We (don't) need your sacrifice
I started to ask myself, how can I find a little bit of balance in this whole rat race. How not to get torn apart by the urge of having to always do more, better and faster? How to rest up and not get burned out in between the disconnected reality created by the pandemic and the necessity to fight for the same rights over and over again? I know you ask yourself the same questions. Thinking about burnout and space to rest, the name of Natalia Sarata immediately came to my mind. I met her a few years ago when she was working on Herstories (project dedicated to highlight the role, too often neglected, of women in the cultural scene of Krakow in the beginning of the 20th century).
- For many years I was involved in feminist activities, I worked with women, girls, leaders of local communities in the countryside, in small towns. I dealt with the so-called street activism, organizing demonstrations, pickets, protests, but also with things the mainstream doesn't perceive as activism, like project coordination, fundraising, describing accounting documents, working in the office, education - says Sarata.
It all started in 2002, when Sarata joined one of Krakow's feminist organizations, with great enthusiasm, because she had just discovered that who she was and what she thought about the world fitted feminism. And enthusiasm is a resource every organization constantly seeks for. However, it often ends after a few years, people leave tired, burned out.
- Back then, neither in my first organization nor in any other organization, including the groups I co-founded, not even once in those first 15 years of activism I heard: “you don't have to give everything”. “We don't need your sacrifice”. On the contrary, many of us heard and assimilated the story that we need to sacrifice for the sake of the goal - says Sarata.
And that sooner or later leads to burnout. Christina Maslach, professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, defines burnout as a psychological syndrome of „emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced feelings of work-related personal accomplishment”. She also maintains that burnout is not a personal failure, but the consequence of the conditions we work in.
- Burnout is not your fault. You operate in a system programmed to overload people. If you are working for human rights and equality, trying to stop systemic violence, it is even more profitable for this system to let you lose your strength, to let entire collectives lose their strength and power - adds Sarata.
This, however, is not the common narrative. The burnout is seen as just another proof of our weakness, which can be remedied by proper time management, with miraculous pills and pulling ourselves together. As Emily and Amelia Nagoski notice in the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle: "Magazines tell us that if we just drink ten green smoothies a day, we'll feel great and look great, our kids will say 'please' and 'thank you', and our boss will give us that promotion. And if none of those things happen, it's because we failed to drink the ten green smoothies, it's certainly not because of systemic bias.”
- What seems to me to be a huge problem, one of the many in the third sector and in Poland in general, is the 1:1 acquisition of the business model from the corporate market. Social organizations are to be professional, they need to have jobs positions, competences, settlement of results, 360-degree evaluation tools. Employment rights are extremely important, labour standards are of course too, and working in an NGO, whether paid or not, is a job. But this business model is about something else: efficiency. In this model, we are to professionalize ourselves so much that we stop seeing co-activists, we stop caring for relationships and each other. Because it takes time. And we are supposed to be effective, not wasting time on what is considered insignificant - says Sarata.
If we need to rest – let's do it during a strategic trip while discussing plans for the future. If 8 hours of full-time employment is not enough to complete the tasks we should take three more hours upon returning home. There is always so much to do. The world needs us.
- But if we die of a heart attack in a year, all these important things will not happen. We bear huge health and relationship costs. Busy, exhausted and sick people will not bring positive changes. In this model of engagement, we and our bosses remember it far too rarely - Sarata notes.
Capitalism says: when you rest, you are ineffective. We live in a world where working from 9am to 5pm is an outdated concept. Currently, you can cash any moment, or at least convert it into more likes. As Jenny Odell states in How to Do Nothing. Resisting the Attention Economy, "I see (…) a colonization of the self by capitalist ideas of productivity and efficiency.” She adds, "Nothing is harder to do than nothing. In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimized or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily. We submit our free time to numerical evaluation, interact with algorithmic versions of each other, and build and maintain personal brands. (…) And yet a certain nervous feeling, of being overstimulated and unable to sustain a train of thought, lingers. Thought it can be hard to grasp before it disappears behind the screen of distraction, this feeling is in fact urgent. We still recognize that much of what gives one's life meaning stems from accidents, interruptions and serendipitous encounters: the 'off time' that a mechanistic view of experience seeks to eliminate.”
