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3. Dealing With Vegan Burnout

May 20, 2009

Apologies, folks, for the hiatus. You wouldn’t know it to read it, but I’ve been (inactively) working on this post for months! Today’s topic: vegan burnout.

So what is burnout? Burnout is essentially the hangover that results from too much work. It happens to a lot of doctors and lawyers and other over-achieving types, so it’s not surprising that it happens to activists and do-gooder vegan types too. It’s pretty common for people who have one “a-ha!” moment to have more, and before you know it, you’re no longer a vegetarian who gave up meat because they made the connection between farm animals and companion animals; now you’re a hard-core vegan environmentalist human rights anti-speciesist anti-poverty labour movement activist… and that’s okay. The problem isn’t having convictions and morals and sticking to them; the problem is when doing good becomes a draining compulsion instead of a life-sustaining passion.

It can be easy to work too hard and take on too much when we feel passionate about things such as veganism and animal rights issues (and human rights and environmental causes and community activism and political activism and on and on and on). Part of the problem is that now that veganism and animal rights (and other causes too – activism is hot!) have started to make their way a bit more into the mainstream, there are suddenly a lot more vegans and activists, which means there are a lot more ways to get involved, which means there are more things competing for your time, which means it’s easier than ever to get overloaded.It’s great to take an active part in fighting for animal rights, or agitating for environmentalism, or ending poverty, or pushing to stamp out sweatshops, or any of the many, many other very worthy causes out there, but it’s absolutely crucial to strike a balance someplace. If you don’t, you may wind up burnt out and eating a McDonald’s burger while driving your Hummer and sporting a fancy new fur coat. Okay, maybe not quite, but burnout does tend to drive people from activism generally and veganism in particular, so I’m going to tell you how to keep it together and fight for the cause sustainably.

So what’s a conscientious vegan to do? Well, if burnout is the result of too much work, it’s obvious that we need to cut down on the work we’re doing; but how do we do this in good conscience?

1. Be reasonable. Activism is way more effective when it’s sustained over a longer period of time rather than being concentrated in a short time, so figure out not just what activist activities you can take up but what activities you can sustain. Flaking out or performing a complete 180 on a cause you appeared passionate about just a couple weeks ago makes activists look flaky and activism look hard. It turns people off, discourages people from taking you seriously, and frustrates your comrades, so don’t be afraid to say no to commitments that you don’t think you can keep long term. Believe me, it feels worse to guiltily flake on an obligation later in the game than to turn down a request for help early on. Even if no one’s explicitly asking for your help, be sure to limit your own altruistic impulses. You can’t be a part of every group; you can’t go to every rally; you can’t do it all, and that’s okay. Accept your limitations as a human being, and work with what you’ve got!

2. In all things, moderation. You’ve heard it before about diet, exercise, booze, shopping, sex, etc. etc. Now, you need to apply the moderation principle to activism. I know it seems counterintuitive to limit your activist activities to be a better activist, but it’s important to think long term. Letting your life get taken over 100% by activism isn’t a sustainable way to live, so it’s better to devote a manageable and reasonable portion of your time and energy to some causes at a rate that allows you to maintain your commitments over the course of your life than to devote an unmanageable and unreasonable portion of your life and then burn out after a year or two (or less!). You’ll accomplish far more good if you devote 2 hours per week for 50 years than if you devote 20 hours for a year or two. You’ll also build stronger relationships with your fellow activists and get to see more progress if you settle in for the long haul rather than getting strung out for the short term.

3. Make activism fun. One of the things I hear a lot when I talk about veganism to non vegans is that it sounds like a real chore or like a joyless life of deprivation. That drives me a bit nuts because veganism isn’t just easy and awesome; it’s super fun! I go to way more potlucks and group dinners as a vegan than I did pregan. I’ve traveled all over the place, partly enabled by my network of vegan friends (who I wouldn’t have met if we didn’t share the vegan thing… oh, and an internet connection, I guess). I’ve baked cakes for movie stars (Casey Affleck – true story!). I love to bake and cook and love the “reveal” when I tell someone the cupcake they just shoved in their maw was vegan. In short, I love being vegan. I think it’s a joy, and I can’t imagine my life without that important element.

