Activism and... Guilt

IssueOctober 2009

Guilt is the feeling that “I can’t do enough”. That as much as you try to go to all the meetings you can, do all the bits and pieces you can, you never feel you’re doing enough.

I also think sometimes when you find yourself getting to burnout, then a big part of not being able to recognise what’s happening is the feeling that “I can’t stop because if I stop, it won’t get done”.

That is, we think we’re very, very important, and of course what we do is important, but there has to be some recognition, there needs to be some balance – and making our lives sustainable, I guess. The converse is recognising that if we don’t do things, they will get done anyway. Sometimes one has to take that view or you get into a situation where you get increasingly burnt out, and you’re no good to anyone.

What makes me feel most guilty is being around people who are doing a lot of activism, people who are really, really immersed in activism. Then you feel you can’t match up to what you think are their expectations of you, but actually it’s probably your expectations of yourself. One way to deal with guilt is to take yourself out of the situation where you’re around those people who’re doing so much. Another is being around activists who are supportive, and who recognise our limits and don’t make us feel bad.

Thinking about it, my personal experience is that I have felt more supported by people of my own age, and less supported by activists who are older and who’ve been doing it for a long time and feel comfortable about that high level of activity. We need to live more sustainable lives!
Woman activist, 30s

I have sometimes in the past felt a kind of discomfort when people have given melodramatic speeches, the sort that say: “We all need to do…; Unless you do X.…” Nowadays I am more sure of myself and I am more likely to feel irritated or angry about guilt-tripping speeches.

Someone saying things like that has a limited perspective on the range of different things that contribute. I still feel uncomfortable walking past a Big Issue seller and not buying one. I almost feel I have to explain to the seller why I’m not buying one. That I have no time to read it, and that it is a waste of trees.

I don’t think guilt is an issue for me now. Maybe it’s to do with being a mum. I have enough responsibilities, so it feels indulgent to feel guilty. I’m more likely to feel regrets I have not been to something, like a big anti-war action or demo, or a key climate change event. I know on one level, realistically, that I can’t go because of my life now, so I feel regret rather than guilt. Sometimes I do a bit of soul-searching after the event. I think if I prioritise well I could do things, I could fit everything in. I don’t wallow in it.
Woman activist, 40s

I feel guilty when I’ve been indulging myself in frivolous activities for hours on end, like watching re-runs of “Flight of the Conchords” [a TV comedy], and then I read something about Afghanistan or Iraq, and I think how indulgent I’ve been when I could have been campaigning. Sometimes I do do some campaigning then. Sometimes I just think: “Well, at least I do something occasionally!” and I press the “play” button again.

Sometimes I feel remorse if something is going through parliament that is going to have an impact in the world, and I don’t do anything about it. Guilt can spur you into action. Sometimes it’s just another thing which stresses you out in life.

Sometimes you can end up pushing something out of your mind so that you won’t feel guilty about it, which is bad because then you don’t do anything. I do feel a lot of guilt living with a very hard-working activist who is up at dawn every day working relentlessly. (But I can’t recall actually being guilt-tripped into anything.)

Guilt hasn’t really been something I’ve suffered from in my life. I feel guilty when I’m wasting time and I know I’m wasting time. But mainly I feel activism is a collective responsibility which should be shared so I don’t feel overly personally responsible.

I was so responsible when I was at secondary school. I never missed a single day’s attendance, I was never tardy, and I worried about it. Then, at 16, I made a conscious decision and I threw away my watch.
Woman activist, 20s

Topics: Activism
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