In their book, on the other hand, the Nagoskis expanded the concept of the Human Giver Syndrome, which they define as “the contagious belief that you have a moral obligation to give every drop of your humanity in support of others, no matter the cost to you". Referring to the book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by philosopher Kate Manne, they show the consequences of the Human Giver Syndrome in various spheres of our lives. Not without irony, they also note that the syndrome occurs only to one sex. Guess which one.
- It is the whole concept of a real woman, the Polish mother, who you are supposed to be even if you don't have a baby. You must always be in the caring mode. We live in a society based on women's unpaid labour, exploiting women as much as nature, and throwing responsibility for the world on their shoulders - adds Sarata.
I didn't realize
How does it end up?
- For a long time I didn't realize that something was wrong. I didn't realize when I stopped going to the doctors, I cancelled meetings and visits because there was always something more important to do. I didn't realize when I started losing friends. I didn't realize when my relationship broke up. It started to get through to me very slowly, when I became cynical, I started to think that my actions made no sense, that whatever I do, the world wouldn't change anyway. That it's not worth getting involved or telling people that change is possible, because it's not true. What finally forced me to look at my priorities was a message from a friend who wrote that she really needed to meet me. I opened the calendar and told her: Marta, I have a window in four months, between 2pm and 3pm, the 7th of July. She just wrote back: You must be kidding! - says Sarata.
According to Maslach, in burnout first comes emotional exhaustion: discouragement to work, decreased activity, pessimism, irritability, tension, but also somatic changes such as feeling of constant fatigue, headaches, difficulty in sleeping, frequent illnesses, and digestive problems. Next part is depersonalization - we become indifferent and distance ourselves from other people's problems, spend less time with them, blame them for failures at work. Cynicism appears. Finally, the sense of personal accomplishment fades away. We stop believing in our own abilities, we feel incompetent, we are unable to adapt to difficult conditions. The phases may occur one after the other, as well as parallelly or in a different order. Ultimately, however, they lead to health, physical and mental problems, they lower our effectiveness, and make us abandon even the most important mission.
- When I realized how bad it was, I planned that in a year, when I finished my current project, or in fact three projects, I would save some money and take a three-month break. It ended up to be a year, that's how much I needed to survive and recover. Only recently I finished paying off the debts I took then so I could resign from work and not get involved in what I was doing before - Sarata confesses.
A longer break is one of the possible ways, although only some of us can afford it. A gap year, a sabbatical, voluntary isolation, time and space to redefine priorities and, above all, to rest. The Nagoski sisters in their book report that scientific data suggest we should rest 42% of our time, including sleep. We can perturb these proportions for some time, but sooner or later our body and mind will claim what they need. During the one-year break, Sarata spent two weeks in a Eco-Dharma training on burnout in activism. There she managed to name her condition, the symptoms tormenting her. With time, she moved to Warsaw, not for work or activism, but for love. Over the course of that year, she had been convinced that she would never return to the sector, that she had nothing more to give, she felt empty. She realized that the heavy toll of overworking is not so special - people pay it regularly, and in the movement in which she works, there is still a shortage of voices that go like: you don't have to go to every demonstration. You don't need to submit this or that application. You don't need anything. Your activism may be a year of self-care. In a world steeped in capitalism, your activism could be suspending effectiveness. There is also no space for saying I am weak, I can't make it, I don't want to, I don't believe. So Sarata decided to create such a space. To change the all movement, not to fix individuals. It is not us to be broken.
