Being Progressive Shouldn't Be Hazardous to Your Health: Here's How to Avoid Our Culture of Overwork

Progressive leaders, activists and organizers don't take care of themselves very well. They get burned out and either don't know, don't care, or don't know how to fix it. Burnout isn't just a cliché. For its victims, it means real suffering. It undermines their energy, passion and imagination, and it spreads like a virus through their workplaces and families. Almost every aspect of their lives takes a hit--health, relationships with friends and family, creativity, judgment, concentration, and mood.

I should say "our" lives. I have lived, and too often continue to live such a life. I've also treated the burnout of activists and organizers for 30 years, and coached dozens of progressive leaders as they struggle to not only take better care of themselves but change their organizational cultures.

Most of the time, burnout is invisible to its victims until it becomes extreme. But even when they recognize it, they can't remedy it because their fundamental ability to take care of themselves is impaired. There are the obvious signs -- no vacations (or pseudo-vacations in which one is in frequent contact with work), working while sick, failing to eat well or exercise, poor sleep, and overuse of alcohol or prescription medication. And then there are the subtler signs -- lowered immunity to illness, fatigue, social withdrawal, impatience and irritability, pessimism, and joylessness. There should be a warning on your membership card that reads: "Becoming too involved in the progressive movement can be hazardous to your health."

Progressive leaders and organizers are obviously not the only ones who suffer from burnout in our society. Burnout, stress, workaholism, and type-A behavior are ubiquitous in our current economic rat-race and in a culture that privileges the bottom-line over quality of life. The special irony of this syndrome among progressive activists is that we are supposed to be in the business of changing the world in ways that reduce stress, even as we, ourselves, break down under the weight of it. After all, the "good life" we're fighting for isn't one in which the drum beat of daily life sucks the energy out of the body and soul. Too often, our message seems to be, "Do as we say, not as we do." The stress and joylessness that so often mark progressive workplaces need not define the whole of life in order for it to be a problem.

Obviously, leaders and activists enjoy the material benefits of their work, as well as the even more important satisfactions of doing mission-driven work. It's a testament to the ways the work of social change speaks to deep needs for meaning and connection that so many of us are willing to forgo better paying jobs outside the movement in the first place. Still, the toll taken on the quality of our lives by the habits and culture of political activism is tragic.

On first glance, such a tragedy doesn't seem avoidable. Progressive leaders live at the intersection of a perfect storm of pressures and demands that make self-care difficult:

  1. Their organizations are understaffed, driving leaders to do too much and cover too many bases, acting like the little Dutch boy who almost died holding back the floodwaters.
  2. The Right is always working to annihilate us. The pressure to continually fight a defensive war for survival tends to sap our energies and make "balance" seem like a selfish distraction or pipe dream.
  3. Progressive organizations often have a "martyr culture," a way of doing things that privileges the needs of others, views personal sacrifice as ennobling, and condemns as selfish, healthy attempts to put limits around one's time and availability.

Such dysfunctions become incorporated into the everyday culture of progressive organizations, and as a result, become invisible. As if this weren't enough, people who stay in the progressive movement adapt to these external dysfunctions by internalizing them. One senior organizer told me that he trained young organizers the way he'd been trained; namely, he threw them into tough situations to see if they'd sink or swim.

Sadly, such adaptation to a debilitating work culture is made easier because those doing the adapting are already predisposed by their backgrounds, families, personalities and temperaments to be self-sacrificial. Too many leaders and organizers are already inclined to view constant conflict and crisis as normal, to readily shoulder feelings of omnipotent responsibility, and to be self-sacrificing martyrs for the "cause."

Social reality, organizational structure and culture, and individual psychology all come to mirror each other, making burnout, now experienced as normal, extremely difficult to change. Self-care -- mindful and compassionate attention paid to one's own health and well-being -- becomes the outlier, the exception to the rule, and can even be viewed as disloyal. Everyone suffers as a result.

Over the course of my 30 years of studying this phenomenon, I'm convinced that the solution has to involve attending simultaneously to its multiple levels. It can't be altered by simply changing organizational practices. And it can't be changed by putting everyone into psychotherapy. In order to make mindful self-care a core feature of our organizations and movement, it has to become a priority at all levels, outside and inside, reflected in the norms of the organization, reiterated as a value and virtue by that organization's leaders, and supported and reinforced by coaching and a culture that values health and self-reflection. All of these efforts have to be grounded in a deep understanding of the causes of burnout and the difficulties treating it.

It's easy to blame external factors for overwork and burnout, but a deeper analysis reveals that progressive leaders and activists also have an internal conflict about leading physically and mentally healthy lives. Because such ambivalence sounds patently foolish, it's much harder to admit, much less explore. Like everyone else, people active in progressive politics consciously desire health and happiness in their work, and strive to achieve their mission while enjoying the fruits of health, love, pride, and joy. At a less conscious level, our normal desires for health are at war with less healthy beliefs and fears that we're not really supposed to have good things or take care of ourselves.

This conflict is extremely common. Our hope is at war with our fear, our optimism with our pessimism, and our aspirations with our cynicism. We consciously seek the light but unconsciously default to a belief in the darkness.

