Sustainable Activism

Posted by Lissa Carter, LPCA  


As activists, we are being called to long-term, sustainable, embodied action. The way that we choose to engage will, to a large extent, determine how effective we are. Some points to consider:

Think about your nervous system.

Regardless of your political viewpoint, this is a stressful time. When stress is triggered in our bodies, the chemicals coursing through us compel us to fight or run. If we do not, if we continue to stay still, over time we learn a third response: freeze.

This “freeze” response is also characterized as learned helplessness. Our bodies shut down because we cannot fight or run. Over time, this leads to multiple adverse health consequences (look into the classic ACES study for more on this).

Our brains can trick us. Especially on social media, it is easy to get our mental and emotional energy invested in “actions” and arguments that give us the feeling that something has been accomplished. Actually, it hasn’t.

True change happens in the body.
We need to be able to physically respond to our stressors to feel agency.

The felt experience of agency tells us that our fight/flight system is working the way it should. We feel a stressor, we respond physically, and we feel a sense of agency and empowerment. When we put our feet to the ground in service to our beliefs, we protect ourselves from all of those adverse consequences of learned helplessness.

Get your body on your side.

1) Don’t let your mind trick you into believing that any action is effective action. Set aside a time each day to be politically active in effective ways: community organizing, outreach, and participation, letters and calls to congresspeople, and donations of time, money, and expertise to causes that you believe in. Sign up here for a good place to start.

2) When your time is up, stop for the day and engage in an equal amount of parasympathetic activity—a walk in the woods, meditation, yoga. Why?
· Because this is not a sprint. This is a marathon. We aren’t doing anybody any good by working ourselves into early heart attacks.
· Because my work is only as good as the quality of my information. And if my information is coming from facebook and huffington post instead of from the trees and people of my community, or the place of wisdom that I land in when I take the time to get centered, then it is highly imbalanced information.
· Because quality of life is what I am fighting FOR. Sacrificing my quality of life to fight for quality of life is inauthentic.

3) If political stressors come up at any point after you have already engaged in your time of action, physically move your body. Shake for five minutes, or do a quick sun salutation, or walk around the block. Move the feelings through you. You can address them with political action tomorrow. Keep your boundaries strong and focused.

Decide what you are willing to do to defend the part of yourself that will never die.

This is an important question, especially considering the myriad ways that self-care can be misinterpreted as self-indulgence.

We are all going to die. None of us get out of here alive. I would much rather die speaking up for things that will live on after I am gone—equality, respect, kindness—than to live a long life in silence. What are you willing to die for? Figure out what it is, and make it a non-negotiable part of your self-care to feed that extremely important aspect of yourself.

When when we talk of self-care, remember how much bigger you are than your body. Remember to nourish the part of yourself that goes deeper than your face, your age, and your story.

Remember that it is not just about the conversation, it is about HOW you have the conversation.

I have seen a lot of shaming surrounding this march. Body-shaming, Republican-shaming, Liberal-shaming….every kind of shame that can be served up. As a counselor, I have learned that shame shuts a person down. Literally.

If you look at brain scans of a person feeling intense shame, there isn’t any activation in the rational/logic/language area. If you shame a person, you have deactivated their ability to take in what you have to say.

We want people to hear what we have to say, right? So let’s not shut them down. Here is how I have learned, as a counselor, to gain enough trust that a person will hear what I have to say.

When you have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you, try this:

1) Listen. LISTEN. Take the words in actively.
2) Validate the words you hear. Repeat them if necessary.
3) Find a bright spot or point of agreement to emphasize. Even if overall you find you are disagreeing with the person, find one place where you can honestly and authentically praise or agree, and do it.
4) Gently express your own view in this way: a) what you see, b) how it affects you, c) what you would like to see changed, and d) how it would feel to you if it did change.

It looks like this:

Person A: I get why some people marched, but I think it was frivolous. All those women in pink hats. What does that change? Nothing.

Person B: Hey, thanks for being so honest about your thoughts. It sounds like you are really hoping for effective change and you are worried that the march won’t create it. I have the same fears.

Person A: Yeah, the whole thing was just really self-congratulatory and stupid.

Person B: I can see how you could feel that way. I’m curious about what you would like to see in terms of effective action. For me, when I hear you say that the march was frivolous, I feel a slight recoil, as though the unity and power that I felt there is being discounted. It also makes me think that you view me as frivolous and stupid, even though I’m sure that’s not what you meant. I would like to tell you about my experience of the march. I think if you would be willing to listen to me tell you what I saw, I would feel a lot more open to hearing your perspective.

Does that sound like a lot of work?


Is it worth it?


Why? Because this is a divide-and-conquer game. Already we are being characterized as the “enemy”, and we cannot play into that. Infighting will destroy us.

We cannot afford NOT to listen to each other.

A final caveat on this type of conversation: if you are a person who is privileged in a way that the person you are talking to is not—i.e. if you are a man talking to a woman, or a white woman talking to a black woman, or an English-speaking American talking to a Spanish-speaking American, or an able-bodied person talking to someone with a disability, the first step gets WAY WAY WAY MORE IMPORTANT. The onus is on us to listen, listen, listen.
However frustrated or uncomfortable we get, however triggered or angry or sad we get, we are being given the incredible opportunity of seeing the world in a way that we could otherwise never know.

Build bridges, not walls.

Many of us came to activism, or herbal medicine, or counseling, because there was some trauma in our lives that we wanted to overcome. We are very, very good at climbing up on our stumps and proclaiming our stories. As a group, we tend to be less skilled at listening to the ways that our lives have impacted others. And this is extraordinarily important, because in order to build bridges, there is a certain amount of “sucking it up” that is going to need to happen. There is a certain amount of simply listening to others’ stories and giving space for their anger WITHOUT REACTING IN ANGER OURSELVES that will be required.


Again, it is so key to remember what we are fighting FOR. If we are fighting for a voice, for equality, for the human rights of all, then we cannot get there by silencing others’ voices or denying their right to share their perspective.


In action, what this means is that we are going to need to valiantly keep our eyes on the prize and ride out the pain of critique, the awful feeling of being judged and found wanting, the terrible feeling of not being heard, and CONTINUE TO BUILD BRIDGES ANYWAY.  Build those bridges, and then go take a sweaty run or cry with your friends and get the feelings out in a safe and supportive way. NOT with the person you are building bridges with. Take care of others, and then take care of yourself. Repeat.

We are incredible people. We can do this.