Friday, 9 October, 2015
Elena Orde describes some key ways vegans can sustainably campaign for animals by avoiding activist burnout.
You may have heard of activist burnout, which occurs when the work of a social justice campaigner begins to negatively affect their health. Compassion fatigue describes a state of tension and preoccupation felt by those helping people or non-human animals in distress. Both conditions can be common in animal rights circles, and have similar symptoms, including feelings of emotional or physical exhaustion, frustration and/or hopelessness. Many of us who feel strongly about animal rights (AR) can recognise these sensations, whether we spend our time organising protests, writing impassioned letters or discussing AR issues with non-vegan friends. Sometimes it is simply an awareness of the issues that become enough of a burden to wear you down.
When I first began exploring veganism I felt a kind of duty to absorb as much information as I could. This meant discovering countless difficult truths, watching many disturbing documentaries and navigating through tricky conversations with friends and family. I didn’t know anyone else who shared my beliefs, and so I felt disconnected from the people around me as they didn’t realise how important these issues were to me. If you’re in a similar situation, don’t worry – there are steps you can take to do your best for animals and care for yourself at the same time.
Find a community
A symptom of compassion fatigue can be a sense of isolation – the feeling that you alone care. This can be particularly easy in the vegan community, as we are (for now) very much in the minority.
Focus on the fact that there are millions of people all around the world who feel exactly as you do. If you don’t know any vegans in your area, it’s always worth finding out if there is a local group, whether via a Facebook search, on Meetup or through our own Local and Group Contacts. If you cannot find anything, why not create your own group? You could be living in – or creating – a burgeoning vegan hotspot without realising it!
It can also be a great support to speak to other vegans online. There are forums, groups and pages for every subject you can think of: from sharing recipes, to asking for tips, to searching for vegans in your area. Speaking to like-minded people will help to remind you that you most certainly are not alone – you are an important part of a growing movement for global change.
Take a break
It is too easy to put yourself second, and this is something which should be avoided. Make some time to do things you love, purely for your own enjoyment. This will give you the much-needed chance to recharge. I recently re-read the Harry Potter series from beginning to end, not because I am a child masquerading as an adult, but because I recognise the vital importance of self-care. At least that’s what I told everyone who raised their eyebrows at me on the train.
I have also stopped following animal rights accounts on social media who tend to use graphic imagery. As someone who is already aware of the issues and striving to make a difference, I would much prefer my news feed to show me videos of healthy, happy animals (a new favourite features a confused squirrel trying to bury an acorn in a dog’s fur). Similarly, if you often find yourself locked into discussions with unsympathetic non-vegans, it is good to learn how to recognise when a conversation is only serving to upset you, and to shut it down.
Celebrate small achievements
Whether your homemade chocolate cake goes down well with friends, or your colleague gives you the opportunity to dispel some myths about vegan nutrition, these are all little wins which can add up to a big difference. Even though not everyone you speak to about veganism will immediately jump out of their seat and rush off to buy some nutritional yeast, you’re still playing a part in breaking down stereotypes and showing that vegans can be healthy and happy. You’re probably already having a positive effect on the choices of those around you – even if they don’t admit it.
In the face of such huge challenges, we need to remember to celebrate every marker of success, and luckily these are coming in thick and fast. Our movement progresses a little further every day, and if you’re on the lookout for evidence you won’t be disappointed.
Spend time with animals
After going vegan, many people find that they experience a feeling of much greater connection to other animals. It can be incredibly therapeutic to spend some time with an animal chum, especially in situations where you don’t feel like explaining yourself to another person. In the absence of a companion animal, I’ve been known to go on walks around the neighbourhood purely with the intention of befriending local cats.
Farm animal sanctuaries often have open days where you can pay a visit to well-cared for ex-farm animals who are able to live in comfort and security. As well as helping to support the sanctuary, this is a tangible way to recognise the positive effect you are having on the lives of other animals, and serves as a powerful and positive reminder why we choose veganism.
Sometimes an individual can feel like it is up to them to change the whole world. Faced with those odds, it’s no wonder that people take on too much, emotionally or physically. Remember, your empathy doesn’t make you weak – it is our movement’s strength. Focus on making whatever positive change you can, while keeping your own health a priority. This will enable you to keep campaigning – in whatever form that takes for you – in a healthy, sustainable way.
By Elena Orde