“Will this work ever end?”
“Will we get to see the results of the effort that we’re putting in creating a positive impact?”
“Am I contributing enough to social/environmental transition?”
“Am I doing all that I can to fight climate change/ inequality/ social justice…?”
These are just a few examples of questions, reflections and wonderings which have been shared with me lately, by social leaders I’ve been interviewing regarding changemakers’ burnout.
This phenomenon, which I am currently researching for my next big project, is actually broader than I’ve ever expected and the causes for the burnout varied from one changemaker to another. In the current article, I want to focus on one of the key factors which I’ve recognized as causing a huge amount of stress and burnout amongst social leaders: The feeling that I am/we are not doing enough, on time, to change the unsustainable course which society is currently walking through.
The “I’m not ___ enough” (fill in the blank) is a known trap for us humans, regardless of being active in the field of social change. In the judgmental and competitive cultural environment which most of us have been raised in, we often feel that we don’t meet the demands, the expectations, or simply don’t reach the bar for being “successful” like many others. Therefore, the feeling of “I’m not good/successful/pretty/rich enough” is permeating everyday life.
For changemakers, it appears that the combination of “I’m not contributing enough” is highly common, due to the nature of the challenges we’re trying to tackle. Those challenges are systemic, connected to all sectors and fields of practice, involving plenty of players and institutions, and mainly require long and thorough processes to tackle them. Years’ time long, for the vast majority.
The nature of this long term and broad social transformation, could easily raise the frustration level amongst those who are working continuously towards achieving it. Work seems endless; efforts feel worthless; one’s contribution appears too small to matter anyway. And those frustrations are at the essence of the “I’m not enough” feeling: the false perception that our effort doesn’t count, hence we’re not doing enough to change the world.
It is fairly easy to be drowning in the huge amount of ideas, options, directions and actual work could be taken to manifest social or environmental change. Many changemakers are actually confused about which area of practice they should embrace in order to meet the sustainability challenge. But that confusion is often derived from lacking the awareness of how many other committed actors are out there, working with us for a similar cause, and also from assuming that our role is to solve the entire problem – without realizing that no one could ever carry this burden solely.
Hanging on to the thought that we are not doing enough to solve global issues, just because there’s still so much left to do or since we can’t notice change is coming, is like convincing ourselves that we are the only one responsible for a kid’s education and values system. Deep inside we know better: no matter how big our contribution is, there are always other influences and contributions to life’s biggest processes, like values development. Or sustainable development.
What do we do then, to combat the “I’m not contributing enough” feeling?
#1 The adding-up-impact perspective
Recognize your colleagues and fellows who work and act along-side you. Learn how do they invest their time and skills in bringing about social change, and how do they complement your own attempts. The more you will value others’ contribution to the joint effort for sustainable development, the less stressed you will be with regards to your personal contribution. Remember it’s not a competition of who works faster and better; it’s a team play, in one of the biggest matches humanity has ever participated in.
#2 The time perspective
Keep in mind that it’s a long-term, wide-scale change we’re hoping to create. In fact, it’s more than one change – these are many incremental changes which reshape reality over time. Try focus on those small steps and learn to appreciate them, as they are real and happening now. Those who expect to observe immediate results will always stay a little disappointed in the good case, and burnt-out in the worst one.
#3 The self-care perspective
Find someone you trust – whether it’s a friend, a family member, your mentor or your business partner – and assign this person to guard you from drowning in the feeling of “I’m not __ enough”. It will be even more powerful, if you could have a mutual agreement that the two of you are guarding each other. Schedule often-enough conversations to allow continuous encouragement for that you are doing more than enough – you’re doing great. Be courageous to ask for this person’s support and help, whenever you have the need for it. It’s not egoistic to ask for encouragement – it’s taking care of yourself.
In one of the Nordic mythology tales, the god Thor travels to the castle of the giant Loki, where he was forced to participate in some competitions and demonstrate his strength. In a drinking contest, he had to gulp from a horn and finish every drop. Thor drank mightily, but when he paused for a breath, the level of liquor in the horn had barely lowered. After two more tries Thor could not drink anymore, and he gave up. When Thor left the castle, giant Loki confessed to him that the far end of the horn from which he drank was connected to the sea, and Loki’s people were actually greatly afraid that he was going to drink it all. “When you cross over the sea again”, they told Thor, “You will see how much you have lowered its level”.
In reality, we’re never fully aware of the true impact of our actions. When leading social change, it could sometimes feel like it’s too small, too slow, too late. But in fact, we could tell the difference only from a time and distance perspective. That’s why we’re going to need this reminder: even if it’s not immediately shown, our contribution exists and adds up. Over and over again.