Before I get too annoying gushing about my faaabulous life (apologies), I’ll bring it back home for you: veganism is super fun, but it’s also super important. Being vegan is a huge deal and does a lot of good for the animals, the environment, and my health. Being vegan is good work.

The challenge, then, as activists (and vegans, and vegan activists) is to make all of our activism into joyful, fun activities that we love to do. It’s a lot harder to get burnt out on fun and happiness than it is on work and drudgery, so get involved in activist activities and groups that you find fun. Maybe your friends would like to start up your own group – then you can have activist meetings with pizza and beer, getting stuff accomplished while having a good time and building friendships. Have letter-writing parties! Organize benefit shows! Start an activist supper club! There are tons (sorry, Canada, I’m spelling it the American way now) of ways to do good that are also fun, so be sure to include a hefty dose of those in your activist diet.

4. Know when to hold ’em. What I mean by this is “know when to say no.” The activist community tends to be pretty incestuous, with the same people showing up at meeting after meeting of various groups. You’ll often see the same people at Food Not Bombs that you saw at the local dog rescue fundraiser that you saw at the protest rally that you saw at the city hall hearing on animal protection. While it’s certainly not a bad thing to be involved in a bunch of different activist groups and activities, it’s important to be able to say no. Activist organizers tend to recruit from groups that already exist, so the people who are the subjects of the recruitment efforts tend to be people who are already involved in one or more causes. It can be hard to say no when someone looks you in the eye and asks you to help out a worthy cause. It can make you feel like you’re letting people or the animals down, and that sucks. It’s far easier to smile and nod and agree to help out… that is, until it comes time to actually put in your hours with your new group. It’s never easy, but if you can pause and think for a few moments before taking on an activist responsibility you can’t handle, you’ll save yourself and everyone else involved a lot of grief… and extend your activist lifespan.

5. Lie on the couch. If you’re going to lead a long, healthy activist life, you’re going to have to learn to counter that unrealistic internal voice with one that’s friendlier and more realistic. All of the stuff I’ve said above won’t mean shit if you aren’t able to let yourself have a life, and this is where I have to get serious(er) for a second: if you aren’t able to say no, or if you feel compelled to take on every activist activity and cause you come across, or if you are running yourself ragged with 80,000 of activist work every week, you may have a problem. There are, unfortunately, a lot of people who come to both the vegan and activist communities for less than healthy reasons. Veganism tends to attract people who struggle with eating disorders and obsessive compulsive disorders, both of which also seem to pop up a lot in the activist community at large. For whatever reason, a lot of people who struggle for control and who have serious self esteem issues or serious problems controlling their impulses seem to find something they’re looking for in activist work, and what would otherwise be a rewarding and healthy experience becomes an exercise in feeding and enabling a mental illness. This isn’t to say that everyone who’s interested in veganism is an anorexic or that all activists are OCD, but if you find yourself really unable to say no or stop taking on new comittments or giving yourself a break, you need to find some help. Activism is about helping the world around you, not about making yourself sick or depriving yourself of what you need to be healthy. Being an effective activist will be a lot easier if you’re healthy and happy – and that’s good for both you and the animals.

Whew! Happy agitating!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 21, 2009 10:39 pm

    This is such an excellent post! I can’t wait to share it with others.

    • jordan permalink*
      May 22, 2009 8:45 am

      Thanks, Melisser!
      I feel like I’ll probably have to write an addendum at some point – it’s such a huge issue!

  2. May 23, 2009 8:30 am

    ❤ jordan, you rock.

  3. June 1, 2009 7:19 pm

    great post and reasonable advice, jordan. this is a topic that is near and dear to my own heart and i’m glad people are talking about it

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