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July/August 2001
Activism and the Perils of Burnout: Learning to Take Care of Ourselves

With Carol Adams and Mary Lou Randour


It’s 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 exhausted—physically 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?
I think that any activist will experience burnout, because you’re always in a fighting or challenging mode, trying to get people to do things that they haven’t 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 too—like working for the homeless or keeping children safe in inner cities—so many of the exploitative animal practices are normative and legal, and are paid for by our tax dollars. It’s ubiquitous.

CA: We don’t have much of a sanctuary for activists. When we’re 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 suffering—whatever has empowered us to act—also sensitizes us to what’s not accomplished and we constantly encounter the reminders of this.

I wonder if it is also a matter of boundaries—our 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?

The question of boundaries is certainly a central issue. I think if you’re an animal activist there’s kind of a prima facie understanding that the boundary between us and other animals is an illusion that we’ve constructed to allow ourselves to do what we do. As Charles Darwin said “we’re 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 to survive.

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 unmeetable.

MLR: Exactly. You’re 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 you’re an animal activist, a mother, or whatever, it’s inevitable. But we should not be thrown by this and feel that something untoward or unusual has happened. We need to think of it or accept it as a part of life.

Satya: Can you give some examples of your individual experiences with burnout?
This winter I had a lot of writing deadlines. My yoga teacher had moved, so the kind of accountability that’s 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 asleep—I called it my “narcoleptic” yoga practice. What I failed to recognize was that my body was clearly telling me slow 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 exhaustion.

With burnout, we might not be physically exhausted, but we might get so depressed or have a sense that we haven’t gotten where we’ve 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 I’d end up in lying-down positions; by never physically reversing my energy flow, I was not able to emotionally reverse it either.

I think that’s 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. I’ll get, say, a magazine that I love, like Animals’ Agenda, and they recommend writing all these letters about issues—bear-baiting or chimpanzee sanctuaries or whatever—and they’re 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 groups—Psychologists 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 letters—and I don’t. And then my gears just lock, I get fatigued and then probably don’t operate effectively in any of it very well.

What I’ve been doing lately is to just say I’ll 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 it’s hard.

Finding Your Life Lines
It is hard to recognize when we’ve set our goals too high. That’s 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 I’d been meeting so many deadlines, he said, “Well now you need to meet some life lines.” That’s a nice way to think about it. You have to integrate whatever will restore you into your daily life, especially when you’re under stress. You can’t put off taking care of yourself. You need to make the time, whether it’s 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.
I’ve started doing my inversions again and allowing myself to sleep. I’ve recognized I was being too demanding on myself; suddenly the whole thing solved itself. As the saying goes, don’t push the river. The river doesn’t need to be pushed. We have to recognize that sometimes we just need to follow the flow.

In other words “have a life.” It’s really important to have some practice, something that restores you, whether it’s 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 them—maybe more than one thing—that 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 there’s a whole bunch of baby ducks there. I’ve been walking there throughout the winter and now the ducks have been born, and I thought, “Everything renews itself—everything.” 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 twenties (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 there’d be change; and yet there’s 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 who’d been an animal rights lawyer said, “I’ll be lucky if I see elephants out of circuses—if I see that, that’s about all I’ll see.” And so there was this remarkable conversation with them about having—it just sounds so trite to say ‘patience’—but 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 it’s still practiced in some parts of the world today. That’s 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 it—I mean the Earth—long enough for it to happen.

For me—and I have absolutely not been able to do this—my 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 they’re talking about is mostly human, self-induced suffering, because of greed or ignorance. I think the suffering we’re dealing with is the suffering of innocents, where it is inflicted on them. Trying to understand that in the grand scheme of things; that’s my lifelong struggle and I do not have any answers.

Burning Up Inside
Another reason for burnout is all of our anger. Anger is incendiary, it’s great. It releases energy, it is something that can really motivate you and move you forward. But anger that doesn’t 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 that’s more positive for you and for what you’re 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 couldn’t justify taking the time to do that.

MLR: Oh, this is a big mistake.

CA: And we all said, “You must—for 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 of 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 you’re the adult, put your mask on first, then the child’s. The message is, if you’re not breathing, you can’t help others: you can’t help those others that depend on you, whether it’s a child sitting next to you or it’s the animals that we’re 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 one’s spirituality seemed both alien and unattractive. And I thought, how do we slow down if the legacy of spirituality or spiritual practice—or whatever it is that helps you restore—is itself contaminated from the viewpoint of an activist?

