Feminist Burn Out

29 / 08 / 2016

By Jessamy Gleeson

I have a confession to make: over the last six months, I pushed myself too far.

This doesn’t seem like that much of a confession, does it? People push themselves hard and far all the time. During the recent Olympic sports-fest, we’ve seen the rewards of this spread across our televisions, as athletes receive gold medals and seemingly endless accolades for what can be achieved when you “break through the pain barrier” and “just believe in yourself”.

But, unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like this. Sometimes, our bodies and our brains tell us to stop. My body told me this at precisely 10:30am on Wednesday, 18th May. I found myself curled on up on my lounge room floor, unable to get up because my lower back was in a state of unreserved agony. A CT scan confirmed what I had suspected for a number of weeks. My back was seriously out of alignment: two slipped discs, and a narrowing of my spinal canal. My doctor told me that if I didn’t stop doing everything, I was at risk of paralysis.

So what does physical and mental health look like when you can no longer do the things that you want to? I rely on exercise as an outlet for my mental health, as much as for my physical well-being. Being someone who has diagnosed anxiety, exercise had proven to be a faithful ally in ensuring that I was able to express my anxiety in a positive way. But my back injury had all the signs that I had overstepped from using it simply as an outlet. The fact of the matter is that I was already in such bad shape mentally and physically that the things I may have wanted to do were actually the things that were hurting me. Burnout had hit me like a Mack truck.

Feminists can experience physical and mental burnout from any number of activities they do. Online activism can result in merciless trolling. Marching through the streets can mean harassment. Organising a rally year after year can leave you wondering what’s changed. It can feel as though the work you do is thankless, difficult, and unrewarding. When you’re constantly fighting an oppressive system that’s been around for thousands of years, you can sometimes be left feeling that your contributions amount to very little, so it’s no wonder that burnout is worryingly common in feminist circles. Anxiety, depression, exhaustion – you name it, and I can probably identify a few of my feminist friends who have been through it (not to mention myself).

The ways of addressing and tackling feminist burnout have been discussed at length within the blogosphere, but for me the solution was painfully straightforward. I stopped. I stopped exercise, I stepped back from all volunteer roles, and I took as much time as I could away from work. This wasn’t simple; after I injured my back, it actually took me another two months to finally, really, truly stop the extra volunteer work I was doing (because you can still organise a rally when you can barely walk without pain, right?).

It’s also worth pointing out that I’m incredibly lucky that I operate within a community that doesn’t shame me for effectively stopping work, and is able and willing to cover for me while I take a break. I’m provided an amount of privilege that others may not be. I could afford to step back from my activist work: a luxury that many others don’t have.

To revise a famous Clint Eastwood line, “a feminist has to know their limitations”. To add to this: self-care is a revolutionary act, but a necessary one. There’s no glory in burnout, no praise to be gained from working yourself to a point of exhaustion – despite what we may think. When the job we undertake as feminists is such an enormous one, we need to look after each other and ourselves whenever possible. To be conscious of our own mental and physical health should to be a priority of the movement as a whole, because it’s only then that we can effectively get the job done without hurting ourselves along the way.

 

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