You and your activism are not the same thing.
Your activism is not what makes you worthy to be known or loved.
Yes, your activism can be the thing you care about most. It can be the place where your mind wanders, the place where you have rich conversations, and an immeasurably great source of joy (and consternation). It can be creativity and emotions and hopes and dreams.
(You are still a legitimate activist if that’s way overstating it, and your jam is showing up once in awhile, when you can, because you care about a better world. Thank you so much!)
Activism can be quite personal, and often it is. The focus of your activism, the change you are seeking, may indeed direct whether or not you and/or someone you love will be able to live with dignity and justice under the law, in a community, or even one’s own body.
But this should never be confused with you and who you are.
I have been an activist for a minute, and I have watched a lot of people flame out. Often times it is based in trying to do too much, or expecting too much from the activism. The root cause of much burnout seems to be over-identification with the activism: Not just that the activism is more important than one’s personal health, life, and needs, but that the activism is the same as the person.
This type of over-identification also tends to make people not much fun for others to do activism with, because people over-identifying with activism tend to get defensive, territorial, and weird about the work. Differences in opinion or approach can be taken as a personal attack, because the person either consciously or unconsciously has decided they are the movement.
Social movements are protracted, frustrating, gorgeous things. The way social movements succeed, in good times and bad, is through longevity and sticking to it. So, investing in your long-term ability to do the work is never selfish. That means keeping a life and a self outside of activism.
If you are reading this, you likely know that I’m a feminist activist who has been on the abortion front lines for decades. My birthday was Tuesday, the day the nation came to grips with a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade. Many friends, meaning well, told me they were especially grateful for me on my birthday, in light of the news.
I appreciate that. Who doesn’t appreciate being seen for their work? But I also want to say quite clearly, I am grateful for me the person. The feminist and pro-abortion activist and leader is one important facet of my identity, but it is not me, the person, the sum of the miracle of my life.
These coming days, weeks, months, and years are going to be extremely difficult times for activists in my field. The pressure to over-identify with activism will be strong. This threatens our movement’s ability to continue over the long-haul because we can’t all burn out together, and it threatens the health and well-being of the activists, period. Do you really want who you are to be defined against Justice Samuel Alito’s blatant disregard for the dignity and humanity of half of the population? I sure as hell don’t.
No matter what, your activism is not who you are.
That’s good enough.