What’s the (emotional) cost of changing the world? For the people working on it, the bill can be quite steep indeed: activist burnout is an emotional and physical fatigue striking even the youngest and most committed advocates.

Glasgow, November 2021. Climate activist Greta Thunberg addresses thousands of people at Cop 26. The young Swede refers to the closing climate change conference as a « Global North greenwashing festival » and a vast « blah blah » ceremony. With a defeated look on her face and a trembling voice, she hides neither her annoyance nor her emotion. Is Greta about to snap? In the best of all possible worlds, an 18-year-old should be more concerned with her own personal future than by a planet on the brink of collapse. Like Greta, a number of militants are reaching the end of their rope as they put their heart and soul into one or more causes, only to find themselves taking the full brunt of the material, financial, and/or political limits of their activism, not to mention dealing with the inherent emotional costs (hello mental load) This should come to no surprise, given the etymology of the verb « to militate » which stems from the Latin militare (« to serve as a soldier, to fight). A term of warlike origin that supports the fact that militancy is a matter of combat, behind which lies a potential defeat that can lead to a breakdown : the activist burnout. Two equally popular terms which capture the issues and the misery of our time. Social inequalities, climate crisis, racism, male violence, animal abuse, homophobia, transphobia… Activism has never resonated so much in the age of social media. In a context where it’s played out on the ground, in demonstrations, speech circles, meetings, parties, but also online, activists carry a huge mental load. First of all, there is the personal investment required by commitment, then the violence of the injustices being exposed that one must be able to bear, to which are added the scrutiny and judgement of others. If activists fail to find any echo of their struggles in their political representatives, they can’t be blamed for considering downing a bottle of rum by themselves to be a more viable alternative. So, is it possible to be an activist without experiencing burnout? Yes the struggle is tough and never ending, but there is always a way to avoid losing too many feathers in this battle.




At the end of 2021 on the Gram, Couturfu’s memes were mixed with much less light-hearted subjects, such as the case of Margaux Pinot, a French judoka beaten up by her boyfriend and coach Alain Schmitt. Reposted countless times, the initial post showing the athlete’s face distorted by the blows was denouncing the latest act of male violence. A scroll down reveals the most recent yellow square posted by Raphaël Glucksmann, MEP and political activist, who in turn spoke out once again against Europe’s inaction on the issue of migrants. Then the @balancetonbar account was created (“rat on your bar”, translator’s note), sharing testimonies of people who were drugged without their knowledge and victims of violence in French establishments. Whistleblower accounts like this one are becoming more and more prevalent and have led to a real surge in activism and a greater understanding of the challenges, especially amongst the younger generation. The downside is that this constant flow of information is difficult to process, both for the users and for the spokespeople. So much so that even the most tenacious of them feel ready to throw the towel in…

Greta Thunberg marching.

Such was the case for Anaïs Bourdet, founder of the feminist collective Paye ta Schnek who popularised the concept of activist burnout after she experienced it in June 2019. Originally a simple blog, Paye ta Schnek grew into a feminist activist network sharing more than 15,000 stories of assault and street harassment endured by women. For seven years, Anaïs Bourdet was the head of this « community » and suffered two kinds of violence: the violence of the stories she reported and the violence she experienced on a daily basis, particularly as a victim of cyber-harassment. The day after a night out with friends went wrong and she was the target of all kinds of sexist attacks, Anaïs Bourdet declared that she would stop PTS because she had « accumulated a dose of violence which [was] unmanageable, humanly speaking ». Beyond feminist circles, her testimony was widely circulated in the activist sphere, giving rise to #PayeTonBurnoutMilitant, which featured stories of activists on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Once again, Anaïs Bourdet was paving the way for a chain of painful stories to emerge. Except this time, she anticipated and there was no platform for the testimonies of exhausted militants. Since then, the feeling of activist burnout has become so prevalent that studies looking at the phenomenon have flourished. Among the most recent and significant is that of US academic Paul Gorski. Published in 2018 and entitled Fighting racism, battling burnout: causes of activist burnout in US racial justice activists, it reveals that around 50% of US activists experience burnout at some point. In this study of a large panel of anti-racist activists involved with the Black Lives Matter movement, Gorski reveals the recipe for a good activist burnout. Namely, infinite needs, very limited resources, an unbearable mental load, institutions in total inertia… And there you have it!




