In It For the Long Haul: Overcoming Burnout and Passion Fatigue as Social Justice Change Agents

In It For the Long Haul: Overcoming Burnout and Passion Fatigue as Social Justice Change Agents

by Kathy Obear


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781683508175
Publisher: Morgan James Publishing
Publication date: 08/14/2018
Pages: 168
Sales rank: 1,053,552
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Kathy Obear, Ed.D., pulls from over 30 years of experience as a social justice educator, speaker, consultant, and coach to help change agents deepen their capacity and confidence to manifest meaningful, sustainable organizational change. Several times in her career, she almost dropped out of social change work due to the depth of exhaustion and burnout she experienced. She supports those experiencing passion fatigue and burnout to reignite their energy, prioritize their self-care, and recommit to creating true liberation and justice for all.

Read an Excerpt


I Can Spot It, Cause I Got It: My Story

"The most fulfilled people are the ones who get up every morning and stand for something larger than themselves. They are the people who will care about others, extend a helping hand to someone in need or will speak up about an injustice when they see it."

~ Wilma Mankiller

At some point when I was growing up, I came to deeply believe in Wilma Mankiller's message: that I was to live in ways that helped others and created greater fairness and justice in the world. Even in my teens, I remember feeling passionate about social justice. I wrote papers in high school about civil rights and racial justice and about the travesties of the prison system. In college, I found more anger and greater passion as I learned more about the inequities and injustices throughout history and the current manifestations of colonization and oppression around the world. I wanted to make a difference with my life, I just wasn't yet sure how.

"We have an obligation to fight for the world as it should be."

~ Michelle Obama

I passionately believed in fighting for the world as I believed it should be. And fight and argue I did. It has taken a long time to learn other ways to courageously engage, that, for me, have been far more productive and sustainable.

In graduate school, I caught fire to address issues of sexism and homophobia in colleges and in society. In my first jobs as a college administrator, I channeled my activism into training others about oppression and challenging them to speak up and interrupt microaggressions and discrimination. I was passionate and energized as I worked long hours, long weekends to get my job done so I had the time to invest in social justice work. I'm sure you noticed how I had these as two separate aspects of my life.

I failed to realize that over time, I was losing my passion, my fire for this work. I felt more tired and depleted, but I kept going, until I couldn't. I have experienced severe burnout multiple times in my life. I wouldn't wish that depth of exhaustion and despair on anyone. I am grateful that I somehow pulled through each time to rekindle my commitment and energy for this work. But many do not. I believe we are each responsible for modeling ways of activism that show it is possible to be a powerful change agent while at the same time sustaining our passion, commitment, and usefulness throughout our life. The ways we show up in the work may vary over time, but we can demonstrate to others how to integrate activism into our lives throughout the decades.

I came by my unhealthy, stress-filled ways of living quite naturally. The subtle messages and modeling about self-care were in the air I breathed at home, at school, and in most every interaction I had in the world. Growing up, I never realized how I absorbed these from my parents, teachers, and society in general.

As a young girl, I was immersed in the sexist socialization that pressured and shaped me to find my sense of self-esteem and self-worth from taking care of others. Through modeling and messaging, I learned very quickly that I would be appreciated, recognized, and rewarded if, and usually only if, I worked hard to anticipate and meet the needs of others, do many chores around the house and in the yard, stop what I was doing to respond to requests for help, and always put another's needs before my own.

I watched my mother work from morning until evening taking care of so many household responsibilities: parenting, shopping, chauffeuring us to doctor's appointments, paying bills, cooking, cleaning, helping with homework, reading bed-time stories, and caring for my grandmother. In addition, she often typed reports for my father's work as well. I hardly ever saw her sit down or do something to relax. If we were watching TV as a family, she was often ironing, writing checks, or knitting afghans for each of us kids.

My father seemed to be constantly working as well. He was an independent consultant as an engineer and left early each morning for different meetings and jobs, came home for dinner, and then spread out his plans and blueprints on the dining room table to work into the night. I have fond memories of family camping vacations to Ocean City, MD when mom would slather us with sunscreen and watch over us as we played in the waves and on the beach. All the while, dad would be in the van with his plans as he worked on some project.

In elementary school, I remember having lots of freedom to play outside with friends and go on adventures in the woods behind our house. I had some chores to do but they rarely interfered with my playtime. As I got older and entered junior high and high school, I remember having more responsibilities for cleaning the house, mowing the lawn, and baby-sitting my brother. I had far less free time to do much of anything as I came home from school, started my homework before dinner, helped clean-up after eating, and then worked into the night to finish my homework before bed. Weekends were often filled with household chores as well as more homework. I did get to spend some time watching TV, socializing with friends, and often baby-sitting to earn gas money. It seemed the only time I got to rest deeply or got special attention was when I was ill. Some of my favorite memories are of weekend camping trips with the Girl Scouts, though as I look back, we were almost always working: setting up tents, collecting fire wood, digging latrines, cooking, and cleaning up. Often my favorite moments were times of rest when we sang around the campfire at night.