I understand why many activists think of spirituality as being some kind of narcissistic enterprise and I think that’s a legitimate criticism of a lot of writings that I’ve seen, but it’s not necessarily so. So-called spirituality doesn’t 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 it’s absolutely essential that we all get replenished.

Satya: What are the danger signs or symptoms that activists should watch out for that signal you’ve got to slow down and take care of yourself?

For myself, it’s 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 don’t feel I have the inner resources to handle some sort of negative interaction, whether it’s some sort of criticism or frustration. Generally, I’m able to feel that I can access a place inside of me that still feels abundant and full and draw from that to understand what’s happening in a negative interaction, maybe during a conversation after I’ve lectured or over dinner. When I find I’m feeling powerless is the beginning of that downward spiral. If I don’t 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 I’ve cried at various times. Crying can be very healing. But feeling so sad or depressed that weeping is our only response, waking up and there’s more grief, wondering why you’re going through the day—that would be a sign of burnout. Another sign is when you feel something’s got to be solved right now, when there’s an immediacy, often a pressure that makes itself feel inevitable and nonnegotiable.

I’ll find myself lying down and thinking I have so much to do, I don’t know how I’m going to get it all done. Then I have to allow a part of me that says Well, no you don’t 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.” It’s 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 he’s sitting at a desk, sharpened pencils and books on birds strewn about, and his head is collapsed on the desk because he’s overwhelmed and doesn’t know where to begin. His dad put his arm around him and said, “Don’t 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 more grief. If the grief is always going to be there, how do we learn from grief?

MLR: The only way you can address sadness is to allow yourself to feel it. Maybe share it too. I’ve often wondered why animal rights activists don’t 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 music—maybe a Requiem—that refers to grief and can transform the raw, unprocessed feelings and lift them up to something that has some integrity and beauty even. But it’s not like snapping on a light switch, it doesn’t just happen. You have to experiment, because everybody is going to have a different way of hooking onto something that helps them transform grief.

CA: Prayer. There are times when I’m just so sad and I can feel the tears welling; that’s when I’ll pray because it reminds me that I’m connected, I’m part of this marvelous universe and not alone. It could be a prayer to God—if people believe in God—or to the universe or to the animals, where you can say, “I am so sad, but I’m 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 I’d 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. Who’s there, and who’s out there reminding us that this world isn’t 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; we’re all so interconnected. For animal activists, we care about animal suffering because we know how beautiful they are. And that’s a gift.

MLR: Admire the acrobatic abilities of your local squirrel—they are quite remarkable, or hear the birds singing. And eat well. Not just 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. It’s 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 of energy, that can restore you in 10 to 15 minutes.

MLR: I think it’s too bad that offices don’t 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?

Obviously, a lot of men that are in the animal rights movement have a deep caring side or they wouldn’t 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 themselves—getting 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 underneath—whether it’s grief, powerlessness, or feeling extraordinarily vulnerable—that are harder to tolerate because there is nothing you can do about them. There’s nothing to do. If you’re 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 you’re 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 I’ll feel anger. I can write letter after letter but eventually I’m going to just feel angry with The Times and there’s not a lot I can do to change The Times. But gee, if I get angry with a friend or with a colleague, I’ve 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 who represent it or our colleagues. But then, what should they do?

MLR: There’s no recipe that’s easy to follow and always works. Try to switch gears by taking a pause. If you don’t 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 that’s 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 you’re 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.” They’re 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 just 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 wasn’t 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 Choices—order via or email nowhey2000@]; and my sister sent me flowers, and there was just this sense of abundance, the sense that it’s okay to simply celebrate your life, to recognize how wonderful it is just to feel surrounded by love. And I don’t think it should require people turning 50 to develop rituals of abundance and joy.

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 we’ve 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 and annoyances between ourselves.

CA: Every once in awhile I write a letter to someone to recognize their successes—to congratulate them on a new book, or if there’s some success that’s 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 appreciated.

Satya: How does anger manifest itself negatively, and how can people deal with activists who direct their anger in negative or hurtful ways?
I don’t want us to get hung up on seeing everything as anger, because I do think it’s 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 you’re 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 unconscious.

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 I’ve sort of winced when I’ve seen somebody do something in public. I’ve 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 wasn’t born a vegan.

CA: People are on a path, and we’re further along. People are going to watch us and say: “Do we want to be like them?” We don’t 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. That’s 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 of the consciousness about it, and it’s better to be awake than asleep most of the time. We’re committed to living life with integrity, and integrity means not being split off from who we ourselves are.


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