(This article originally appeared in the June 2018 edition of The New People newspaper.)
Depression. Anxiety. Despair. These are just some of the emotional distresses that I have observed in friends, comrades, and in myself, as we engage seriously in the work of social justice. Unfortunately, I have also observed a high occurrence of burnout among activists. It seems that many activists just do not have effective strategies for coping with the emotional rollercoaster that is part and parcel of confronting the myriad injustices in our world. And it isn’t just our justice work that is responsible for our emotional distresses. Poverty, war, racism, sexism, and other systemic injustices can be correlated with the mental illnesses suffered by millions of Americans.
So, what can we who fight the good fight do to take care of ourselves in the midst of all of these challenges? What practices can we engage in to keep ourselves emotionally fit for the long haul? In my work as a board-certified clinical chaplain, I am privileged to have been trained in several evidence-based therapeutic modalities, principles of which I use in my care of patients in the hospital setting. One of those modalities is called “Acceptance Commitment Therapy” or ACT. ACT’s overall goal is to increase “psychological flexibility” in response to the inevitable difficulties of life. Kershner and Farnsworth, ACT practitioners, define psychological flexibility “as the ability to adapt behavior to varying contexts and situations in the pursuit of one’s core values.” I have found that ACT’s core processes are effective in my chaplaincy work, but also for self-care as I engage in my volunteer work as a peace and justice activist.
There are six core processes of ACT which can be used for self-care. First, Acceptance is the willingness to accept our feelings in the face of suffering. Acceptance allows us to feel our feelings without judgment or defense. If you are extremely saddened by the racism in our society or anxious about all the work that needs to be done to end the senseless wars in our world, then accept your feelings as normative to the situation.
Another process of ACT is living in the Present Moment. For this, the practice of mindfulness is especially important. Mindfulness practice keeps us focused in the here and now and helps us to not ruminate on the unchangeable past or over-think an uncontrollable future. Defusion, a third process in ACT, is the method of responding differently to our negative thoughts about ourselves. When those negative thoughts enter your mind, you might say, “I am not my thoughts” or “I am having a negative thought, but I am not that thought.” Defusion is especially important in dealing with the often hurtful responses activists might get from reactionaries.
Related to Defusion, another ACT process is viewing one’s Self as Context. We, as “whole” humans, are not the content of what we do or what we have. As Henri Nouwen once said, “I am not what I do, what I have, or what others think of me. I am the beloved.”
Maybe what I appreciate most about ACT in relation to activism and self-care is its focus on living a Values-driven life. This is a fifth process of ACT where we remind ourselves what our core values are and recommit to living by them. This is a key piece to my own self-care. I refuse to see my emotional challenges as impediments to the valuable work I do for justice in the world. And finally, the sixth process of ACT is when we bring our values to life by moving into Committed Action. This means we can engage in activism based on an open, present moment understanding of who we are and in accordance with our values, in the midst of the anxiety, depression, or other strong emotions we may be experiencing.
To summarize, the ACT processes for self-care might be remembered simply as Accepting our thoughts and feelings, Choosing a valued direction, and Taking action.
Finally, I want to say that self-care strategies may not be enough if your emotional distress is severely interfering with your work, in your home, or relationships. I recommend seeing a mental health professional if your symptoms become acute or are too difficult to manage.
If you would like more information about ACT or to find an ACT counselor, go to http://www.contextualscience.org.
(c) Paul Dordal, 2018