At the beginning of 2017, Sarata started to run meetings for activists, encouraging conversation also about difficult issues. Over time, the meetings turned into a foundation called RegenerAkcja, which creates a space for activists - especially those who work for equality and human rights - to meet, be with other people, to say that they no longer have the strength, that they are terribly tired, that they have had enough. That they don't want to do it anymore and at the same time that activism is an essential part of their identity and they don't know how to deal with it.
- I provide a space, physical or online, where activists sit opposite to each other or lie down on mattresses, look for a position that is comfortable for them, and say things like that or listen to other people saying that, pushing away the place where you need to be productive, an effective person, you need to be successful, you have to have results or you need to work your butt off all the time and wear the teflon armor and be disguised as an invincible hero. In the support groups for tired activists that I lead, we meet to organize nothing, this is the guiding principle of these meetings. We call them Wspólna [Common]. Common cause, common floor, common mattress, common group, experience, fatigue, it can be read in different ways, but it is generally about community. We do the same in various, shorter and longer workshops. We build communities where we can trust each other and talk about things that are sometimes difficult to talk about in our native groups: powerlessness, conflicts, effectiveness norms, body and relationships. We make communities from scratch, we learn how to do it - adds Sarata.
Community, bonding is a basic human need. As Emily and Amelia Nagoski emphasize: “It is a normal, healthy condition of humanity, to need other people to remind us that we can trust ourselves, that we can be as tender and compassionate with ourselves as we would be, as our best selves, towards any suffering child. To need help feeling 'enough' is not a pathology; it is not 'neediness'. (…) The cure for burnout is not 'self-care'; it is all of us caring for one another."
During meetings and workshops organized by RegenerAkcja, caring for ourselves and caring for each other manifests in being together, listening and looking at various issues for which there is not enough time in everyday hustle and bustle. Among them there are needs.
- We take a list of Maslow's or Rosenberg's needs - I don't reinvent the wheel - and we talk about them. Some of these needs are universal, some depend on the person. We also consider systemic issues. We talk about what it means to be “raised to activism” for your family, for your partner, for society, what it means to be a woman in patriarchy - says Sarata.
There are topics related to setting limits, refusal, symptoms of burnout, both at the level of the nervous system and building relationships or spirituality. There is a lot of work with breathing, with the body, participants experience their head as skin, hair, and not necessarily thoughts. They talk about situations that seemed odd and peculiar to them, and which turn out to be a common experience for most people in the room. They talk about fear, the cost of personal involvement, especially among those who work for human rights or with their own identity.
Most of the participants are women or people socialized to be a woman.
- Firstly, it results from the fact that the activism sector is feminized, because women are to look after the world, to care for the needy. - Sarata explains - Secondly, because of the socialization of women, they have less difficulty in saying that they are tired, that they cannot cope. In society, there is a model of the male activist who will be a knight of steel, a soldier on the barricades, who is indestructible and must prove his bravery and heroism. So they come less often.
Sarata also works with organizations looking for introducing deep structural changes to prevent burnout. Such a work, however, requires great openness on the part of the organization and its boss, the courage to focus the attention on what does not work.
- Problems arise, among others, where teams function continuously in emergency mode, but also where teams are managed by burned-out people, those who don't look back at relationships because they no longer have the strength to do so, those who are extremely cynical, for whom people - this is also a characteristic of burnout - are no longer persons with their stories, they start to be just tools and ways to achieve some goals, e.g. business goals. For whom talking about how people work together is just a waste of precious time. Or those who cannot talk about challenges and sweep conflicts and difficulties under the rug - explains Sarata.
Working with organizations often begins with topics related to the prevention of discrimination, harassment and mobbing, but sooner or later it turns out that there are also needs related to taking care of the team, balance or preventing burnout. Often the organizational culture itself creates a space where people burn out. For example, the principles of communication are important, and they should be geared towards building and appreciating rather than competition and criticism. It is important to see the organization not only as a workplace, but also a community in which we can regenerate after the exhausting activist work. Such a group/organization/initiative should be the mould of the new world we work for.