« You get hit with a hammer of monumental force, » says Layla, a Palestinian activist, when we ask her to recount the moment she snapped. It happened in early 2009. The Israeli army had just bombed Gaza. Layla, president of the Paris branch of GUPS (the General Union of Palestine Students), organised with other activists one of the biggest pro-Palestine demonstrations ever seen in Paris. For three hours, the French capital was gridlocked. “At least 150,000 people gathered that day. From the Place de la République to the arrival of the procession at the Place de la Bastille, all you could see were Palestinian flags. » Layla and her supporters call for a boycott of Israel. The mobilization is so strong that they believe the French government will have no choice but to take action. Yet nothing happens. The media did not report the demonstration in Paris. The few news items that appeared on the subject mentioned « violence » on the part of the protesters. Following this huge disappointment, Layla went through a down period of several years where she distanced herself from her activism. Born to a Palestinian refugee father and a French-Syrian mother with a strong socialist background, Layla has activism in her blood. « My first demonstration? I was in a buggy.” She got involved at a very young age, passionately, even if it meant putting her studies and her personal life on hold. But, as psychologist Marie Pezé, a specialist in activist burnout, reminds us, « We must not overestimate our strengths, because institutional inertia is a powerful thing. Changing the world takes time and exposes us to selfishness and human greed.”

Free Palestine march, Paris.

In addition to this deep sense of powerlessness, not uncommon among activists, there is also the daily confrontation with violence through traumatic situations, stories and images. This is all the more unbearable when activists find themselves victims of the very injustices they are fighting against. This was the case of Lenora, 26 years old. While living in Chile, she was involved with Cuerpo Violeta, an organisation supporting women victims of violence. She herself was raped twice in a row. « One day I exploded. It took me a while to understand why. The stories I was dealing with were hitting too close to home. I just wasn’t in the right place. By trying to help these women, I was trying to save myself.” Lenora also talks about the guilt she feels in her consumer and lifestyle choices, constantly torn between her beliefs and the direction society is taking us in. Acting as the spokesperson for an ideal, the activist is subjected to the pressure of having to be consistent between what they say and what they do.

For the younger generation, this pressure is all the stronger because it’s now played out on social media. “Two violent spheres are combined, » says Vanessa Jérome, an ecologist and researcher at the CESSP/University of Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne. That of the media and politics. Moreover, the activist accounts are now in competition with each other, which leads to complicated ego clashes.” Lenora, who now works as a project manager for On est Prêts (We’re ready, translator’s note), a movement to promote environmental preservation through digital actions, confirms that she often finds herself in this competition of « who will be the most perfect activist, the purest », especially among radicals. « I have often felt very uncomfortable around people who claim to be the most deconstructed. You feel that the slightest mistake in phrasing will get you lynched. » The problem is when performativity becomes a posture and deconstruction an end in itself rather than a means to real change. This intransigence and the cult of militant purity would therefore contribute to further undermining the atmosphere and the morale of the troops…

Cuerpo Violeta March, Chili.

Despite this depressing state of affairs, there are fortunately some ways to lighten the mental load, as well as the stress and social pressure associated with activism. The first point, which seems pretty straightforward but is not always automatic, is to start by allowing yourself a real digital detox. This means cutting yourself off from social media for several days, taking a step back from the solicitations linked to advocacy and reducing your exposure to sensitive topics. No one will argue with this, but putting social networks on mute also means reducing the time spent comparing yourself to others. Thus, digital detox allows us to bypass the performativity spectrum. Beyond the short-term digital breaks, the idea of a real and sustained pause has ground as an essential element to activist survival: « It’s impossible to be 100% in the long term. You have to find some space to be carefree.” says Leila. For example, Lenora decided to move to Rennes for a while, where she vowed to stay away from militant circles. « By moving there, I chose to be more in line with my convictions and my life project, which is to be closer to nature and the sea. I also chose to stay away from militant circles here, to preserve myself. »

It is also important to remember that activism is not necessarily synonymous with battlefield militancy. There are many ways to be an activist without being in a perpetual struggle. Because she could no longer carry the mental burden of her political activism for Palestine, Layla turned to a softer, cultural activism. « When I started giving dabke classes (the traditional dance specific to several countries in the Levant, including Palestine, editor’s note) in cultural organisations, I saw that I could get my political message across, but in a different way.” Less aggressive, but no less effective, the dabke, which speaks for itself, carries the greatness of the Palestinian people. Putting joy and love back at the heart of one’s commitment as opposed to self-sacrifice seems essential. To avoid activist burnout, it is necessary to move away from the archetype of the militant permanently stuck in combat mode. The qualities needed to last in activism are much more akin to those of a marathon runner: knowing how to preserve one’s strength, accepting contrary emotions, and appreciating the journey before getting to the finish line, however long and winding it may be.