"When I first started my career as a social worker, I believed that my job was to change the world. That made for a daunting to-do list! I was always convinced that I could be doing more or making a bigger difference. Normally, I'm a hopeful person, but my schedule soon left me feeling exhausted and put out. I also resented anyone who wasn't as busy as I was."

~ Brené Brown

I so relate to this quote. I believed early on I was to change the world and believed that I could. I threw my whole self into my work and then played just as hard on the off-hours. I was burning my candle at both ends, and proud of it. I had no idea how costly the price would be for these life choices. I wore my busy-ness and over-working like a badge of honor. I didn't pay as much attention to the quality of my work as to how many hours and weekends I was working. I used these long hours of work to prove to others and to myself that I was worthwhile and important. My unconscious motto was "work till you drop," believing that only then was I deserving of taking time off.

I was able to keep up this schedule for some time or so I thought. I wasn't aware of how, like a bucket with a small hole at the bottom, I was leaking precious energy and life force day in and day out. I might feel better after a good night's sleep or a weekend away, but the slow, steady drip was taking its toll over time.

The irony is that early in my career I facilitated workshops on wellness, alcohol awareness, and codependency in my organization and at regional and national conferences. They say, "You teach best what you most need to learn." I could teach others how to lead balanced, healthy lives but all the while I was breaking every principle I was sharing. As I look back, I now realize I was burning out. I was increasingly irritable and resentful as I was losing compassion for others. I started to isolate more and take every opportunity to close my door and shut out the world. I was stressed out much of the time and felt unappreciated for all the extra work I was doing. I began to get behind on projects and miss deadlines. To compensate, I worked even longer hours, but this just increased my feelings of resentment. I began to judge my colleagues as less committed and less competent as I saw them lead a more balanced life than I was. Needless to say, the quality of my working relationships suffered as I got more burned out.

As I laid in bed with yet another cold or flu, I would think: "What more do they want from me? I am doing all I can!" I was so exhausted I could hardly get out of bed in the morning. I felt I had nothing left to give. I felt like I was drowning. Even as I lay there aching and in pain, all I could think about was how much work I needed to do. I made a list in my head of all the projects I needed to complete, all the programs I needed to develop. And as I looked ahead at my schedule, I felt so exhausted and depleted, but knew I had to get to work sooner than later.

Even with all I was doing, I still felt lonely. Not many people seemed to appreciate all that I did. In meetings, people seemed more distant or irritated with me. Hardly anyone acknowledged my comments or invited me to lunch or to hang out after work.

An experience during my last year as a college administrator illustrated my level of burnout and passion fatigue at that time in my life. I remember going to a committee meeting on alcohol abuse on campus. As we began to brainstorm ideas for awareness programs, I reacted in ways that were detrimental to the group's work. I was argumentative, cynical, and pessimistic. My negative energy brought the group's work to a halt. I was judgmental and critical of every idea, yet had no suggestions of my own. I felt so miserable, powerless, and ineffective. I never went back to that committee. I just disappeared without a word. While some may have been thankful I dropped out, I know I could have made a difference. If I had been my best in those meetings, I could have been an active contributor in shifting campus dynamics; and maybe I would have had a significant impact on the lives of individual students. But I was too burned out to be of any use.

I knew I needed to take a break and let my body and psyche rest, refuel, and repair. But I was afraid to stop working. Any time I slowed down or took a day off, my mind would swirl and obsess with negative thoughts, such as, "Work is piling up; I'm going to miss that deadline; I'll let people down if I don't get that done. There is so much pain in the world, I have to keep going." Under those thoughts was a deeper truth: I didn't know who I was if I wasn't working long hours. I had built my entire sense of worth and self-esteem around hard work and making a difference in people's lives. Who would I be if I slowed down?

The harder I pushed myself, the more often I fell into the all-too-familiar pendulum swing: I would work until I was exhausted, get sick, and drop out for a while. I missed work, social activities, and community events. I would stay in bed until I felt just better enough to go back to work, but not long enough to get healthy. And the pattern would repeat, over and over. I saw my frequent illnesses as evidence of my dedication and hard work. Denial is a powerful drug.

Somewhere I had heard the phrase, "Listen to the whispers, before they become screams," but I never really understood what that meant. Today, I do. As the years progressed, I kept up my pattern of over-working, exhaustion, and stopping to rest only when I got sick. It seemed normal to me. I remember having the flu and being so sick I couldn't drive myself to a training 8 hours away. During a blizzard, my partner drove me up to that university as I slept the best I could. Somehow, I was able to do the training session and get back in the car, as she drove me home to fall into bed for a week. Most any reasonable person would be shocked and deeply concerned with this story. It was just another day of work for me. This is how out of control my life was or more accurately, how out of control I was in my life.