One of the fundamental discoveries gained from studying child development is that children regard the reality in which they find themselves as equivalent to what is supposed to be. In our childhood minds, minds not yet steeped in left-brain adult reasoning and the rational logic of cause-and-effect, we experience our emotional and social worlds as the way things are supposed to be. If our families are unhappy, stressed, dysfunctional, or neglectful, we don't think: "Boy, are they screwed up! I'm sure glad I'm happy and safe and not part of that culture!" Instead, by osmosis, the awesome authority of our parents and families to define reality and morality leads us to take their story, the one unfolding around us, as the only real story, despite what is said or consciously intended.

This universal fact of psychology has an extremely important consequence. When we violate, reject, or otherwise leave behind the unspoken norms and patterns governing our family lives, we feel conflict. Sometimes it takes the form of guilt; other times, anxiety. Both tend to operate behind our backs, affecting our choices and behavior in ways that are not conscious. For example, maybe your parents aspired to provide you with a better life than they had. And you have always been consciously determined to do just that. But when you separate from people to whom you are attached, and on whom you've been dependent for survival, your healthy conscious intentions have to contend with what it means to reject or surpass them.

Perhaps your parents were unhappy, stressed-out, depressed, in conflict with each other or with you. Perhaps they were poor and worked all the time, or were preoccupied with their own dramas and not particularly attuned to anyone else. Perhaps there was mental illness, substance abuse, or illness. All of these things can readily co-exist with love and good intentions. None of these things are necessarily anyone's fault. The problem arises because, along with healthy love and aspirations, such unhealthy and painful experiences are also incorporated into what a child feels is normal. I may consciously seek, with every fiber of my being, a life radically different than the life my parents had, and yet I also may experience feelings of guilt for doing better or having more, or anxiety about how to really thrive in a life that is good, but unfamiliar.

The bottom line is that if my parents struggled with stress, poverty, emotional problems, etc., then, despite their and my best intentions, I might just find myself experiencing difficulties feeling happy, healthy, and entitled to all the good things in life. I may fiercely want those things, but internal conflicts might make me question if they are my birthright.

My work has taught me that such difficulties aren't the exception but the rule. They are the stuff of which human conflict is made. They act behind our backs and can put the brakes on our wishes to take better care of ourselves, to be patient with and love ourselves. The common story of an athlete from a dysfunctional environment who finally "makes it" and then sabotages him or herself is mirrored in everyday life all the time.

One doesn't need to be high-profile to suffer this affliction. A patient of mine from a very poor family began moving up the ladder at his law firm. When he finally made partner, he became depressed and began drinking. He couldn't enjoy his success because he felt he didn't deserve it. Another patient, a woman, was constantly worried about money even though she objectively had enough. It turned out that her mother was always worried about money. If my patient were to relax, feel confident about her financial security, she'd have to not only believe in the objectively reality of her success, but reject an aspect of her mother's deepest self. So, she didn't allow herself to ever relax.

Progressive leaders show the telltale signs of this type of survivor guilt all the time. Instead of an irrational loyalty to their parents, their irrational loyalty takes the form of guilty narratives about their members or the victims for whom they say they're fighting. "How can I justify making good money, enjoying rest, balance, and good health, having love and family happiness, and feeling proud, successful, and special if the people I represent or for whom I'm advocating don't have any of these things?" Activists frequently relate stories of unbearably long work hours with an ironic sense of pride, inviting admiration for their abilities to work harder and longer than anyone else.

I tell them they're like camels in the desert, adapted to go long distances without water. The irrational essence of the analogy, however, is that there is actually water all around them. And these camel-like activists, organizers and progressive leaders often spread their unhealthy adaptions to others via subtle critical judgments of colleagues who don't want to be camels, who "leave early" (after, say, only a 50-hour week) or take vacations that are too long (more than a week often raises an eyebrow, more than two often provokes subtle disapproval). They can't let themselves feel any compassion for the toll their work culture is actually taking on themselves or others. They have to justify their self-denial, make it into a virtue, and then enforce it in others around them.

I remember treating a man, a martyred workaholic in an environmental organization, who went to a meditation retreat for the first time. The retreat required participants to go "off the grid" (no cell phones, Internet, etc.). It also encouraged complete silence in order to support a focus on contemplation. After his initial panic at being out of touch, my patient realized that for the first time in his adult life he didn't have to do or say anything, didn't have to perform or accomplish anything, didn't have any responsibility whatsoever for anything outside himself. To his surprise, he became overwhelmed with sadness, not over an external loss but over his sad recognition of all the years he'd treated his body so poorly, his almost compulsive and desperate striving to please and impress others, and his utter lack of self-compassion and inability to experience himself ever as innocent. He realized that his difficulty feeling sympathetic to or protective of himself originated in his family where an undertone of worry and stress was often in the air, where he had to work and anxiously strive to connect with anxious and preoccupied parents. His wish to outgrow and leave behind the strain of these relationships ran up against an irrational, but secret belief that worry, hard work and the pressure to continually perform were the way things were supposed to be. Without that, who was he? If he attended to his own needs, perhaps he'd be giving up on relationships, love and recognition altogether.

