and the Perils of Burnout: Learning to Take Care of Ourselves
With Carol Adams and Mary Lou Randour
Its an understatement to say that burnout
is a major problem for activists. No matter what the cause, advocacy
often entails intense and constant stress, which can cause many to become
exhaustedphysically and mentally. To address this, Satya
turned to feminist Carol Adams and psychotherapist Mary Lou
Randour. Satya provided a framework of questions and asked
them to record a conversation about burnout: how activists can deal
with feelings of anger, grief and powerlessness, and tips for maintaining
our psychological well-being and avoiding burning out.
Carol J. Adams is the author of The Inner Art of Vegetarianism:
Spiritual Practices for Body and Soul and accompanying workbook
(Lantern Books), and The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian
Critical Theory (Continuum), the tenth anniversary edition of which
was published last year. Mary Lou Randour published Animal
Grace: Entering a Spiritual Relationship with Our Fellow Creatures
(New World Library) last year. She is director of programs for Psychologists
for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and a consultant for the Doris
Day Animal Foundation.
Satya: Why is burnout a problem with activists, especially
with animal activists?
MLR: I think that any activist will experience burnout, because
youre always in a fighting or challenging mode, trying to get
people to do things that they havent thought to do or wanted to
do; and there are a lot of forces that resist you. I think animal rights
is one of the hardest topics for activists because, although other activisms
are very difficult toolike working for the homeless or keeping
children safe in inner citiesso many of the exploitative animal
practices are normative and legal, and are paid for by our tax dollars.
CA: We dont have much of a sanctuary for activists. When
were out mixing it up with the world, everywhere we turn we encounter
animal oppression. I think the issue of consciousness is true for all
activists, but our animal consciousness or consciousness about animal
sufferingwhatever has empowered us to actalso sensitizes
us to whats not accomplished and we constantly encounter the
reminders of this.
I wonder if it is also a matter of boundariesour ability to realize
that the boundary between humans and animals is inaccurate or really
a misconstrual; and, if animal activists are open to recognizing the
illusion of boundaries, perhaps we have never developed the ability
to be alert to our own boundaries?
MLR: The question of boundaries is certainly a central issue. I
think if youre an animal activist theres kind of a prima
facie understanding that the boundary between us and other animals is
an illusion that weve constructed to allow ourselves to do what
we do. As Charles Darwin said were different by degree,
not kind. In another way, keeping boundaries is an essential
skill that you have to develop as an animal activist if you are going
CA: Another reason burnout happens with animal activists is because
we often say to ourselves: I will rest when this or when that is accomplished.
We set some external demarcation for when we will allow ourselves to
restore ourselves. Given that the world is pretty insensitive to animal
suffering, our hopes or dreams might cause us to set goals that are
MLR: Exactly. Youre looking to someone else to find when
that goal is reachable instead of defining it yourself, which is a dangerous
place to be in. I think that no matter how skilled you are or how much
you are able to take care of yourself, people are going to get burned
out anyway. Whether youre an animal activist, a mother, or whatever,
its inevitable. But we should not be thrown by this and feel
that something untoward or unusual has happened. We need to think of
accept it as a part of life.
Satya: Can you give some examples of your individual experiences
CA: This winter I had a lot of writing deadlines. My yoga teacher
had moved, so the kind of accountability thats established between
an individual and her teacher had suddenly been suspended. I would try
to break from my work, because writing is so constricting of the body,
and try to practice yoga, but I was so tired I would get into a position
and fall asleepI called it my narcoleptic yoga practice.
What I failed to recognize was that my body was clearly telling me
down, take some time to restore yourself. But instead I was driving
myself in an active yoga practice. In the absence of physical restoration,
I became so physically exhausted that I think it created an emotional
With burnout, we might not be physically exhausted, but we might get
so depressed or have a sense that we havent gotten where weve
wanted to be that we begin to have physical manifestations of that emotional
depression. In my case, I had been emptied so thoroughly of everything
that I needed to renew myself, that I had no inner resources. When my
yoga teacher was here recently, he asked, Well, what inversions
did you do? [The pull of gravity causes physical and mental stagnation,
and the pooling of blood and lymph fluids in our legs. Inverted positions
change our perspectives; they also reduce tension in our legs, allow
fluid to flow toward the head, calm our nervous system, improve our
circulation, and rejuvenate the body.] I looked at him and thought:
Duh! None! I had been so tired Id end up in lying-down
positions; by never physically reversing my energy flow, I was not
to emotionally reverse it either.