"And I've learned that I always have to be on the watch for burnout. Because when it creeps up on me, I don't like the person I become. That person does not reflect my values, and she's not who I want to be ..."

~ Brené Brown

I didn't realize it at the time, but my over-working and high stress lifestyle was negatively impacting my relationship and my social life. I was traveling so often and working long days when I was home to prepare for my next consulting trip. I wasn't prioritizing time with my partner or carving out time to socialize with friends and nurture a community of support. I isolated more and more as I centered my life around work. While I may never know for sure, I also believe that the quality of my social justice work was negatively impacted as well. People may have felt I was doing good work, but today I know how much more effective and useful I can be when I am more centered and grounded in my life.

"Life will let you get away with something for a while, but sooner or later, you will pay the price. Everything you do in life causes the effects that you experience. When you get the bill, be prepared to pay."

~ Iyanla Vanzant

Then I started to have some persistent, chronic pain. Before this time in my life, I could sleep off an illness, take a lot of pain medicine, and push through. But I hadn't listened to the whispers, and the message from the universe got a little louder. Yet not loud enough for me to make any changes. I lived with a severe ache in my lower left abdomen for quite a while. I just thought this was part of growing older and working harder. Maybe I was scared to go to a doctor in case it was more serious than I thought. By then, my mom had died of cancer and my dad had committed suicide, in my opinion, out of fear that he was experiencing dementia. As the pain got more unbearable, I eventually went to a gynecologist and was relieved there was nothing to indicate cancer or some other significant disease. But the pain persisted. I finally got willing to try alternative medicine and found some relief through acupuncture and other forms of healing work.

I now believe that our stuck emotional energy manifests in our bodies and can lead to significant illness. I will never know what might have happened if I hadn't finally begun to take better care of myself. My fear is that I would have experienced cancer in my late 30's, and given my depleted state of health at that time, I am not sure I would have lived this long.

I was still deeply committed to making a difference in the world, but I was sick and tired of feeling exhausted and depleted all the time. My body and lack of health had gotten my attention enough that I made some major changes in my life. Over a period of several years, I got sober and stopped eating wheat, dairy, and refined sugar. With regular acupuncture and daily herbs, I slowly started to rebuild my health and immune system. But I was still getting far too many colds and flus to be able to work at the level I wanted to.

Eventually, I realized I needed to turn my focus inward and do a much deeper level of inner work and healing to clear away the stuffed emotions, resentments, fear, and deep anger that still fueled much of my life. This inner work has not always been easy. I resisted doing deep healing at times and distracted myself with work and other commitments. But I know in my soul I am a far more effective change agent when I engage others from a place of compassion, humility, and accountability. I can only stay in this place if I consistently do my inner work to show up as a clear instrument for change. I am on the path, just not at the destination yet.

There were several key milestones that helped me develop a more balanced, healthy life. Deciding to get sober, not just stop drinking, but to prioritize 12-Step programs was a significant period of healing and transformation. My next step was to change what I ate and pay much more attention to what I put into my body. Both of these made a significant difference in my energy and health. My next level of transformation occurs as I intentionally focus on doing consistent inner healing work and shift my thoughts, fears, and emotions in the moment as I navigate my triggered reactions.

I had another significant turning point in my late 50's as I gained more clarity about the types of change work I wanted to do in this next stage of my life. I became clearer about my current passions and what brought me joy as a social justice educator. I am convinced I do my best work when I am in the flow and grounded in love and compassion as I challenge others to live their lives in alignment with their core values. In this most recent process of reflection and self-renewal, I have become more selective in the types of work I do and more aware of how tightly I had been scheduling my travel, training, and coaching.

Today, I intend to have a more balanced life as I work with people and organizations that are committed to the necessary depth of change to create greater equity and inclusion for the full breadth of the people they serve. I intend to work with those who are willing to develop the capacity and courage to dismantle dynamics of oppression in themselves and in their organizations. I intend to invest my remaining years and life force in people who are truly open and committed to creating meaningful, sustainable change and transformation.


Excerpted from "In It For The Long Haul"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Kathy Obear.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 I Can Spot It, Cause I Got It: My story,
Chapter 2 Why Don't We Take Care of Ourselves?,
Chapter 3 Warning Signs,
Chapter 4 Look Out For Backlash and Self-Sabotage,
Chapter 5 Tips and Tools to Add More Self-Care to Your Life,
Chapter 6 Creating More Self-Care From the Inside Out,
Chapter 7 What Do I Do If ...,
Chapter 8 Conclusion,
Further Reading,
About the Author,
Thank You,

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