The Revolution is Emotional


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I know I’m not the only person involved in social justice work who struggles with my mental and emotional health. Experiencing or witnessing the suffering, harm, and oppression embedded in every facet of our society is painful. So is responding to that suffering, both emotionally, and with action. Much of our work, whether it is internal – uprooting internalized oppression, acknowledging and navigating our privileges and blindspots, expressing ourselves in a world that demands conformity – or external – protesting, calling out institutions and public figures, speaking truth to power, providing direct service to and holding space for oppressed groups – is emotionally intensive. Even the root of our work is often an emotionally-charged belief in justice.

Many people who work in this vein suffer as a result of this intense emotionality. Burnout, anxiety, depression, and simply leaving the work behind are understandable responses to the challenges this work faces us with.

It’s important not to absorb the pain we see around us, to take on that of others as our own. From “The White Allies’ Guide to Collecting Aunt Linda” by Real Talk: WOC & Allies:

“If you are getting angry about other people’s pain, then your anger had better be serving those people, not yourself. So yes, get angry. But never forget whose anger it is. Never lose sight of the people actually experiencing that pain. Remember you are not one of them.”

People holding privileged identities (like myself) need to remember this. Taking on the pain of others as our own gets us nowhere.

It’s also very important for us to be conscious of how emotionally affecting this work can be. It’s important that we don’t take it lightly. We must be conscious of how we are being emotionally impacted, as we also grow conscious of the emotional experiences of others.

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It’s important for us to emotionally check in with ourselves, and to process our feelings as part of our praxis. For example, Thais Sky and Lindsey Rae recommend that white people spend time privately processing their fragility and feelings around race issues, and reach out to other white people who can hold their fragility. This private processing makes way for more thoughtful public anti-racist work.

In other cases this may simply mean acknowledging when we are drained. Noticing our emotional needs and adapting to accommodate them is important. Part of what inspired this essay is an ongoing struggle with social anxiety and healing from trauma. Recently, I’ve been in a few situations in which I’ve had to step back from confrontational environments, and it’s been really difficult. In the past, I was always able to show up for actions and participate in public activities. Finding myself in a place where simply resisting the urge to self-isolate is taxing has been disappointing. It’s forced me to change the ways I engage with activism work, and to be understanding of my current emotional limits.

And yet, adjusting to my current needs is what allows me to stay engaged at all. Acknowledging our emotions and caring for ourselves and each other must be an integral part of our work. It’s what makes our movements and our lives sustainable.

Emotions also need to be celebrated! Coming together over our feelings – anger, grief, euphoria, or what-have-you – and creating a collective site of exploration, understanding, and bonding, is revolutionary. As Brianna Suslovic writes in “The Revolution Will Not Be Unsustainable: Drafting a Movement Strategy Handbook“, “Learning how to provide emotional support to friends impacted by executive orders and cabinet nominations is the kind of mutual aid work that is necessary right now, that sustains this work long beyond the next afternoon rally.”

Sharing and relishing in our emotionality is also a direct rejection of whiteness. As Tema Okun explains in her piece “White Supremacy Culture“, politeness, fear of open conflict, individualism and isolation, and white ideas of professionalism all work against emotionality and direct confrontation of issues (especially those which are racially charged). Openly sharing and celebrating our emotions brings these conflicts to the forefront, and frees us from the restrictive white codes of politeness.

Our organizing and our personal praxes need to hold space for the multiple dimensions of emotionality inherent in our work. Here are some ideas of what that can look like:

This is hard work. I work on this every day. Cultivating the vulnerability I need to get help and reach out to others is difficult. Building space for emotions into struggles which feel urgent and holding the ethereal complexities of feelings rather than simply evaluating tangible outcomes are modalities with which we are often unfamiliar. Seeing and supporting each other can be terrifying and draining. Navigating the new territories of radical emotionality is not easy, but it is possible and necessary.

Imagine your vision of justice, of a better world. Mine is one where emotions are valued, shared, and responded to with understanding and emotional literacy. I’m in this work because I care, because I am tender. Our tenderness is revolutionary.

With love and lots and lots of *feelings*, 

madeleine

Image Sources: 1. is a self-portrait I took while battling depressive symptoms as a result of an abusive relationship {and those feelings were/are fucking valid!!} . 2. Froebel Decade

if you enjoy my writing, please do share it 🙂 please also consider buying a copy of my zine on whiteness (a portion of the proceeds currently goes to Protect Juristac) and supporting my work via PayPal. thank you so much for reading. 

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