- Can we create communities that are diverse, equal, respectful, emancipatory if what we do here and now is self-exploitation, neglecting our needs and the needs of others, not listening to each other, pointing to our and others' mistakes, lack of care, and self-sacrifice? Do the tools we use reflect the change we want to see in the world? - Sarata wonders.
Rest is important because You are important
How to change this situation? How to give yourself space to prevent burnout, to create the world of our dreams here and now? It's worth starting with ... sleep. As Emily and Amelia Nagoski point out: “Our whole body, including our brain, is working hard as we sleep, to accomplish life-preserving tasks that can be best achieved when we're not around to interfere. Quite simply, we are not complete without sleep. (…) People who've been awake for nineteen hours (say, woke up at 7am and now it's 2am) are as impaired in their cognitive and motor functioning as a person who is legally intoxicated. People who've slept just four hours the previous night are similarly impaired, as are those who've slept six or fewer hours every night for the last two weeks. Anything you wouldn't do drunk – drive, lead a work meeting, raise a child – don't try it if you've been awake for nineteen hours, slept only four hours the previous night, or slept fewer than six hours every night for two weeks." Sleep can also be a political act. Tricia Hersey, as part of The Nap Ministry initiative, organizes performances in the USA in which people with a skin colour other than white sleep in public places. It is a commentary and objection to the use of black bodies for slave labour, but also a counterweight to the cult of efficiency and productivity.
- Tricia Hershey organizes places in public spaces where black and other non-white people can come and rest. She rejects proving your humanity through productivity and does something as controversial in capitalism as sleeping, with other people, mostly unknown. In capitalism, which is built on slavery and colonialism, which treats non-white bodies as things, as a resource, the regeneration of which doesn't need to be cared for, because it can simply be replaced by another. I strongly emphasize this anti-racist and anti-capitalist dimension in my work, I learn it from Tricia Hershey and Audre Lorde. In addition, the performances of The Nap Ministry also experience public sleep, giving up control, introducing sleep into public spaces, where it is considered laziness (associated with black people) and an expression of ineffectiveness, as a cause for shame. This intertwines with my practice: I noticed that activists come and lie down on mattresses with the intention of actively participating by speaking, listening, reflecting, but often these people fall asleep because they are in a space where nobody really wants anything from them, they can take part in the proposed activities as they wish, also by sleeping - adds Sarata.
Sleep is part of resting. However, “Rest also includes switching from one type of activity to another. Mental energy, like stress, as a cycle it runs through an oscillation from task focus to processing and back to task focus. The idea that you can use 'grit' or 'self-control' to stay focused and productive every minute of every day is not merely incorrect, it is gaslighting, and it is potentially damaging your brain" - underline Emily and Amelia Nagoski. The mentioned 42% of resting time should be devoted to sleep, but also to physical activity, conscious meals, important conversations and building relationships, things that make us happy and give meaning to our lives. Many textbooks for self-development and time management emphasize that a good rest will increase our productivity and contribute to better results. However, this is not always the goal. “It's true that rest makes us more productive, ultimately, and if that's an argument that helps you persuade your boss to give you more flexibility, awesome. But we think rest matters not because it makes you more productive, but because it makes you happier and healthier, less grumpy, and more creative. We think rest matters because you matter. You are not here to be 'productive'. You are here to be you, to engage with your Something Larger, to move through the world with confidence and joy. And to do that, you require rest" - add the Nagoski sisters.
- Rest is a human right, not a cause for shame. Sleep is a necessary physiological activity, and its lack is torture, not expression of power - comments Sarata.
Caring as a collective action
But how do you find time to rest if the calendar seems to be more full every year? It is necessary to refuse.
- Refusing is a basic tool for taking care of myself. I realized that receiving all these engagement offers is extremely nice, because it is a signal that people need me and - let's be honest - it brings emotional benefits. I feel fed by someone's attention and appreciation, it saturates my inner need to be noticed. In addition, each of these proposals is awesome and of course extremely important - Sarata laughs.
