There comes a point in every activist journey when one feels hopeless and wants to give up. Seeing people coming together to fight a societal problem can be inspiring, but it can also lead to feelings of despair. If everyone is fighting this hard and yet things remain the same, it begs the question: what more can possibly be done? And is it even worth it to keep fighting?
These are some lessons that I’ve learned recently that have helped me deal with these feelings of inner turmoil, discouragement and despondence. I hope they prove useful to you and offer some comfort in a time where optimism and certainty are not easily found.
- All feelings are valid
There is no wrong way to respond to a problem, as long as you're not denying or opposing the situation. Allow yourself to feel what you need to feel. Take time to heal if you need to. Talk it out with friends and family. Seek comfort in any way you see fit and if all else fails, have a good cry about it.
You should by no means police your feelings, but also be careful not to get caught up in the cycle of having small bursts of emotion, energy and activity when first confronted with an issue, then gradually moving away from it. Just because you can distance yourself from the pain, it doesn’t mean the problem will fix itself. There will still be people who have to deal with it once the initial outpouring of support dies down. Let yourself be moved for a set period of time, then put on your metaphorical ‘war paint’ and get to work in assisting however you can.
- Keep track of the emotions you're feeling
Initially, you might experience an overwhelming mess of various emotions. It’s important to sift through and untangle them. Evaluate why you feel a certain way, then put changes in place accordingly.
For example, are you experiencing feelings of guilt? Where is that coming from? If it stems from a past problematic mindset or from not correcting the problematic behaviour of others, don’t dwell on it. Accept that it happened and learn what you can do to be better in the future. There’s no shame in making mistakes, as long as you’re willing to improve. With the innumerable online resources available to us, there really is no excuse to not keep educating yourself.
- Don't bear the weight of it all on your own shoulders
There’s a lot of emphasis being placed on what we as individuals can do to end social injustice. While it is true that change starts with us, this mentality can lead to putting an insurmountable amount of pressure on yourself. Thoughts like: “What more can I do?” or “I’m not doing enough” can send you into an unhealthy spiral, paralyzing you or creating feelings of inadequacy.
It’s important to realise that you have limits as an individual - and that’s okay. Be realisticand honest with yourself about how much time and effort you’re able to contribute to a cause to avoid being disappointed in yourself and feeling discouraged. You don’t have to be a frontrunner or the face of a movement to make an impact and play a significant role.
Remember that real power is people uniting. It's not about what you can achieve alone; it's about what we can achieve together.
- You're not a bad person for taking a break or making time to prioritize yourself
There’s a lot going on all the time and with so much information constantly available at our fingertips, it can be both overwhelming and desensitising. It’s okay if you need to remove yourself from social media or tune out of the news every once in a while. There’s no shame in putting activism on the backburner if there are personal and more pressing matters that you need to attend to first, such as your mental health, family, work, academics, etc. Take the time to recharge, so you can come back stronger and re-energised. However, keep in mind that being able to take a break is an act of privilege not available to all. Be sure to hold yourself accountable and set a time to jump back in when you’re ready and able to.
- It's never too late to join the fight
Contrary to what social media might have you believe, nobody came out of the womb as a “woke” social justice warrior. As mentioned earlier, even the most prominent activists had to start somewhere and have since been constantly learning and unlearning. If you haven’t engaged in activism before or you haven’t been vocal about it, know that it's never too late to start. Don’t let other people’s expectations and perceptions hold you back. You know what your intentions are and that’s what matters.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you’re an “activism veteran”, try not to judge others if they have a later start than you did. I know it can be frustrating to see people finally getting on board with something you’ve been passionate about for a long time, but remember that the ultimate goal of activism is to get more people informed and involved. If this is happening, that means the movement has been successful! It’s important that activism communities are welcoming and supportive to encourage more people to join them, and this starts with patience and understanding.
- Don't forget how far we've come
The systems of oppression that plague society have been constructed and consolidated over hundreds of years, so it’s going to take a while to dismantle them. It can be disheartening to see how little is changing, especially when it’s at the expense of oppressed and vulnerable people. We have to remember that slow progress is still progress and that we all have the potential to facilitate that progress. When looking at things on a day-to-day basis, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and the ways things are coming together. More people than ever are raising awareness about important issues; have access to resources and information; are challenging the very foundations of our society; and are demanding inclusivity and visibility in important spaces. It’s easy to take this progress for granted, because this is nearing the ideal we expect, but we need to appreciate the fact that as little as two years ago, activism and allyship weren’t as prominent in mainstream culture as they are today.
Where there is a need for change and people who are willing to recognise and do something about it, there is room for optimism and hope. Daring to believe in yourself, others and the future is an act of defiance in an unjust world that is legitimised by us staying silent and complacent.
There isn’t always an easy fix to remove feelings of hopelessness, demotivation and despair. However, we can and must learn how to handle them and move forward in spite of them. Social injustice is pervasive and everlasting and, accordingly, our activism needs to be consistent in order to combat it effectively.