Walking Against the Wind: Activists, Leadership, and Resilience

How do I stay awake to our troubled world, without emotionally shutting down?

How do I take action from a grounded place, when the wind threatens to knock me off my feet?

And how can be both open and resilient, so I can show up fierce?

These questions have been on my mind for a while. Then, last week I happened to be on a video conference with a bunch of therapists and coaches. One therapist told us about a client struggling with anxiety and depression.

She said that her previous therapist had suggested she wear a rubber band around her wrist, and anytime she noticed a difficult emotion come up, she should snap it, so the pain would distract her from her feelings.

I was horrified. But I’m not here to debate the merits of that technique.

Because it struck me that, wow, it really makes sense that this is what we are telling people to do with their emotions.  Because this is how we as a society deal with things that are difficult to bear. Anything to distract us from the pain. 

Even if the distraction is just another way to shut down. Even if it's just another means of hurting ourselves. But this approach to ourselves and the world won't work if we hope to make the world a better place. 

Because social change takes leaders with open, courageous & resilient hearts. And we struggle uniquely with this in two ways:

1. One is the public struggle.

We are constantly asking people to pay attention to realities that are hard to face. We are essentially saying, “don’t pay attention to the Kardashians, pay attention to Syria. And homelessness. And racism. And, and, and....”

And in that, we are fighting compassion fatigue, crisis fatigue, and fatigue fatigue.

We are fighting all the options we have to keep ourselves busy, distracted, and small.

We are fighting the deeply ingrained belief that the smartest, best thing to do when faced with big social challenges is to snap the rubber band, and look away.

And sometimes it can feel like we are walking against the wind.

We see spikes of activity around crisis events. But if you’ve been at this long enough, you know that after the smoke clears, most folks (but not all) go back to their “usual lives.” Especially those who are protected by their privilege.

Because a lot of people find it hard to be functional, go to work, take care of the kids, and still be awake and engaged in the long haul of social change work.

Maybe this last election changed that dynamic. Time will tell.

2. And then there is the private struggle.

Because if you have chosen to make it your mission to get up everyday to build a better world, then distraction and disconnection from reality is not an option.

You have to find a way to function through the very things that cause most other Americans to tune out.

So folks who are working for change often find themselves holding in a lot of grief, frustration, anger, hurt, and sadness that is refreshed daily by the very nature of their jobs. And getting their jobs done means knuckling down and stealing their will against those emotions.

So you can’t spend an afternoon binge-watching old episodes of Mary-Tyler Moore because you are sad about the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. You have to spend the day with your team figuring out how to protect your constituents.

You can’t unleash your fury through ALL CAPS facebook posts and emails to your friends, family or colleagues, no matter how “clueless” they might seem about the stakes you face. Because you are the leader, you are representing an organization, and you still have to work with these people.

You can’t just break down and cry in front of a member of Congress. You are expected to be a professional in your presentations to the board. You are expected to have an ear available for staff who are experiencing their own turmoil.

You’ve got to pull it together. You’ve got to focus.

So social change leaders are under a unique pressure to clamp down on their feelings, and disengage from their heart.

To -- SNAP -- stop feeling all the feelings, focus on the task at hand, and get the job done.

And in many ways, that works. A lot of people became leaders based on this ability to muscle through and get results for their constituents.

But there is a cost. By deep-sixing your emotions, you risk cutting yourself off from your values and passion for the work. I’ve heard the idea that you can’t selectively numb emotions. That if you dull one, you dull them all.

And that resonates a lot with my experience.

When I started running from my grief over the scale of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, I started to develop a cynical attitude about everything. I sometimes even irritated myself with my hipster snarkiness.

Because that snarkiness was armor that kept me from taking what we were doing too seriously. Because taking war and peace seriously hurt like hell, and I couldn’t bear it.

So I found myself becoming distant in my work. Work I’d once been passionate about. It took me a long time to realize that some of what I was experiencing was emotional burnout.

Because it’s not like those emotions just disappear.

When we don’t give them the kind of attention they need to move through us, they get stuck in our bodies, building up and calcifying. It starts to take more and more effort to hold it all in. It gets exhausting. And eventually it starts to leak out, sometimes in fits and starts, and sometimes with a bang.

And to the degree we cut ourselves off from our emotions, we also cut ourselves off from other people. Messy, emotion-having people. Including the very people we need to connect with and mobilize in order to do our jobs, and make a difference.

But most importantly, we get cut off from ourselves. And that is just one more way that injustice works.

So many communities are on the defensive right now. Our work often demands quick response times that don’t allow much chance for reflection.

And that means that we as marginalized folks, and the people fighting alongside us, are swallowing our collective experience, pushing it down so we can focus on the fight for our rights and our lives. The fullness of our collective truth is being pushed aside, as we tend to more urgent matters.

And that is a grave injustice.

And so we have to value our experience. To take the time to know it. To see how we are wounded, in order to heal, but also to bring it into the light, say its name, and honor it.

If we wake up to our inner experience, and treat ourselves with dignity, love, and respect -- then we get stronger.

And that is essential for people walking into the wind, with hope in our hearts, and our eyes set on change.

