May 14th, 2014 by Hillary Rettig
Meet the Antidote to Activist Guilt
“I should have gone to that demo.”
“I should have volunteered for that committee.”
“I should have advocated better.”
“I should have donated more money.”
If you’re an animal activist, you’ve probably experienced the above or similar thoughts at different times. The amount of animal suffering in the world is immense, and it seems like we can never do enough.
And yet, guilt and shame won’t help you be a more productive activist–in fact, they are far more likely to rob you of confidence and motivation. Activists who continually berate themselves for not having done “more and better” need to consider whether that behavior is actually productive. The truth is that we all have limits on our time, money, energy, and other resources; also, that we all need to devote a big chunk of them to our own needs.
Another truth is that life is pretty hard even without activism. Humans struggle against scarcity and for love, respect, and understanding, and sometimes emotional or physical survival. Whether your viewpoint mirrors that of the Psalmist who called life a “vale of tears,” or Philo of Alexandria, who supposedly claimed that, “everyone you meet is fighting a great battle,” or the late writer Harvey Pekar, who wisely noted that, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff,” there is no doubt that one thing that unites the entire human race is what the Buddhists refer to as dukkha: our pervasive and ongoing stress, disappointment, and suffering.
So, why are you judging yourself so harshly? Why do you beat yourself up for every little mistake or transgression, every lost opportunity, every lapse?
Perfectionism = Trying to Have it Both Ways
You can’t have it both ways: meaning, you can’t fight two giant battles—one, for your survival and happiness, and another against the hugely powerful and pervasive infrastructure of animal agriculture—and expect to do everything easily and perfectly. That’s a form of grandiosity, the belief that things that are difficult or even impossible for other people should be easy for you. Grandiosity is merely one component of perfectionism, which is many people’s biggest barrier to productivity, happiness, and success.
Others include unreasonable standards of success, harsh self-talk, dichotomized (black-or-white, all-or-nothing) thinking, invidious comparisons, and shortsightedness (so that every task or project is “do or die”). (Here’s a more complete description. ) A perfectionist activist who didn’t get the attendance she’d hoped for at a demo might think, for example:
Well, that stunk! I was hoping for twenty people and I only got two. Why didn’t I promote it more? I should have made twenty more calls, and should have offered to pick up some people. Who cares if I had to work overtime at my day job, and was sick, besides? The animals are depending on me! Plus, there were typos in our flier, and I really screwed up when answering people’s questions. I should have prepared better, and shouldn’t have been so lazy. Why can’t I be like Josh? He always does great demos. I guess I’m such a terrible activist, and I always let the animals down.
The quotes at the very top of this article are not necessarily examples of perfectionism; however, if thoughts like these are frequent, and especially if they’re accompanied by strong feelings of guilt or shame, then they clearly are.
Some fields seem to foster perfectionism, and unfortunately animal activism is one. As noted above, no matter what we do, or how much we sacrifice, it can seem like an incredibly trivial effort when set against the vastness of animal suffering. We always feel like we should be doing more and better activism. But perfectionism is always a dead end. You might guilt or shame yourself into higher productivity for a while, but eventually you will likely become demotivated and demoralized, at which point you’re likely to give up on activism entirely.
The alternative to perfectionism doesn’t have to be burnout, however. Fortunately, as I discuss in my book The Lifelong Activist, there’s a middle ground that preserves accountability while dispensing with self-abuse. It’s called compassionate objectivity.
Compassionate Objectivity: The Antidote
As the name implies, compassionate objectivity is a mindset combining:
• Compassion, meaning you view yourself and your work with abundant empathy and understanding, with
• Objectivity, meaning you see things accurately, with all their nuance and complexity. In place of perfectionism’s reductive, rigid, and punishing worldview, compassionate objectivity offers nuance, flexibility, empathy, and true love and respect.
Compassionately objective animal activists are non-grandiose, so they don’t expect to perform perfectly all the time (or ever!), and know that all they can aim for is to do their best given the situation and available resources. They also define success realistically, and refrain from harsh self-talk, dichotomized thinking, and useless, self-punishing comparisons. They also take the long view, so that all tasks and projects are simply “way stations” in a campaign or career, with no one being do-or-die.
The above activist, schooled in compassionately objective person, might respond to her poorly attended demo like this:
Well, that stunk! I was hoping for twenty people and I only got two. Oh well, I guess the rain kept some people away, and I really don’t have any control over that. And maybe my expectations were unreasonable to start with.
And, of course, I couldn’t promote as much as I wanted, both with my having been sick and also having to put in extra hours at work. But we did talk to several dozen passers-by, some of whom really seemed to get the message.
Now, what did I learn? Well, I definitely need to prepare better. Next time I’ll start a week early instead of the night before. And I’ll aim to get five to ten really confirmed attendees instead of a whole bunch of “maybes.” Maybe I’ll talk to Josh—he always gets dozens of people at his demos. Maybe he’ll have some suggestions or even help me recruit.
Oh well, it wasn’t what I had hoped for, but we did influence some people, and it was a good learning experience. I’ll spend tomorrow relaxing and celebrating the activism I did, even if it didn’t yield all the result I wanted.
As this example illustrates, compassionate objectivity is not about giving yourself a pass: compassionately objective people take full responsibility. They are more objective than perfectionists because they acknowledge the negative and positive aspects of the event. And by foregoing unproductive shame and blame, they’re in a better position to problem-solve and learn, and also to approach their next project enthusiastically.
So work to develop the habit of compassionate objectivity. You do this by interrupting any perfectionist thoughts you have and replacing them with compassionate objectivity. The first few times you do this, it might feel weird and artificial, but keep at it. Eventually it will become automatic–and you’ll see that it’s also self-reinforcing, since compassionate objectivity doesn’t just lead to better outcomes than harsh perfectionism: it feels way better.
Compassionate objectivity will also come much more easily if you hang around people who live and practice it. There are plenty of compassionately objective activists out there: look for them. (Successful activists are almost always compassionately objective, even if they themselves are not familiar with the term. Successful people in general tend to be very good at embracing productive behaviors and rejecting unproductive ones.)
Finally, you get better at compassionate objectivity by teaching it to others, both in and out of the animal activism world.
I truly love and admire all activists who work for compassion and justice and equality, and animal activists most of all. I live and work for the day that all animal activists are as happy and productive and prosperous as possible, and believe that compassionate objectivity is an important tool that will get us there. And an army of empowered, compassionately objective activists will accelerate the coming of an even more important day: the one when all cages are finally empty.
Hillary Rettig is the author of The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way and The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, the latter a bestseller in Amazon’s productivity category. Hillary teaches online classes, and offers discounted productivity and time management coaching to activists. For more information about Hillary and her work, along with many free articles, visit www.hillaryrettig.com . Hillary always welcomes your emails at firstname.lastname@example.org.