6 May 2009
Burn Out and Taking Care of Ourselves
Burn out is a real and present danger for anyone involved in Transition, as indeed for any kind of community work or environmental activism. I have known several green activist/campaigners who suffered from terrible burnout, that led to depression, withdrawal and cynicism. At this year’s Transition Network conference there will be a workshop on dealing with burnout, a subject that has been a regular feature of Transition gatherings since its inception. When I visit Transition groups around the country, burnout is raised regularly as a concern, given that most initiatives are self-funding and driven by volunteers. I am not immune to it myself, but I was wondering the other day how come, given the incredible amount of commitment and energy people around the world are putting into Transition, there isn’t far more burnout than we actually see. In yesterday’s paper I read a fascinating piece that offered an interesting insight into this.
Frank Lipman (no relation), a New York-based doctor, uses the term ‘spent’ to describe the fact that although people come and see him with a range of symptoms, headaches, backpain and so on, “when you delve into their histories, they’re all exhausted”. He recently wrote a book called “Spent? End Exhaustion and Feel Great Again”, which sets out some of his tips for overcoming the ‘spent’ state. These include things like eat well, exercise, meditate if you can, impose an “electronic sundown”, whereby all electronic devices are turned off at 10pm, sleep in as dark a space as you can create, eat a good breakfast and lunch and a very light supper, and design into the work day ways to switch off for a few minutes.
So far, so bleedin’ obvious you might be thinking. Take care of yourself and chill out a bit, don’t work so hard, create headspace for things other than work…. nothing especially revolutionary there. The bit that piqued my interest though came at the end of the article;
“… Lipman believes the greatest influence on his patients’ wellbeing comes from what he calls “intangibles”: community, friends, family, love, meaning. “People are so isolated in our culture – we’ve got more and more removed from that sense of community. The diet and exercise stuff is relatively easy; its the other stuff that’s hard. How do you tell someone to get meaning in their life? Or create a community?”
In his view, getting involved in helping a good cause, or community project, is the best way to treat Spent. The benefits of community involvement are, he says, a self-perpetuating process. “When people learn to give or start volunteering and caring for others, they in turn learn how to care for themselves as well”.
Struck me that there is perhaps a case that Transition, if done properly, with adequate support and the advice he gave above, could actually be seen as being a solution to burnout, rather than just its cause. I’m not sure that his assertion that “when people learn to give or start volunteering and caring for others, they in turn learn how to care for themselves as well” is completely the case, given that there is more to how people work than just their initial motivation. It is important though, not to underestimate the energy and the power that can come from doing something for a broader purpose, or for others.
When I focus on this, I am always drawn back to a wonderful piece of paper that Andy Langford of Gaia University gave me many years ago which comes from the world of co-counselling. It could be seen as a Preventing Burnout Charter, and I often come back to it. It is called ‘The World Changer’s Commitment’;
I have chosen to change society AND I also choose to be intelligent in the way I go about it.
The future needs me well-rested, well-organized, well-nourished and well-exercised.
The past is a useful source of information but never as a substitute for my own fresh thinking. Bill Mollison (or insert any other more recent and suitable thinker/activist) respected Masonobu Fukuoka (or any other thinker/activist) AND did his own fresh thinking. I will respect all past thinkers AND my thinking will necessarily be more brilliant than theirs because I stand on their shoulders.
If I am not enjoying what I am doing then there is something wrong with the way I am doing it and I will correct it.
Although it may be over-egging the pudding somewhat to suggest that Transition, if done well, might actually be an antidote to burnout, it could be that Lipman has offered a valuable insight into why it is not a more widespread phenomenon. It also highlights one of the key roles of the Heart and Soul elements of Transition. In Totnes, one of the things that group does is to arrange and organise support for the people in the key places in the organisation, in the form of counselling or mentoring. Personally speaking, it has made a huge difference to my effectiveness and my ability to deal with burnout.
Burnout is, however, always the elephant in the room of activists and wrld changers. It has to all have happened yesterday, and; as Bill Mollison once famously put it “I can’t change the world on my own, it’ll take at least 3 of us”. I would love to hear your experience of burnout and what strategies and approaches you employ to avoid it, both within your own life, and your Transition initiative. Do use the comments box below….