Ethical Living Burnout isn’t a term you’ve probably heard before, and it’s not something you’re likely to be diagnosed with by your GP/naturopath/chinese herbalist. However, if you've adopted an ethical lifestyle I’m taking bets that it’s a term that is going to resonate with you.
To be clear: for the purposes of this article ‘ethical living’ refers to any lifestyle that is centred around minimising exploitation of animals, people and the planet in an attempt to foster a more sustainable and harm-free way of life.
There are a variety of different paths people take towards living ethically. For some it’s about empathy for other animals, for others it’s about passing on a cleaner world to their children; for many people living in an ethical way is simply a rational decision based on a cost/benefit analysis of what is best for our planet and us.
On a personal level, living ethically has many positive benefits. To create you own rules and your own norms to honour your values and beliefs is incredibly empowering. There is a peace and beauty in being able to look at yourself in the mirror each morning knowing, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, that you are doing the very best you can with the knowledge you have.
The flip side of this is that every person that lives an ethical lifestyle exists within a larger world that was not created for her or him. There is a sense of always being the exception – the sore thumb, so to speak – which can leave you feeling isolated and ‘othered’ from the rest of society.
One of the hardest parts of living an ethical lifestyle is that quite often the people that make up our support systems – family and friends – unwittingly contribute to our ‘otheringness’. I’m talking about the parent or sibling that can’t hold back from commenting on what you are eating at every family gathering, or the friend that refuses to understand why you eschew plastic toys in favour of wooden or second hand ones for your kids.
Recognising the negative consequences of so many mainstream lifestyle choices, and actively taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions by choosing to make different, less harmful choices, can be emotionally exhausting. You can find yourself being challenged and forced to justify your decisions everyday, any number of times a day, in an environment that is more hostile then curious.
This is where Ethical Living Burnout (ELB) can manifest. Burnout is popularly defined as physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion that impedes our ability to experience happiness or satisfaction from activities that previously bought us joy. It occurs most frequently in those people who work, or devote a significant portion of their time, to helping others. Workers, or activists, in these areas give a lot more than they will ever get back, usually in an environment that is under resourced, under staffed and under recognised. On top of this, the work they do (or don’t do) has the potential to have a significant impact on the person/people/animal/environment they are advocating for, and the responsibility of this weighs heavy.
Psychologically, living an ethical lifestyle feels a lot like working in a ‘helping profession’ from which you never get to switch off. And whilst a lot of the decisions we make become second nature, we are still constantly bumping up against a world that doesn’t support us in our desire to make positive change.
How to tell if ELB is present in your life.
So how does ELB manifest itself?
At the extreme end you might find that you chuck in your values completely and resort back to mainstream living because you are exhausted with the burden of responsibility, feeling like you are the only one doing anything to make the world a better place. Or you may find yourself increasingly disposed to feelings of anger towards those around you when they continue to take actions that seem irrational and are counterproductive to your ethical cause. You might end up avoiding family gatherings or not engaging in activities you used to enjoy with people you love because you just can’t stand another conversation that leaves you feeling like once again you need to justify your actions for all the world and beyond. You may feel a creeping sense of general hopelessness about making positive change in the world.
Whilst some of these symptoms may truly be a part of a further evolution of your own beliefs and values - being more selective of the people you want to have in your life, for instance – equally they can be the symptoms of an emotional exhaustion that is the harbinger of ELB.
So what to do? I’ve personally struggled with ELB a few times over the last ten years as I transitioned to a more ethical lifestyle. And I’ve seen others around me struggle through similar meltdowns. The regular ‘How To Avoid Burnout’ guides don’t really do it for me though, with their focus on tips to de-stress and create a more balanced lifestyle. My lifestyle is pretty gosh darned balanced as it is: I work, run and brunch in equal measure. The ELB problem is really about negotiating your place within society so that you can live true to your values without letting the rest of society crawl on top and suffocate the good intentions out of you. To put it bluntly.
You’ve probably heard of ‘check your privilege’. Well, what I’m talking about is checking my perspective. If you’re experiencing ELB, these perspective-taking exercises might just help you get back on your ethical fighting feet – and stay there.
Appreciate the good in people.
Living a sustainable, vegan, fair-trade, whatever lifestyle is great, and something of which to be proud. However, there are other attributes outside our ethical values and belief systems that are just as important and can affect just as much positive change in the world.
The ability to empathise when someone is struggling, to make people smile, to infect laughter, to play well with children, to bring people together, to listen, to be patient with the elderly, to give generously and without thought of return – these are all courageous and valuable acts in a world that sometimes seems so intent on destroying itself and everybody in it.
That someone may use cling film with abandon or leave the tap on when they brush their teeth seems less important when they create a safe space for you to confide your fears and worries, when they lend an ear and actually listen.
There are many ways to influence positive change in the world. Living ethically is one way. To be kind, to nurture, to encourage and comfort, are others.
Pat yourself on the back.
The human brain is wired to remember and focus on the negative rather than the positive. To put it simply, that we remember negative experiences in more detail is crucial to our survival and our ability to protect ourselves. Consequently, it comes down to us to make a conscious effort to pull ourselves up.
Rather than getting stuck down in the muck of everything you haven’t achieved, high five yourself for what you have. I’m no tambourine-beating activist in my day-to-day life. But I will answer a question, honestly, when asked.
So you can imagine my surprise on the three separate occasions in the past ten years when I have bumped into an acquaintance after having fallen out of touch and in those brief windows of conversation they have mentioned that I influenced them to cease eating meat and/or go vegan. In just co-existing with these people for short periods of time – working or studying together – our conversations had sparked an interest, a curiosity in something that resonated with them, which resulted in each doing their own research into animal welfare issues, and ultimately deciding not to participate in those industries anymore.
Trying to quantify the effect we have on the world around us is almost impossible. Accepting that you are affecting change, regardless of whether or not you can see it or control it, can go some way to lifting the weight off your shoulders.
Expect less, compassion more.
A lot of people are in ‘survival’ mode, meaning that their mental and emotional energy is caught up in the daily chore of simply getting things done and getting by. You don’t know what someone else is going through and you can’t second-guess his or her experiences – so don’t.
For human beings all sharing the same digs, the ability to practice empathy towards each other is one of our biggest struggles. When we live ethically we set new and different standards for ourselves as members of society. But we have to remember that we are in a lot of ways lucky to be able to do that. Having the time and space within our own heads to even recognise where we align our broader ethical values is a privilege.
Remember that our world is vastly inequitable. We are all of us absorbed in our own internal struggles and conflicts everyday. Our inner worlds are incredibly complex. And most importantly, we are only human – we all in some way contribute to the suffering of others; none of us are perfect. Expecting people to live ideal versions of our ideal versions of them is just the strange sort of madness that will drive you mad. Even if you think it will create a better world.
Simply put, choosing to live ethically implies that we believe there is a reason the world is worthwhile saving. And a big part of that reason is us, and the people that we share this planet with.