Anyone involved in social justice work of one sort or another, whether providing direct services or advocating for better laws and policies, will find themselves spending an awful lot of their consciousness wallowing in the world’s muck. It can be exhausting. It also sometimes leads to the obvious question: why am I doing this?
Of course, we get involved in social justice work not because it’s fun, exactly, but because it seems meaningful. Living a happy and fulfilling life is ultimately as much about finding meaning as it is about pleasure, as thinkers from Aristotle to “positive psychologists” like Martin Seligman and increasingly, even neuroscientists have recognized.
Still, throwing yourself into a cause to the detriment of other parts of your life doesn’t turn out to be so fulfilling. Early in my career, for example, first as a lawyer and then as a journalist, I tended to throw myself headlong into a new project, abandoning other interests and neglecting my own mental and physical health – and often, the people around me. Whatever it took to succeed, I thought, I would do. Each time, though, after a few years, the “success” wasn’t what I had hoped – the injustice I was fighting was still there, and my personal success didn’t feel as good as I’d expected. I ultimately felt frustrated, exhausted and defeated. Plus I wasn’t very pleasant to be around. Eventually I would quit and move on to something else.
The psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar writes about the perfectionist tendency many of us have that leads us to believe something is only worth doing if we do it perfectly or 100%. This necessarily means neglecting other things in our lives, as well as ourselves. That tends to be self-defeating. In part, that’s because we keep moving the goal post further away as we approach it, so we never feel we’ve really succeeded. At the same time, the things we’ve neglected are often important, and in fact, nurture the other goals. “To ignore one’s feelings and needs,” writes Shahar, “is a prescription for unhappiness and, ultimately, failure.” Instead of perfectionism, he recommends “optimalism” – doing the best you can balancing all the things that are important to you, but accepting reality (including your limitations) as it is – not insisting it’s what you think it should be.
Social justice advocacy represents a twist on the perfectionist problem, because at first, it feels virtuous to focus 100% on the work. But that means not only neglecting other things (and people) in your life, but also immersing yourself in events or other people’s lives that may be traumatic, not just for clients but for service providers and advocates as well. It can also lead to “compassion fatigue,” making us ultimately less effective.
So advocates face a dilemma: how much can we focus our work on awful things while still living a good life? And can we enjoy our lives and our own good fortune, without feeling guilty about it?
Ultimately, we all have to engage in a constant balancing act, juggling passionate advocacy with soothing self-care — and a keen awareness of our immediate interactions with the world around us. It also requires keeping in mind that happiness is not a finite resource: you don’t owe it to your clients or to any larger cause to be miserable.
Here are some guidelines for doing that:
First, you don’t have to spend ALL your waking hours immersed in awful and depressing subjects. Continue to pursue other, more uplifting interests (for me, it’s coaching and writing), which offer different perspectives on the world and remind you it isn’t all horrible.
Second, take care of yourself, physically and emotionally. For me, that means regular exercise, yoga, and meditation.
Third, be patient and careful about how you define “success.” I know, for example, that my efforts aren’t going to eliminate human rights abuses, no matter how hard I try. My role will be merely one small piece of a larger effort made by many dedicated people, that’s frustrating for all of them, but still worth doing. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to be among them. I can do my best at the work, but my sense of personal fulfillment can’t hinge on its outcome.
And finally, it’s just as important to treat the people and the world in my immediate surroundings with as much care and patience as I treat any cause. Because no matter how hard we work, our impact on them will be much more direct.