Time and energy, however, are a limited resource. Sarata has adopted two principles of refusal. One comes from andrienne marée brown, who in her book Pleasure Activism notes that saying „no” makes room for what we want to say “yes” to. Do we really have time for another impressive project, or we rather need time for other things - rest, friends, sports? The second tool is asking yourself: If this particular thing were to happen tomorrow, would I still want it on my calendar? Other self-care techniques Sarata uses in her daily life include performing tasks at 80% of her abilities and restricting social media.
- 80% is for me when I think that a given task can actually be considered completed. I can always add something else, for example to the presentation for a meeting, when I read a new book tomorrow, it may turn out that there is such a great chapter and I must add thoughts from it to this presentation. But that's not true. For years, perfectionism has been my nightmare: a deep fear that if what I am doing is below 150%, it will be a disaster. And many of my co-workers gave me feedback, which I didn't take seriously for a long time, that my 100% of task completion is 150% for others. So I have shifted boundaries where something is ready to be released. I started letting go earlier and working on perfectionism.
Restricting social media, on the other hand, starts with small changes. Buying an alarm clock and not bringing phones to the bedroom. Using specific communicators for specific things - e.g. limiting business contacts through Facebook to a minimum, so that it becomes a source of only or mainly private contacts. Uninstalling social media from your mobile phone or at least disabling notifications.
Another thing Sarata encourages tired activists to do is going back to the one thing they dropped out first when they began intensely engaging in activism.
- For some people it can be swimming. Or embroidering. Manual work is extremely regenerating, it engages other senses, the other hemisphere, the body and brings a sense of satisfaction - you feel the effect immediately. It's the same with digging the ground; for some people it is walks, for others linocuts. I'm not suggesting that they should do linocut for an hour a day from now on, but to try, if possible, to return to this activity for 5-10 minutes.
A recurring theme is also "doing nothing" understood as opposed to converting life into money and likes. As Odell points out: "There is a kind of nothing that's necessary for, at the end of the day, doing something. When overstimulation has become a fact of life, I suggest that we reimagine #FOMO (Ed. acronym for Fear Of Missing Out) as #NOMO, the necessity of missing out, or if that bothers you, #NOSMO, the necessity of sometimes missing out.” Doing nothing is also needed to listen. Listen truthfully, deeply, see what is in and around us, both in terms of people and nature - a key element in rebalancing. Odell has found a balance in birdwatching. Sarata talks about walking barefoot, about physical contact with the surrounding nature, in silence, about the friends' house in the forest where she naturally becomes calmer, more present, more focused. Presence, concentration allows us to perceive another being as Thou. In her book, Odell refers to the work of the philosopher Martin Buber, who "draws a distinction between what he calls I-It or I-Thou ways of seeing. In I-It, the other (a thing or a person) is an 'It' that exists only as an instrument or means to an end, something to be appropriated by the 'I'. The person who only knows I-It will never encounter anything outside himself because he does not truly 'encounter'. (…) In contrast to I-It, I-Thou recognizes the irreducibility and absolute equality of the other. In this configuration, I meet 'Thou' in your fullness by giving you my total attention; because I neither project not 'interpret' you, the world contracts into a moment of a magical exclusivity between you and me." In the I-Thou relationship, built with another human being, with a bird, with a tree, with the earth, with ourselves, we have a chance to be authentic and go beyond the patterns imposed on us by capitalism, by patriarchy, by the Human Giver Syndrome. Acting within them, taking care of yourself, counteracting burnout, looking for a balance will always be doomed to failure to some extent. Rebuilding the system is not an easy task, and certainly not an individual one. For this we need a new kind of relationship, listening, bonding, new communities, about which Sarata writes: “Communities not only working, not only task-oriented, not only focused on doing, but also celebrating and resting, regenerating, and caring for each other, practising it as a common task."