuring out how to balance my need to be doing, to be active, with my need to also feel good about my school performance. I suffered from a lot of academic anxieties because I felt as though it were impossible for me to be worth anything when I started doing badly in second year – I had always been a smart kid who was great at school, and my family and friends knew me for it. If I lost that, I thought, what am I good for?

This kind of thought process is very, very common when you experience fatigue and burnout, and it’s especially common when engaging in feminist work. As many of you know, you could do a lot of work towards an event or initiative, and even though you’re stressed, you feel really good about it – and then you have someone tell you it’s stupid, or useless. You hear a disparaging remark about feminists being out of touch. Your family may not support your work or see why it’s important. You read the comments. If you do nothing else for yourself when you are in the midst of feminist burn out, never ever read the comments of an article.

This work is hard. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency is a good example of how much this work can affect you. I read her Kickstarter when it was released, loved her idea, was excited to see where it went – and then the internet exploded. Misogyny, hatred, death threats, rape threats, all because she suggested exploring Tropes vs. Women in Video Games as a major series. She hadn’t even done anything yet, she had just put the idea out there. You can see for yourself the image-based harassment she received (MAJOR TRIGGER WARNING for rape, misogyny and violence).

So besides being hard just on its own, that isn’t enough. This work can be scary.

So I want to talk about how you are not alone. I know it sounds cheesy, but seriously, for how terrifying the internet and “the real world” can be, you can always find allies. The online feminist community, for one thing, is a thriving organism of safety, affirmation, and love. We all know that as feminists, we have different politics or disagree on many things – but in terms of self-care and feminist burnout, I think many of us agree that we all need to take care of each other. We need to know as individuals that it is okay, in fact, that it’s incredibly brave, to reach out and be dependent on other people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been saved from the rock-bottom of feminist burnout by having tea with a friend, crying into my lover’s arms, or receiving a supportive tweet from someone.

I was recently messaged by a new friend who had an aggressive sexist encounter, who just wanted to vent and tell me about her experience. Initially, upon receiving the message, I froze. I felt as though I wouldn’t be able to help or make her feel better. Then I went through my own process and sent a message back to her about what I often do. I sent her cuddly or empowering images, I told her to invest in her own specific self-care sooner rather than later, and I also asked the internet for help. I tweeted asking for resources to add to the links I already had on hand for ‘Feminism 101’ and feminist burnout, and some wonderful people responded with suggestions right away.

My very, very general advice to anyone going through burnout of any kind is to build a community, however that works for you. If you’re passionate about any kind of work, find people who also do that work, and reach out to them. Fill your social media with positivity and affirmation – find organizations and people you admire or respect on Facebook and ‘like’ their pages or follow them on twitter. Blog and write about your frustrations. Look for organizations or groups on your campus, or in your community.

This process will look different for everyone, and I don’t mean to be assumptive and make it seem like this will be easy for everyone. It won’t be. If I have learned anything though, it’s that keeping in your rage, your sadness, your exhaustion, your fear, whatever it is, will only make it worse. You are important. You are worth taking care of. What you are doing matters and will change the world for the better. When you create a positive, anti-oppressive space around your physical and online presence, you are creating safe spaces for those that need it the most.

The best thing that I have ever learned is to internalize this mantra:

You are not the cause. The cause will continue without you. You have not failed the cause by taking care of yourself or asking for help.

North American society likes to try and make us play into the ‘stress Olympics’. To challenge everyone around us with how busy we are or how many projects we are taking on. Don’t play this game. Disengage when you can. Balance your energy.

Audre Lorde said it best:

audre lorde

Written by Jess Kiley
Follow her on Twitter!

  • Dan Adamsky

    Great article! Way to encourage people to take care of themselves and to overcome the madness of the emphasis on “self-sacrifice” in our culture.

    But did you have to follow “never read the comments” shortly with “Here’s a link to a bunch of misogynist/rape harassment awfulness.” I understand it’s important to point these things out and to show that they are real and really happening (plus you included the Trigger Warning, which is always vital), but the irony of that juxtaposition just kills me. Mostly, it’s just funny, and I couldn’t help pointing it out. Way to go for doing both these things. Keep up the great work!

    • Jess

      Thank you for your comment! I honestly didn’t think about it in that way, so I’m glad you brought it up. Mostly because I didn’t think of the image harassment as the same as reading ignorant comments on an article, if that makes sense? I mostly meant that when you are in the middle of burn-out, don’t agonize over comments on articles that make you want to pull your hair out, because it will only make you feel worse, as opposed to taking care of yourself during those burn-outs. But I take your point and appreciate the strange juxtaposition that I indeed did create. :P It’s funny how certain things can escape our attention when we write!