I’ll walk you through 3 practices that have been helpful for me.

I list them sequentially, because each one builds towards the next one. Each one also takes practice, and patience, to develop. They are all easier to describe than they are to do. But in my experience, these are some of the most surefire steps a person can take to becoming emotionally strong. Fierce, even.

They are also all built on a foundation of self-care. I’ll be writing about that more in a future post. Because self-care is essential to having the capacity to gather the energy, intention, commitment, and resources to really be here in this often hard place we are all in. It’s about creating some space in our minds, hearts, bodies and lives for the tough stuff.

So I invite you to begin your practice exactly where you are. I’d also love to read your questions and challenges in the comments below, so I can try and help.

1. Name your emotions

Given the fast pace of life and work for a lot of folks, it can be a big step to just notice that we are having an emotion. And while some people feel things pretty quickly, others need more time to pause…..sense inside….and feel what’s going on.

So take a moment to check in with what you are feeling. And name it, to the best of your ability.

And it might not be an emotion. It might be multiple emotions, or it might just be a subtle sensation. Like a feeling in your belly of being vaguely unsettled, or a swirl of emotions in your chest, or a lump in your throat, or just a feeling of “blerg” in your gut. That counts too, as a place to start.

Then name it by saying, “something in me feels ____.” As in, “something in me feels frustrated,” or “something in me feels blergy.” (Read more about where this language comes from here.)

2. Befriend your emotions

The “snap a rubber band” school of thought is based on the idea that emotions must be managed, controlled, or ignored. Because the alternative, it seems, is to let our emotions get out of control. To wallow or get lost in them.

But there is another way, perhaps best understood by what it is not:

  • It is not being the emotion. It’s not swimming in or getting lost in your frustration, or believing that this emotion contains the whole truth of the situation. It is not, “I am angry, this is messed up, and the world can go to hell.”

  • It is not fighting the emotion, arguing against it, trying to convince ourselves that it is somehow not valid. It is not, “I shouldn’t be so angry. I should try and understand where they are coming from. I need to just get over this.”

  • It is also not avoiding the emotion, distracting ourselves from feeling it. It’s not, “WHAT? ME, ANGRY?! NOOOOOPE I’M NOT ANGRY!!!”

It is befriending the emotion. It’s sitting beside it and getting to know it, as one would an unhappy child. You wouldn’t try to lecture, ignore, or criticize a sad child that you had just met. You would sit at a friendly but respectful distance, giving her your caring attention, and allowing her to open up to you when she is ready.

  • It’s being the adult in this inner relationship. The kind, attentive, non-judgmental, and patient adult you maybe wished you had (more of) when you were a child.

  • It’s getting just enough distance from what you are feeling so you can turn to it and really see it. But not so much distance that you can no longer make it out.

  • It’s allowing it to tell you what it needs to say to you, and then move through you, in it’s own time.

  • And it’s getting support from a therapist, coach, or trusted friend when you feel stuck. Which, by the way, is bound to happen to anyone.

3. Acting from a bigger, deeper place

When I stay with this practice, what I often find is that I land in something that feels like a deeper truth about what is going on. I don’t dismiss what I was feeling, but I start to see that it is only one part of what is true.

I also find a deeper connection to my values, which can easily be obscured by the color and volume of emotions, whether they are repressed or not.

And so a sense of what to do tends to organically arise from this place. A single step to take in a direction that feels clear, grounded, wise, and good.

The action could be having as simple as having a conversation. It could be as sweeping as deciding to pivot in a campaign. Or it could be as private as committing to make more space for joy, self-care or recovery. It could be any number of things. Whatever it is, you will feel more grounded and confident. And you will be fierce. 

What these three practices have meant for me

I spent many weeks reeling after the election. And it took some time for me to realize that I lost my footing because somewhere, lodged deep within my radical lefty brain, was an idea from my childhood that I was still holding on to.

America is good, right?

The election woke me up to the fact that America is, ultimately, just a story, and whether America is good or bad is in the telling of that story.

And seeing that freed me up to connect to a deeper truth:

Goodness has no boundary. It does not have the borders of a nation.

And I am stronger for seeing it.

I have goodness in me, so do you, and so does humanity. We don’t always act from that goodness, but it is there.

And seeing that has given me a place from which to ground my action thatis deeply authentic to me. 

(Your roots may reach for different soil.)

What can I be doing to bring goodness into the world? How can I speak from goodness? How can I see the goodness that is around me? And this commitment has been a touchstone for me, in the midst of my engagement in really complex, difficult conversations about the world we are in right now. 

It took me awhile to find my footing again.

I spent a long time running from the reeling feeling. I snapped the rubber band. But once I befriended it, I realized that beneath the reeling was sadness and loss. At first it felt like a loss of innocence and goodness, until I realized that all I’d lost was an illusion.

So I ask you, if you made a practice of befriending your hardest feelings about the world, what deeply grounding commitments would arise for you? It's a mystery, until you look. 

Now to you

I truly believe that with patience and practice, anyone can build the kind of emotional muscle needed to withstand setbacks, and take on systems of injustice. I’d love to hear how this lands with you, and any questions you have.