Activism is a tough job.
Oftentimes, it’s not technically a job at all, but a volunteer practice for social change – on top of other responsibilities like work, school, and relationship maintenance. So when, combined with the tasks of everyday life, your passions revolve around oppression and inequities, burn-out comes quickly – and self-care is necessary.
Between the constant invasion of trolls into our inboxes, our family members bickering with us over our ideology, the fact that shit just isn’t changing fast enough, and the general sense that it sucks to be a feminist in an anti-feminist world, it’s no wonder we’re tired.
And unknowingly, sometimes even well-meaning, supportive folks add to this exhaustion.
And it’s not because they’re mean-spirited, unappreciative people. In fact, it’s usually the exact opposite: They’re waking up, too, and they’re craving more information and interactions to help them grow into awareness themselves. And that’s a beautiful thing.
So they send off a quick Facebook message to that activist acquaintance that they kinda know from high school, or they type out a tweet to that academic they follow who retweeted them that one time, and they ask for a favor.
They ask for resources. They ask to grab coffee to chat. They ask for a quick read through of a paper, advice as it pertains to their trauma, or help fending off a troll.
And they, naturally, have absolutely no idea how many more of these favors are sitting in our inboxes, also waiting for replies.
And they sit there, unanswered, because we are not indefatigable. We can only give so much. Our time and energy are finite. And we, like all of us, have to prioritize where to spend our limited resources.
But capitalism would have you believing something entirely different. In a system that values productive machinery, we often see one another through that same lens – and unworthy of respect if we’re not pumping out enough.
In this system, we’re not considered human beings, but products. And sometimes we forget that others have boundaries. We forget that others have feelings and anxieties and deadlines and limits. We have our own needs to be met – and so we forget how to respect others’.
And because social justice activism revolves around lifting one another up, spreading critical information, and putting the good of society over the good of individuals, we can especially fall into this trap when interacting with activists.
If the world were a magical place where we could give and give and give all of the help possible, we would always welcome inquiries from everywhere. But we don’t live in that world. We live in one where we can only give so much before we’re depleted, burnt out, and curled up in the fetal position on our bed, crying our eyes out, because we’re overextended.
So in case you didn’t realize, here are five ways that you might be asking too much of us – and how to go about getting the support that you need instead.
1. Asking Questions You Can Google
I’ve created a new self-care strategy for myself, helping me to prioritize my workload: Every time someone writes to me, asking me a question that Google can answer, I don’t respond.
What are some resources on intersectionality? Can you explain cultural appropriation to me? If I got my period, can I still be pregnant? How can I explain rape culture to my dad? Is the anus an erogenous zone for women?
And to be honest, I usually feel rude doing it.
But here’s my rationale: I spend forty hours a week working for a website (this one!), creating and editing the resources to answer these questions for folks. And there are thousands of other brilliant people doing the same in various corners of the Internet every single day.
So maybe it doesn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel to answer a question that folks could simply look up on their own.
But it took me a long time to come to this conclusion. Because I really value folks thinking of me as a resource. I love that people feel comfortable enough to shoot me an e-mail, figuring I know the answer or can think of helpful articles off the top of my head. That’s an honor.
But I’m also a human being – not a Wikipedia page.
I only have so much time and so much energy to dedicate to answering people’s questions. If I were a machine that could spit out information on command, that would be fucking awesome. And I tried to be that machine for a long time.
But then I remembered that that machine already exists – and that if you’re e-mailing me, then you clearly have access to it.
You’ve got a vast space of information overload at your fingertips, friends. Please try Google first.
2. Planning Lunch Dates So You Can ‘Pick Our Brains’
I hate this phrase. It sounds super gross. But moreover, this socially acceptable form of “networking” actually shouldn’t be so acceptable.
Because if someone is going to be figuratively taking chunks out of my brain for their own needs, they better be replacing them with some of their own.
That is: Networking should be mutually beneficial.
I consider it networking when someone in my same field wants to sit down and connect about the work that we’re doing and how we can help one another out. I consider it networking when a colleague calls on me for help with a project, with the unspoken understanding that I, then, can call on them when I’m in need.
But that’s not what brain-picking is. Brain-picking is really just asking for advice or direction with no intention of a return on investment. It’s one-sided. It’s asking someone to give you information with no benefit to them.
But damn it, the brain that I have took a lot of time, energy, and money to build up. I can’t just give it away freely whenever someone asks.
Now, this isn’t my suggesting that I never help anyone and am uninterested in lifting others up by connecting them to my resources and networks. I actually strongly believe that that is one of the purposes of feminism.
For me, what this looks like is setting up Skype dates with people who want career guidance, when I have the time and energy to do it. I’ve also created multiple online resources to answer career-related FAQs so that folks can get the information that they need. I also run a mentorship program where I work very closely for a year with two budding activists to help them with content creation.
But because I have bodily autonomy, only I get to decide whose hands get to wander, squishingly, in my brain. And I simply can’t do that for everyone – and shouldn’t be expected to.
So if you’re looking for a brain to pick, here’s my advice: E-mail multiple people, as to take the pressure off of each individual. If possible, offer a skills trade: “If you teach me how to x, I’ll help you with y or introduce you to z.” Alternatively, if feasible, ask what their consulting fee per hour is. Or at least send them a Starbucks gift card.
