4 Wellness Practices from an Environmental Justice Leader

BY Leah Thomas Intersectional Environmentalist, Author, and Bank of the West Brand Ambassador

Mar 17th 2022

I am burned out. And I know, for some reasons that we share and others that are unique to each person, a lot of folks are feeling the same way.

In the past two years, I’ve been furloughed from my job, founded the non-profit Intersectional Environmentalist, wrote a book, and adjusted to the new reality of my dream job—advocating full-time for environmental justice. And you know what’s been happening in the background the whole time: a wildly stressful global pandemic and a wave of civil rights movements from Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate to the fight for transgender rights. Oh, and let’s not forget worldwide climate strikes and environmental justice conversations happening as climate change rages on.

With all of that going on, I know I’m lucky to have arrived in 2022 with a great new career and big plans for the future. But even though we’re told not to complain about success, big transitions—good and bad—leave us tired, yearning for a sense of normalcy. I’m here to tell you that this is completely normal. Even if you have gratitude and success in your life, it is fine—expected, really—to feel tired and burnt out right now. The world just navigated through an exorbitant amount of trauma and transition during the pandemic. We’re all tired.

I’ve decided to dedicate this year to a deep sense of self-care and community care. As an environmental justice leader, I can’t do my best work caring for the planet or its people when I have not cared for myself. The same is true for everyone working hard to make this world better. Here’s what I’m doing to strike a better balance in my life. I’m hoping these tips make a difference for you as well.

4 Self-Care Tips for Those Fighting for a Better World

1. Acknowledge and Make Space for My Feelings

I’ll admit it. I’ve been guilty of faking a smile. While it may help me get through a moment, in the long run, it just makes burnout even worse. I’ve now granted myself permission to not be okay sometimes. The uncertainty of this world right now makes us all emotional some days.

I’m slowing down to acknowledge how I feel and reflect on those feelings. I find someone to talk to honestly—a therapist, close friend, or family member. I encourage people, if you feel comfortable, to share more than you might normally with those who have expectations of you. Consider telling your manager or coworkers if you’re struggling to stay focused; you’d be surprised how many people can relate and are happy to give you grace. Identifying our feelings and giving ourselves the space to work through them is the first step towards wellness.

2. Turn Down the Internet

I’ve decided to step back from the news and social media. Not completely, of course. If you know me, you know being Very Online can be a force for good (and it’s kind of my thing). We all need to stay informed, and many of us have warm, supportive communities online. But I’ve given myself permission to not read every devastating news headline and to disconnect when I need to take a break.

You can turn down the internet dial in a lot of different ways. It can look like logging off social media on the weekends. You might avoid particularly upsetting news stories or balance them out with positive content. It may be important for you to read a story about a new climate disaster, but you can follow it up with one about climate solutions in the works.

When you dial back the onslaught of digital negativity, there’s more time to get lost in something that brings you joy. Take that time for yourself, even when you know there is a lot of work to be done in the outside world.

3. Put Myself and My Work Into Perspective

One of my favorite ways to disconnect is to spend time outdoors or write poetry about nature. It reminds me of all the reasons I’m fighting for the planet in the first place. Being outdoors gives me a sense of hope and puts a lot of things in perspective. Earlier this year, I was outside reflecting on nature when I had a realization about my role in it—and environmentalism’s role in my life. It occurred to me that activism and advocacy are only one part of my identity. They don’t need to consume all of my life. I can be passionate about my cause and still be invested in exploring who I am outside of my advocacy. So can you, no matter what your work or calling may be.

Give yourself permission to be a whole person. Trying to live up to some idealized version of a perfect, always-on activist is exhausting. This year, I’ve been picking up other hobbies. I’ve been exploring new places, which I resisted in the past. I was conflicted about the environmental impact of travel and wanted to be a “perfect” environmentalist. Instead, I granted myself permission to travel while being mindful of my impact. I encourage you to find something that sparks joy in you, even if it’s as simple as going for a short walk, drawing or painting, or getting back into a childhood hobby that made you smile.

4. Lean Into My Strengths and Delegate the Rest

When you’re dedicated to a cause, you’re often willing to wear a lot of different hats—sometimes, all of the hats—to get the work done. But when you spend too much time struggling through tasks not suited to your skillset, it’s exhausting. I love writing and enjoy curating social media feeds, so they are great ways for me to educate others about the climate crisis and environmental justice. But when I’ve gotten too pulled into other tasks—finances, for example—I spend less time doing what fills me up and more time on what totally drains me out.

“Movements need designers, communications specialists, event planners, sign makers, and, yes, accountants.

A mentor of mine once told me, “Every movement needs an accountant.” Not everyone has to hold a megaphone. Movements need designers, communications specialists, event planners, sign makers, and, yes, accountants. Find the time and, if possible, resources to delegate the tasks that aren’t your strengths so you can show up as your authentic self ready to do the work that sustains you—and your cause.

A Rested, Wellness-Focused Path to Progress

Friends, we have been through it. If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that no progress happens when we are not well. As activists—full-time, part-time, volunteer, or aspiring alike—we know we have to focus on our wellbeing if we’re going to make a difference.

When you’re tired, honor that. Step away to rest. The world will still be here when you’re ready. Over the past two years, I’ve learned that making a difference is not about being perfect or pushing through discomfort and denying your feelings. My impact is greater when I’m not combating burnout. I’m a better activist for addressing my feelings honestly and taking the time I need to love myself as much as I love environmental justice. I encourage everyone to practice self-sustainability.

First, sustain yourself, then you’ll be empowered to build more sustainable communities and a sustainable earth.

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