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Sweet Reason, how can I prevent humanist burnout?

An advice column by Molleen Matsumura, "Sweet Reason" deals with life-concerns and problems involving humanism, secularism and the nonreligious individual.

Molleen Matsumura is 'Sweet Reason'

Nov. 30, 2005

Dear Sweet Reason,

I've always tried to be involved and do what I can to support humanistic causes and organizations but I'm afraid of becoming burned out. I know people who used to be so dynamic, but now they won't lift a finger. And they disparage activism in general.

Lightly Toasted

Dear Toast:

Good for you! Recognizing the beginnings of burnout means you have a good chance of keeping it from getting worse.

All the tips and tricks for preventing burnout flow from two ideas: keep the activities rewarding and keep your expectations realistic. There will be some decisions only you can make, but I can give you some food for thought and links to further information.

REWARDS -- One of the key rewards of activism is effectiveness, but it is also important to choose activities that you enjoy for their own sakes. One of your decisions will be whether to do things you already do well: On the one hand it makes sense (for example), for a bookkeeper to contribute their skills as treasurer of a chapter or nonprofit group; on the other hand, they might need a change from what they already do in their day job. Make the choice that works for you. Also, if you volunteer in more than one activity, try doing different things for different causes or at different times. You might go to a newsletter-folding party for one group (sociable and not very challenging), and join the speakers' bureau for another (more challenging, a chance to learn new material and meet new people.)

Yes, sometimes it's important to do things you don't happen to enjoy, but if you aren't feeling rewarded at least half the time, you'll wear out in the long run. Besides, when there are many important jobs to be done, you might as well do ones you enjoy. For example, some people volunteering to "get out the vote" like phone-banking, others prefer precinct-walking.

It's also important to reward yourself and others by recognizing and celebrating small successes on the way to meeting long-term goals.

REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS -- You've probably heard the saying, "A cynic is a disappointed idealist." Having noble ideals isn't the problem; overestimating how much success can be achieved, or how quickly or easily it can be achieved, is what sets the stage for disappointment.

PACE YOURSELF -- Learn from your friends' experience and be realistic about your limits. Humanist activism is more like a marathon than a sprint.

People who "used to be so dynamic" poured out a lot of energy in a relatively short time, leaving themselves without a reserve. If you feel yourself flagging, it's time to re-evaluate your limits, and decide whether there are activities you ought to delay or even drop. If you can't find anyone to take over, don't do what you can't do! You may wish you didn't have to make this decision, but it's better than getting so worn out you want to drop everything. Besides, if you're over-extended, one of your projects will suffer. It's really true that, "Saying 'yes' to too many requests amounts to saying 'no' to some of them."

It's all right to take breaks, too. Think of it as the equivalent of making "pit stops". For example, if your organization puts out a newsletter, but the editor is unavailable one month, don't assume you have to step in and do the whole job; consider sending out an abbreviated version with an explanation.

SET, OR RE-EVALUATE, INTERMEDIATE GOALS -- Are there things you are doing because they always have been done? Could they be done differently or more easily? For example, one organization might choose to replace labor-intensive printed newsletters with electronic newsletters; another might streamline their newsletter, printing fewer pages and merging addresses when the newsletter is printed instead of using labels; another might find that a new volunteer can take over some of the writing or distribution.

Analyzing tasks into small, achievable steps not only makes it easier to delegate, it makes it easier to recognize and reward small successes on the way to larger goals.

It's also important to occasionally pause and evaluate the fit between a particular project and your overall goal. For example, at one point I cut back on volunteering at my daughter's pre school so I could spend more time with her.

REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS ABOUT OTHERS -- It could be your friends who "won't lift a finger" really need a break. Are you getting frustrated arguing with them? Then stop! Maybe it would help to make smaller or different requests, or to just ask them what they would be willing to do. However, you may need to reach out to new people, or consider joining with others whose work seems worthwhile to you.

There is a very broad range of activities that fulfill humanist values. It's not always easy to know when to persist in a difficult situation and when to move on, but if working with different people will help you to be more effective, or simply enjoy yourself more, that's an important consideration.

Here are links to some articles about avoiding or coping with burnout. They're from different perspectives, they're quick reading, and you'll probably find an idea or two you can use:

Dear Sweet Reason,

I have a problem which everyone has gone through, however as an atheist I find it harder than religious people to deal with. I cannot stop thinking about my mortality. I fear death may come at my doorstep tomorrow but I also fear the concept of eternity. My solution so far is to not think about it until I am 35 years old. It's been 6 years since I set this date. I'm 22 now and am in a state of panic. I would like to hear your take on it.


Dear Londoner,

You are quite right to seek another opinion now. Yes, anyone can feel such fears at times, but you shouldn't have to face continuous panic. I strongly urge you to seek professional assistance.

If you have any doubts about seeing a counselor, please read this thorough, compassionate article explaining when to seek therapy, how to choose a counselor or therapist, and what to expect from the process. The author (who happens to be nonreligious) points out that, "most adults in Western societies will get some kind of counseling over the course of their lives," and clarifies the role of counseling in personal growth.

Because of your signature, I located information on finding a therapist in the U.K. The Kent County Council offers a short set of suggestions for finding a counselor. The University of Sheffield Counseling Service has posted a more detailed article on "Finding a Therapist/Counsellor" that also discusses how to choose someone best suited to meet your needs.

In the U.S., two resources are your local phone directory (which includes free and low cost services), and an online directory created by Psychology Today magazine (try searching outside your ZIP code, in nearby areas).

2005, Molleen Matsumura.

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