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Lawyers Beware: Social Justice Burnout Is Real

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

Especially in our current political climate, regardless of what side of the coin, aisle, or pantry, you identify, fighting for social causes that you believe in is exhausting. For attorneys, being professional while on the clock for your cause is not only necessary, but it comes at an exacting emotional cost.

Sadly, one fact that seems to remain too true, which was highlighted in a study on activist burnout in 2015, is that social justice and human rights activists, like lawyers, "are not intentional about tending to their own well being." Basically, while fighting for their causes, activists tend to ignore the necessary self-care to avoid burnout.

The Signs of Burnout

As outlined by the Chen and Gorski study, a central characteristic to activist personalities is selflessness. This means activists often associate being a good activist with sacrifice, and fear being judged for taking it easy, or heaven forbid, taking a vacation from fighting for their cause.

Given this, the three primary symptoms that activists should be attuned to seems to make all too much sense. The three symptoms, generally, include:

  • Exhaustion
  • Cynicism
  • Ineffectiveness

In somewhat more medical terms, these translate to:

  • Deterioration of physical health
  • Deterioration of psychological and emotional health
  • Feelings of Hopelessness

When these symptoms rear their ugly head, it may be time to start thinking about what you need to do to take care of yourself (at least if you have any plans to continue to fight for your cause).

Avoiding Burnout

As Chen and Gorski explain, the more focused and committed a person is to their cause, the more likely they will burn out. And sadly, when activists burn out, they often stop being activists entirely. While they may still believe in their causes, when a person burns out, they may not return to their former work, even if they still care about it. Sometimes the burnout can result in a trauma-of-sorts, whereby the work becomes a triggering mechanism for health problems (physical, mental, and/or emotional).

Fortunately, thanks to all the great work of the researchers, you can learn more about the signs of activist burnout, and actively monitor yourself and fellow activists. Once the symptoms of burnout are detected, it will likely be necessary to take some time off, or lighten your load, in order to recharge. This might mean taking on a new role for your cause, or completely unplugging from the internet and world for a week, or a month maybe.

Everybody recharges differently, but activists and those that are working in industries that require them to be emotionally connected (such as attorneys, social workers, or rape counselors), need to monitor when they need recharging a bit more closely.

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