I think thats one way that burnout manifests itself: you do not
even avail yourself of the tools that you yourself might have.
MLR: What happens to me is that I get overwhelmed. Ill
get, say, a magazine that I love, like Animals Agenda,
and they recommend writing all these letters about issuesbear-baiting
or chimpanzee sanctuaries or whateverand theyre all absolutely
important. Then I get other newsletters and they also recommend writing
a number of letters. Then, in my regular day job, I work for two animal
protection groupsPsychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
and the Doris Day Animal Foundation. In addition to that, I feel like
I should be writing all these lettersand I dont. And then
my gears just lock, I get fatigued and then probably dont operate
effectively in any of it very well.
What Ive been doing lately is to just say Ill write two
letters a month, to make some kind of realistic goal of what I think
I can handle, and let go of the rest. But its hard.
Finding Your Life Lines
CA: It is hard to recognize when weve set our goals too high.
Thats what I should have done. I should have stepped back and
said: Okay, eliminate some deadline, eliminate something.
When I explained to my yoga teacher that I was exhausted because Id
been meeting so many deadlines, he said, Well now you need to
meet some life lines. Thats a nice way to think about it.
You have to integrate whatever will restore you into your daily life,
especially when youre under stress. You cant put off taking
care of yourself. You need to make the time, whether its a spiritual
practice or physical activity. They say we should do it for health.
We should do it because it gives us a chance to set our own pace.
Ive started doing my inversions again and allowing myself to sleep.
Ive recognized I was being too demanding on myself; suddenly the
whole thing solved itself. As the saying goes, dont push the river.
The river doesnt need to be pushed. We have to recognize that
sometimes we just need to follow the flow.
MLR: In other words have a life. Its really important
to have some practice, something that restores you, whether its
spiritual or however you define it, even taking a nature walk or a bubble
bath, listening to music or playing with your companion animals and
just enjoying themmaybe more than one thingthat you do
in a very disciplined way to take care of yourself.
CA: I regularly visit this wonderful park in the middle of the
city and right now theres a whole bunch of baby ducks there. Ive
been walking there throughout the winter and now the ducks have been
born, and I thought, Everything renews itselfeverything.
The opposite of burnout, really, is renewal, and to renew ourselves
really takes just slowing down and stopping and saying Okay,
I can turn this corner.
This past winter while I was travelling I had a conversation with several
seasoned animal activists and two younger activists in their early
(both had already been animal activists for five years), and they were
very depressed. They said, We thought when we started, when we
were 16, that thered be change; and yet theres not been
change. They were disheartened and depressed. All of us said that
we had that very bright-eyed hope when we became activists too. One
of the women whod been an animal rights lawyer said, Ill
be lucky if I see elephants out of circusesif I see that, thats
about all Ill see. And so there was this remarkable conversation
with them about havingit just sounds so trite to say patiencebut
having the sense that we are in it for a long time.
MLR: For more than our lifetime. Animal activism is very, very
hard to do, and I think it requires a very long view. Recently, I saw
a PBS series on the life of Christ, and it just noted in passing that
slavery was common in the world then. I know that slavery was normative
and common in the world until the 19th century and its still practiced
in some parts of the world today. Thats a hideous fact, obviously,
but it put something in perspective for me. When it comes to animals,
it could take generations and generations and centuries before what
we want to happen will happen. My only hope is that we all survive itI
mean the Earthlong enough for it to happen.
For meand I have absolutely not been able to do thismy lifelong
search is to try to find some meaning in all this suffering that we
encounter. I know Asian philosophies are centered in a way around suffering.
But I think the type of suffering that theyre talking about is
mostly human, self-induced suffering, because of greed or ignorance.
I think the suffering were dealing with is the suffering of innocents,
where it is inflicted on them. Trying to understand that in the grand
scheme of things; thats my lifelong struggle and I do not have
Burning Up Inside
CA: Another reason for burnout is all of our anger. Anger is incendiary,
its great. It releases energy, it is something that can really
motivate you and move you forward. But anger that doesnt get
transformed into something else can be a very negative experience.
