I am ready to admit: I am burnt out.
I’ve been working towards social justice, in one way or another, for at least twenty years. I’ve been a popular educator, a policy analyst, an organizer, an evaluator, and a facilitator for small and large non-profits and public agencies. The passion I once felt about the possibility of collective action, community organizing, and policy change to bring about a more equal world is fizzling. And it isn’t just me; I regularly hear a real yearning for change from activists and change agents of all kinds.
I believe the root of our exhaustion is the amount of time we spend blaming ourselves for our lack of progress, blaming each other, and blaming the power brokers. I believe in accountability and taking responsibility for healing our world, but I also believe our movements have over-dosed on blame.
In my coaching practice, I hear from leaders who are often publicly revered for their contributions to social justice yet confess an inner state of dissatisfaction with themselves. They almost seem to believe they just aren’t good enough, telling me they don’t work hard enough, think hard enough, fight hard enough, and on and on. Activists don’t just have inner critics, they have inner bullies. But our inner bullies don’t actually serve the movement. And like real bullies – they are really hard to escape.
Coaching has taught me some ways to move beyond blame, first by understanding the shame underneath. Shame is blame turned inward – the belief that we really aren’t worthy of love and belonging. I want to share three coaching practices that I believe have the potential to transform our inner bullies into inner allies.
#1: Practice Unconditional Love & Forgiveness
I believe the practice of unconditional love and forgiveness is essential to free ourselves from shame and blame, and that it’s a practice that begins with ourselves. In my social change work, I have clung tightly to the notion that every mistake was a learning opportunity. In my mind I tirelessly analyzed my mistakes, as if my commitment to learning could orchestrate a state of near perfection.
Once, when I was being coached, my coach asked me to try forgiving myself. I balked. My inner bully wanted none of this self-help, self-indulgent, new-age coach talk! But the comment struck a chord with me so I took a deep breath and gave it a try. Over time I found that being in a loving relationship with my mistakes wasn’t self-indulgence. I wasn’t “letting myself off the hook.” By forgiving myself – not analyzing – I was freeing myself to do more. Later that year when I started a new consulting project, I discovered that I had taken on a whole new attitude towards my work, and myself. I was able to listen more and longer, to create more space for others’ ideas, and to resist the urge to take on more than my actual responsibility for the work — which led to fewer mistakes!
Forgiveness and unconditional love are also the foundations of non-violent social movement building. The practice of unconditional love and forgiveness isn’t unique to coaching; it’s the premise that fueled some of the greatest changes this country has ever experienced. Martin Luther King, for example, inspired by Gandhi, was driven not only by rage, but also by the hope and inner calm that comes from practicing forgiveness and unconditional love.
Returning violence for violence multiples violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars…Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. (Martin Luther King, 1956).
This doesn’t mean that I see goodness exhibited in violent behavior or unfair policies. But I do believe those who perpetrate violence can transform, and that their transformation is most likely when I believe in their potential. Believing in my own worth feeds my ability to make room for my colleagues’ full contributions, which deepens my faith that even those who don’t share my values have a spot of grace.
#2: Reveal Racial & Economic Injustice
Let me be clear: Practicing unconditional love and forgiveness does not mean ignoring racial and economic injustice. I believe focusing on the power of love and forgiveness can empower us to bravely reveal what we know about racial and economic injustice in a way that creates connection. But dealing with the facts of racial and economic injustice can be tricky. Activists often fall into a data trap, lifting up statistic after statistic, assuming the “facts” are enough to instigate action. Others fear that lifting up data on racial inequality might shame our communities. Those on the right use data to blame people of color for their condition.
While honestly examining facts sounds easy enough, it is actually really hard. Neuroscience demonstrates that our brain does three things nearly simultaneously: it perceives facts, has an emotional reaction, and assigns a story to the facts, all in the blink of an eye. Not convinced? Try reading this fact from a recent Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) report: “In fourth grade 84 percent of Black public school students cannot read at grade level and 83 percent cannot do math at grade level.” As you were reading this you most likely had an emotional reaction as well as the inklings of a story of why this is happening, who’s at fault, or how it should be solved, right?
When it comes to looking at race and inequality, separating the facts from the emotions and the stories is especially challenging, no matter what side of an issue you’re on.
john powell, expert on race and collective consciousness, writes that many Americans (both white and of color) reach a conclusion that poor people (who are predominately people of color) are at fault for their condition and that “this assessment process is largely unconscious and fairly immune to the facts.” Rather, their assessment depends more on their stories and emotions.
Activists of color often get triggered around race. With information like that from CDF I’ve heard my colleagues say, “I can’t share this data. People will think I am racist for bringing it up.” Our feelings of rage and frustration at injustice fuel our inner bully, pumping him up to fight back. It is important to remember that the fighter in us has helped us make some important strides for ourselves and for the movement. But letting the fighter/bully run the show also limits our potential. Powell urges us to re-embrace a “higher order love” such as used by Dr. King, while simultaneously examining the facts that demonstrate unequal opportunities built into our systems and structures.
#3: Rewrite the Narrative
I have learned from coaching that it is possible to direct our consciousness. We can step back and say “Oh! Those are my feelings!” and “Oh! That’s the interpretation of meaning!”, and “Oh! Those are the facts!” I’ve learned that new possibilities emerge, not from outsmarting the problems, pointing the finger at my rage, or finding fault (like my inner bully wants), but from simply being willing to look at things as they are and being willing to ask, “What now?”
Once we come to “What now?” we have the opportunity to change the narrative. The “narrative” is the collectively embraced story about why inequality persists. john powell shares that our policy decisions are “powerfully influenced by the stories we embrace to allocate meaning, a power that can be more impactful than material conditions.” He encourages us to be deliberate in the stories we create so that we can foster a wider sense of belonging for all people. Once we realize that our stories are actually inventions we can choose to create new ones.
So, this year, thank your Inner Bully for all he’s done for you over the years. Then find a willing partner – a friend, a coach, or a mentor – to listen while you release your anger and frustration about injustice. Then show yourself some unconditional love by telling yourself: you are already enough! And, without blame, recognize injustice and shift the story to emphasize love and belonging for all. This year, let’s set out to re-write the narrative, give our inner bullies a break, and truly open ourselves and each other up to make real changes in the lives of our communities.