Be clear that you understand that you’re asking to tap into a precious resource – and pay up, monetarily or otherwise, when necessary.
3. Expecting Homework Help and Free Research
I once got a Tumblr message from a young college student, asking me for academic resources on sexual violence prevention education.
I wrote her back, explaining that I don’t offer homework help and that she should explore her university’s library and online journal resources. I explained that part of why undergraduates are tasked with research projects like this is to teach them how to research, and that I wouldn’t be helping by doing it for her.
Besides, I explained, I would literally be doing the research portion of her assignment for her if I did what she was asking me to do – since I don’t have those resources at my fingertips.
Clearly annoyed with me, she wrote back, “Okay, yeah, I get that, but this is an academic project that needs scholarly sources.”
Talk about entitlement.
And this happens all the time.
“Can you read my twenty-page paper that is only marginally related to the work that you do, but for no pay? Can you send me a reference list of books and articles I should read if I want to learn about feminism? Can you tell me if this school that you never went to has a good Women’s Studies program?”
No. Unfortunately, I can’t.
Just because someone is a feminist or because they do activist work in a broad field doesn’t mean that they have resources and research on every tangentially related topic. That’s why Google Scholar is a thing.
And if you’re not sure if you’re doing a good job writing your paper, your university probably has a writing center, where people are available (and paid!) to help you.
If you want to interview an expert for a project that you’re doing, that’s commendable. By all means, you can send us those e-mail requests. And if we can make time for that work, we will likely acquiesce. But please give us at least a two-week timeframe to schedule the interview in – and have a back-up plan in case we can’t.
Remember that while your life partially revolves around your schoolwork, ours can’t.
4. Sharing Your Trauma with Us Non-Consensually
Now, this is a sensitive one.
There are some avenues where I open myself up to take on the trauma of strangers – anonymously in my Tumblr inbox, for example – and I do my best to practice self-care when my inbox is open. Given, a content warning is always helpful when you’re sending someone a message about trauma, but there are places where I expect these messages and places where I don’t.
People are holding onto a whole lot of trauma – and they desperately need to know that someone is going to listen. And I entirely honor and respect that you’re turning to me in your time of need.
But it’s really, really unfair.
If you don’t have prior permission to talk about your pain, particularly if you’re an acquaintance and not a good friend, you need to ask first. Try, “I’m having an issue with such-and-such, and I could really use your guidance, if you have the space.” Allow me to say yes or no. Lean on multiple sources of support and not just me.
You cannot just unleash your trauma into someone’s inbox. Because that isn’t just exhausting – it can be downright devastating.
There is only so much space that we can hold for people. Mostly, I reserve that space for myself – for my own trauma, for my own healing. Next, I create space to hold for the people who are closest to me – my family, partners, and friends. Then, I make online resources for people dealing with various issues so that they can find them when they need them.
Only after all of that do I have the space to work with the trauma of strangers or acquaintances. And that means that oftentimes, I can’t.
And not only should that be acceptable, but it should also be expected. Your friendly neighborhood activist shouldn’t be expected to bear the weight of your trauma. We’re not crisis hotlines.
So please, please, please, please, ask first.
5. Asking Us to Go to Battle for You
When I first decided to write this article, I put up a Facebook status, asking activist friends to weigh in on which requests get sent their way that are draining to them. There were over fifty responses.
One of them, from my friend Sam, was: “Tagging me in every online debate, assuming that I definitely want to talk to your Uncle Rob who has a Trump tattoo.” It quickly garnered fifteen likes and multiple expressions of “YESSSS.”
And while that very specific situation is probably a rarity, what’s not is folks liberally using their “@” key to type in my name and “help!” next to it – on threads about everything from eating disorders being choices to catcalls being compliments.
But the truth is: I don’t want to talk to your Uncle Rob who has a Trump tattoo. I don’t want to talk to your college roommate who doesn’t believe that cultural appropriation exists. I don’t want to talk to your acquaintance who thinks that it’s okay to judge people for buying “unhealthy” food.
I really, honestly do not.
And it’s not because I don’t think they’re necessary conversations or because I don’t want to help you out. It’s simply because my own timelines, newsfeeds, and dashboards are chalk-full of the same bullshit – and I’ve got my hands full.
That is to say: If I’ve got to choose my battles, I don’t always have the strength to choose yours.
And that’s really what all of this is about at the end of the day: loving ourselves, as activists, enough to admit that we can’t do it all – and setting boundaries with those around us in terms of what we are (and aren’t) available for.
So the next time you want to hit up your favorite activist with a question or a favor, pause and think through whether or not this particular person could actually give you special insight – or if you could get the same information or support elsewhere.
Melissa A. Fabello, Co-Managing Editor of Everyday Feminism, is a body acceptance activist and sexuality scholar living in Philadelphia. She enjoys rainy days, tattoos, yin yoga, and Jurassic Park. She holds a B.S. in English Education from Boston University and an M.Ed. in Human Sexuality from Widener University. She is currently working on her PhD. She can be reached on Twitter @fyeahmfabello.