I was angry for
so many years. When I look back at early drafts of The Sexual Politics
of Meat, they were so angry, and in a sense, boring because the
anger was like a one-note song. I must have been angry with the feminist
movement for 10 years for not seeing the connection between the oppression
of women and the oppression of animals. Then one day I woke up and
thought, Well, if it were obvious to the feminist world, I would not have
a book to write. That sort of released my anger, it became instead
the reason for writing the book, a mission, in a sense, and this allowed
me to move on. But that anger is burning us up inside.
MLR: Anger is one of the major pitfalls of being an animal activist
and it does burn you up inside. But what starts out as anger has to
get transformed into something thats more positive for you and
for what youre trying to do.
CA: One of the young people who was part of that conversation
was also a musician, but she had not touched her instrument for several
years because she felt that she couldnt justify taking the time
to do that.
MLR: Oh, this is a big mistake.
CA: And we all said, You mustfor yourself and for
the movement. People have to sense that their life can be full
as activists. Also I think people need to know that making music can
be a beautiful way of reminding ourselves of who we are. What kind
advice would you give to that person?
MLR: The same thing. An image comes to mind: when I was seeing
patients in clinical practice I was caught with the imagery that whenever
you go on an airplane and they give instructions on the use of oxygen
in emergencies, they always say if youre the adult, put your mask
on first, then the childs. The message is, if youre not
breathing, you cant help others: you cant help those others
that depend on you, whether its a child sitting next to you or
its the animals that were trying to save and protect.
CA: When I wrote The Inner Art of Vegetarianism, one
of my purposes was to speak to animal activists and say We must take
care of ourselves, to provide examples of ways to do that and
to talk about how the love we feel has to begin with us. We have to
love all of our selves to love the world. And so I mentioned the idea
of a spiritual practice to one of the young people and the response
was, Oh, that would be too frou frou for me. The idea of
dealing with ones spirituality seemed both alien and unattractive.
And I thought, how do we slow down if the legacy of spirituality or
spiritual practiceor whatever it is that helps you restoreis
itself contaminated from the viewpoint of an activist?
MLR: I understand why many activists think of spirituality as being
some kind of narcissistic enterprise and I think thats a legitimate
criticism of a lot of writings that Ive seen, but its not
necessarily so. So-called spirituality doesnt have to be defined
that way. It can be whatever is restorative, that helps you find some
center and wholeness in yourself. Animal activists are always dealing
with grief and rage, misery and suffering and overwhelming odds; so
its absolutely essential that we all get replenished.
Satya: What are the danger signs or symptoms that activists
should watch out for that signal youve got to slow down and take
care of yourself?
MLR: For myself, its being very negative and cynical, having
a lot of negative or even hateful thoughts, like hating the human race.
Being grouchy, slamming doors or snapping; and being tired or lethargic.
CA: And taking things personally.
I begin to notice it when I dont feel I have the inner resources
to handle some sort of negative interaction, whether its some
sort of criticism or frustration. Generally, Im able to feel that
I can access a place inside of me that still feels abundant and full
and draw from that to understand whats happening in a negative
interaction, maybe during a conversation after Ive lectured or
over dinner. When I find Im feeling powerless is the beginning
of that downward spiral. If I dont intervene right then and begin
to restore myself, then that spiral continues.
MLR: The sooner you can intervene, the quicker you can gain some
ground to stand on.
CA: Weeping. I think weeping is appropriate at times. I know
Ive cried at various times. Crying can be very healing. But feeling
so sad or depressed that weeping is our only response, waking up and
theres more grief, wondering why youre going through the
daythat would be a sign of burnout. Another sign is when you feel
somethings got to be solved right now, when theres an immediacy,
often a pressure that makes itself feel inevitable and nonnegotiable.
Ill find myself lying down and thinking I have so much to do,
I dont know how Im going to get it all done. Then I have
to allow a part of me that says Well, no you dont have to do
it all. What door can I open? What thing can I renegotiate?
MLR: I say this phrase to myself, bird by bird. Its
from a book for writers by Annie Lamont, and she tells a story about
her young brother who was supposed to have done a book report for school
on birds. Of course he waited until the night before to even start it,
and by this time hes sitting at a desk, sharpened pencils and
books on birds strewn about, and his head is collapsed on the desk because
hes overwhelmed and doesnt know where to begin. His dad
put his arm around him and said, Dont worry son, just take
it bird by bird.