There are two other important ways such conflicts show up in progressive leaders and organizers. The first is found in a type of Imposter Syndrome, the painful and irrational belief that one has "snuck into the club." Subliminally feeling fraudulent and fearing exposure, such leaders often hurl themselves into a self-sacrificial workaholism, trying to cover all bases all the time for fear a mistake or moment of overconfidence will reveal the "truth" about them and lead to catastrophe and ruin. The real external pressures of their jobs become amplified by internal pressures to justify their position.

Such a fear-based and defensive perfectionism is obviously found in many people in many walks of life, but there is a special urgency to the obsessive and toxic feelings of responsibility among progressives because we are so over-identified with the suffering of society's victims. It's as if the poor, the exploited, the stigmatized, (for some, the earth itself), are judging us to see if we're committed enough to their rescue, critical if we take too much time out to care for ourselves, to be reflective, to rest and enjoy family time. In this fantasy, if progressives treat themselves too well, they betray their commitments.

One leader I coached grew up in a working-class home with parents who barely made ends meet and treated life as a grim struggle for survival. They frequently put down their neighbors who aspired to upward mobility and trappings of those who were better off. This leader grew up and gravitated toward organizer roles which kept him in the background. When he did become more prominent, he worked evenings and weekends because of an irrational and diffuse background fear that if his work were ever scrutinized, he wanted to, as he put it, "make sure all the t's were crossed and the i's dotted." His quality of life when I first met him was tired and gloomy.

The second major pattern through which progressives experience and express their internal conflicts about self-care involves the ways such care threatens their need to be needed. Defending the rights of "the members" or "the people" is a tough job, but suffering in the service of doing it can often satisfy unmet needs to feel important, virtuous and special. Union organizers, for example, often do more than they should for their stewards and members, expecting much too little in return, for much the same reasons that an over-involved parent or co-dependent partner secretly revels in the (self-imposed) burden of helping someone who doesn't really need it. Organizers both expect too much and too little--too little because real reciprocity isn't expected, and too much because the dependency of others is invariably a second-rate and inherently transient satisfaction of legitimate needs for recognition and meaning.

Given the culture and psychology of self-sacrifice in progressive organizations, it's no wonder that turnover is so high, that so many talented younger organizers don't stay, and that those who do get burned out. They get burned out because they adapt to the perceived expectation that they give up their lives, their families, and their health for the chance to do mission-driven work. It's also no wonder that so many of them have such unhealthy lifestyles and that their gatherings are so often lubricated by alcohol.

Finally, there is an unspoken and destructive prohibition against talking seriously about the problem of burnout. To those caught in its terrible web, it would be like questioning the weather, or asking themselves why they need a paycheck, or why they should wear clothes to work. When burnout becomes embedded in a culture and reflected in a lifestyle fueled by the psychic predispositions of those living it, an honest discussion of its causes and effects becomes impossible.

Such a conversation is urgently needed throughout progressive institutions. It should include at least the following:

  1. It has to begin with an honest examination of an organization's culture, a ruthless inventory of the actual practices that persistently tilt people away from paying attention to their own needs, to their own psychic and physical health. Movement work is often campaign-driven, and long hours and sacrifice may be inevitable. But such necessary mania can then be followed by an equally urgent insistence that people take time away. Currently, we pay lip service to the latter. There's always another crisis to deal with.
  2. Leaders who get "lost in the weeds" of work that should be delegated to others often find themselves trapped in their organization's inability to recruit and develop staff, a vital function that, if prioritized, might provide the talent infrastructure necessary to free leaders from having to obsessively micromanage.
  3. Individual coaching can be a vital source of motivation and support for self-care and should be encouraged throughout the organization, especially for high-value leaders. Coaching is the arena in which some of the more deeply personal and idiosyncratic sources of burnout can be identified and addressed.
  4. Organizations compelled and addicted to crises can't possibly make personal reflection a value. An organization committed to the health of its members and leaders, however, can insist that everyone regularly step back from the frenetic dance floor of their everyday work lives and, as change guru Ronald Heifetz suggested, schedule regular time on the "balcony" to gain some perspective about the big picture.
  5. Our organizations should make education about health and stress a priority. Too often, political people view attempts at basic health education as intrusions into their private lives. Such an attitude is untenable in an organizational culture that views individual well-being as a crucial factor in organizational success.

There's an old adage from the New Left in the 1960s that "the personal is political." Such a sensibility can be taken to endorse a fruitless and tragic withdrawal from the necessary struggle for power in the public realm. But if taken literally, it expresses a deep truth; namely, that the emotional and physical health and balance of the activists and leaders of our movement, their subjective and personal experience, are vital to its success. The undeniable fact of the matter is that healthy, vibrant, passionate, and joyful leaders--and organizations that foster and create them--are the key to creating a world that embodies these same values.

It has to start with self-compassion and an ethic of self-care. Without it, our compassion and care for others will become a husk without meaning. The Dalai Lama once said: "Compassion is something really worthwhile. It is not just a religious or spiritual subject, not a matter of ideology. It is not a luxury, it is a necessity." It's a lesson the progressive movement desperately needs to learn.  

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