Burning Out on Activism

This summer, I nearly gave up. I threw the towel in–always carry a towel–curled up in bed, cried a lot, complained and ranted, and alternately avoided the internet and watched it with morbid curiosity.

I came very close to burning out on activism. I wrote a very raw and personal reaction to some really offensive comments made about mental illness. I was reminded that sometimes when you interview new leaders in the secular movement, the internet just wants to talk about your breasts. Dr. Oz’s reiki guru found one of my Daily Woo posts, and Twitter and Facebook stopped being my neutral ground.

Three hundred student activists at the SSA Conference

But, last weekend I was at the Secular Student Alliance’s annual conference. The vast majority of the attendants (otherwise known as juggernauts of secular awesome), are volunteers. As student leaders, as bloggers and organizers and petition signers and protesters and as people who just stand up and say, “hey, that’s illegal/unscientific/dead wrong” over and over again, they accomplish a majority of the work in the secular movement without pay.

The thing about being a volunteer is that it doesn’t end. At 5, you aren’t done with your work. At 5:00, you’re going home from school or a ‘real job’, and just getting started. Weekends are for blogging or protesting or fundraising. There’s always something more you could do with your time. You can always do more, more, more.

Unsurprisingly, it’s easy to burn out. It’s not hard to feel like giving up when time you could have invested in knitting or skiing or tap-dancing results gets pushback, trolls, and anger. Day in, day out….it gets old, and fast. What then? What if you’d like to stay involved in activism and not tear your hair out? Below, we have some ideas, crowdsourced from Real Live Activists.

Teh funny.

I’m not funny online. This is true. When I see things I hate, I

  • Rant on the blog back channel.
  • Rant in real life. (Sorry, friends.)
  • Pound the keyboard in frustration and hope a somewhat coherent ranty blog post is the result.

This is actually part of the 1flesh campaign. Because nothing is as funny as the idea of protecting you and your partner from disease.

It’s exhausting. Every day, there is a new case of Someone Wrong on the Internet. Sometimes it’s a pandemic worth of international response. (See the Anita Sarkeesian Incident). I want to respond to everything, and I can’t. Even if sleep and food weren’t medical necessities, I couldn’t see and write about only horrible things.

Luckily, there are people besides me on the internet, and quite a few of them apply humor to awful situations. Remember that time Daniel Tosh was terribad? Yessnia made me giggle–actually chuckle–in her write up. When 1flesh launched a hip new campaign with flashy graphics to tell teens to not use contraception, I was livid. But there was Jessica to take it down, blasters set to Maximum Snark. If you’re just too exhausted to deal with someone who seriously–seriously?!–thinks that gender inequality or fish acupuncture are totally a-ok, you can probably find someone who approached it with a laugh.

In all seriousness, sometimes this is a hard decision. 


Too much misogyny/trolling/-ism-of-your-choice getting you down? You can slam the laptop or unplug the modem or turn of notifications on your phone.

I’m really bad at this one. The internet is like a scab I can’t stop picking at. Part of it is that nearly everyone I love is currently accessible on the interwebz. Unplugging means saying goodbye to a support system I dearly need. Since disconnecting is something I rarely do, I’ve gotten good at blocking people on Twitter and Facebook. This is a useful skill. Also, because I hear this way too much: you are not preventing free speech by stopping people from commenting on your blog/Facebook. You’re also not obligated to answer someone just because they wrote something about you online.

Save the Good Things

You have to start doing this ahead of time, but I think it’s easily the most effective. Every single time I get a positive comment, or a thank-you, or a reminder as to why I do what I do, I save it. Screenshots, emails, etc, all go into a desktop folder. On bad days, I scroll through. There’s nothing as energizing as being reminded that sometimes words on the web do real and tangible good.

(Click on all the links in this one. You know you want to.) 

You may know this as the Cute Animal Defense. Neil Gaiman described it as taking time to Make Good Art. It’s quite simple really…do something that only makes you happy. Look at wolfhound puppies, have a MIKA dance party, watch something that just fills you with inspiration. (I either sing or do ballet. I am fairly good at the latter, and massively bad at the former.)

Remember, You Matter

You do.

If I met you, I’d probably give you a hug. (Or, if you don’t like hugs, I can profess happiness at your existence from a distance.)

If you’re speaking up or standing out or writing or achieving, or you want to do any of those things, you matter. That means that the sum of your contributions is doing something in the world. You are a good and valuable person, and that means that you should take care of yourself. Ask for help, find a litter of puppies to cuddle, take a month, take a year, to step back and regroup. But more importantly, take care of yourself.

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Kate Donovan

Kate Donovan

Kate is an outspoken atheist, feminist, demisexual, stigma-busting student in Chicago studying psychology and human development. She juggles occasionally, would knit you something warm if she knew you, and reads anything she can get her hands on. She was raised believing alternative medicine worked, and now spends her time making skeptical faces at it. You can find her on Twitter at @donovanable

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