CA: This winter, I was trying to figure out what the process
of grief is for an animal activist. You and I have talked before that
there is never really the acceptance stage for animal activists
who experience grief because every morning we wake up and there is
grief. If the grief is always going to be there, how do we learn from
MLR: The only way you can address sadness is to allow yourself
to feel it. Maybe share it too. Ive often wondered why animal
rights activists dont have self-help groups and just get together
to allow themselves to feel their sorrow.
Sometimes what helps me is to find different poetry or some great musicmaybe
a Requiemthat refers to grief and can transform the raw, unprocessed
feelings and lift them up to something that has some integrity and beauty
even. But its not like snapping on a light switch, it doesnt
just happen. You have to experiment, because everybody is going to
a different way of hooking onto something that helps them transform
CA: Prayer. There are times when Im just so sad and I can
feel the tears welling; thats when Ill pray because it reminds
me that Im connected, Im part of this marvelous universe
and not alone. It could be a prayer to Godif people believe in
Godor to the universe or to the animals, where you can say, I
am so sad, but Im not alone. It allows me to lift up grief
and perhaps then to transform it.
MLR: Lift up is a good way of putting it. Recently,
I was involved in a very intense lobbying effort. There were times when
we felt discouraged or thought the bill was in peril, and I had found
a piece of the 139th Psalm: If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there your hand will
lead me and your right hand will hold me. I wrote it down and
Id carry it in my purse and read it. Somehow that helped me recoup
myself and deal with all the things that I had to deal with.
Companion animals are a comfort to us and I hope we are to them too.
One way I restore myself is to lay with my dog Sophie on the couch,
just to cuddle with her for five minutes and feel her body against mine;
to love her.
CA: I love to notice animals wherever I am. Whos there,
and whos out there reminding us that this world isnt just
humans. I look out on a huge berry tree from my second floor window.
The birds arrive early in the morning, then when the berries fall onto
the driveway, the butterflies come to eat them; and at night there are
the moths, then the cat comes stalking, looking for the birds, and the
birds watch the squirrels. It reminds me of the tree of life; were
all so interconnected. For animal activists, we care about animal suffering
because we know how beautiful they are. And thats a gift.
MLR: Admire the acrobatic abilities of your local squirrelthey
are quite remarkable, or hear the birds singing. And eat well. Not
eat vegan, but eat well, deliciously, enjoy it, savor it.
CA: I really encourage activists to practice journaling, to
take a few minutes every day and just write about what they are experiencing
and feeling. Its a great way to engage with our selves and begin
to move on a path to wholeness; you discover issues, work with dreams,
and begin to access the unconscious part of you that wants to speak
and make us whole.
And taking a nap. In The Inner Art of Vegetarianism I say, We
need the rest in restoration. I also
like to put my feet and legs up against a wall, and reverse the flow
that can restore you in 10 to 15 minutes.
MLR: I think its too bad that offices dont have
a little sofa tucked away, where people can just take a quick nap.
Satya: Do you see differences between how men and women experience
burnout and how they deal with it?
MLR: Obviously, a lot of men that are in the animal rights movement
have a deep caring side or they wouldnt be there. This is talking
stereotypically, but in a way, women might have an advantage in having
more of a repertoire for how they want to take care of themselvesgetting
support from friends or taking yoga classes or things like that; feeling
more comfortable with trying to access and process their feelings.
In some ways, even for women, anger can be easier to feel, as unpleasant
as it is, because you feel more in control. But there are all these
other layers of emotions that are occurring simultaneous to the anger,
swirling around underneathwhether its grief, powerlessness,
or feeling extraordinarily vulnerablethat are harder to tolerate
because there is nothing you can do about them. Theres nothing
to do. If youre angry you can get out, get up, you can write a
letter and get a petition signed, try to get a bill changed and use
anger that way. But if youre feeling grief, vulnerable and powerless,
all you can do with those feelings is understand that you are feeling
them, and process them in some way.
CA: When I read a New York Times article about, say,
a new so-called hog farm, it never talks about how the pigs experience
it, and Ill feel anger. I can write letter after letter but eventually
Im going to just feel angry with The Times and theres
not a lot I can do to change The Times. But gee, if I get angry
with a friend or with a colleague, Ive got immediate release.
We need to somehow understand that anger is one aspect of our activism,
our vision, but also can be a sign of burnout. As a result it may be
a coping mechanism that has malfunctioned and we can find ourselves
being angry consistently with the animal rights movement or people
represent it or our colleagues. But then, what should they do?
MLR: Theres no recipe thats easy to follow and always
works. Try to switch gears by taking a pause. If you dont have
a way to replenish yourself try to experiment with a spiritual practice,
going out and playing softball with a league, tap dancing, or whatever
it is thats going to restore you. Try to switch gears that way.
Sometimes humor helps if you can get to that point. Spin class is a
new exercise where youre on bicycles in a group. I was in spin
class, and another animal activist was next to me on a bicycle and the
teacher said, Okay, take out your frustrations on the work day
and your boss yelling at you. Make your legs move. Theyre
encouraging you to speed on your bicycle with high resistance. I was
laughing, and I turned to my friend and said, Okay, this is for
all those meat-eaters! It was making a joke out of all those
medical researchers and making my legs fly around the pedals. Sometimes
trying to find some humor in all this tragedy is a bit of relief too.
CA: Another thing is to find ways to celebrate. I recently turned
50. I wasnt going to make a big thing about it, but I told a few
friends and they encouraged me to do something to mark it. So I decided
to take some friends out to dinner. On my birthday, this incredible
tofu vegan cheesecake arrived at my door sent by Feminists for Animal
Rights [from Delicious Choicesorder via www.store.yahoo.com/delicious-choices/
or email nowhey2000@ yahoo.com];
and my sister sent me flowers, and there was just this sense of abundance,
the sense that its okay to simply celebrate your life, to recognize
how wonderful it is just to feel surrounded by love. And I dont
think it should require people turning 50 to develop rituals of abundance
MLR: Because we are always working under such tension, we can
snap at one another, grousing about other animal activists and finding
fault. I know there are real differences and all that. We also need
to celebrate one another and I think we do sometimes. I remember once
at the Summit for the Animals, Steve Wise was speaking, and I looked
around at my colleagues and I fell in love with them all over again.
We are doing some remarkable things because weve dedicated our
lives in the ways that we have, and against such odds. And we should
all respect one another for that even if we have other differences
annoyances between ourselves.
CA: Every once in awhile I write a letter to someone to recognize
their successesto congratulate them on a new book, or if theres
some success thats happened, like the elimination of the Hegins
Pigeon Shoot. Besides writing letters that try to change the world,
we need to write to other activists and let them know that they are
Satya: How does anger manifest itself negatively, and how
can people deal with activists who direct their anger in negative or
MLR: I dont want us to get hung up on seeing everything as
anger, because I do think its important to remember that there
are other emotions that are underneath anger that also have to be addressed.
What do you think about a situation where youre witnessing some
animal activist acting angry in public that you find very counter-productive;
do you intervene?
CA: My theory is that people feel connected to animals but they
shut that feeling out because it is too painful. We have to help them
access that feeling, and demonstrate that we can live with the pain
that accompanies being connected to animals. One of the things that
keeps people from accessing these feelings may be our responses. They
might think, Gee, if being conscious of animal suffering means
that, am I going to be like this person, angry all the time, who wants
that? Through our actions, we teach others to choose to stay
I think accountability is important. Even if anger is something we
think we have the right to express, I think that people need to ask
themselves: Is this helping the movement or not?
MLR: Asking Is this self-serving anger? Am I really serving
the cause by acting this way?
There have been times when Ive sort of winced when Ive seen
somebody do something in public. Ive been at demonstrations where
when somebody would come by wearing fur, activists would start shouting
Shame, shame, shame! and I have intervened and told them
why I thought they should stop. Screaming epithets at a person is a
violent act and betrays the message of nonviolence, which is the heart
of animal rights. Ours is a message of radical nonviolence and we need
to walk the walk and talk the talk. If someone is misdirecting their
anger and you decide to make an intervention, it has to be done very
gently and not with anger yourself.
Something I have to remember about myself: I wasnt born a vegan.
CA: People are on a path, and were further along. People
are going to watch us and say: Do we want to be like them?
We dont have to be disturbed by what they are doing; we have to
recognize that they are not where we are and invite them here in a loving
way. Thats the best thing we can do.
Consciousness is a gift. And even consciousness about suffering is
a gift. We experience the suffering but we are also given the gift
the consciousness about it, and its better to be awake than asleep
most of the time. Were committed to living life with integrity,
and integrity means not being split off from who we ourselves are.