emotional literacy

emotional literacy

Mapping the Radical Emotionality of Social Justice Work


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Most of us involved are aware that social justice work is emotionally-intensive. I’ve written at length about the importance of acknowledging this emotional edge and taking steps to address it in our personal and organizational practices. I also realize that there is power in naming, and that my last piece on the emotionality of social justice work was unfortunately vague.

To remedy this, I’ve set out to name and dissect the various emotional impacts experienced by those in the social justice realm. I have experienced these and also observed them in the experiences of others. Though listed out separately, they are all connected and overlapping. This is not a complete list, but a starting point for dialogue.

I also want to note that in naming and dissecting these various emotions, my goal is to acknowledge and bring them to light. To moralize them away by decrying them as problematic is, for the purposes of this article, counter-productive to confronting and healing them. I do understand that many of these emotional reactions are problematic in certain instances, and I acknowledge that here. My ultimate goal is not to critique the legitimacy of these emotional ruptures, but to point them out.

There are many people who have written about the divisiveness and hyper-criticality of the social justice community and callout culture. (A couple that I’ve found helpful are Frances Lee’s “Why I’ve Started to Fear My Fellow Social Justice Activists” and Kai Cheng’s “Righteous Callings: Being Good, Leftist Orthodoxy, and the Social Justice Crisis of Faith”.) Instead of rehashing their points, I’m looking at these issues to understand them as emotional processes. With this understanding, we can then find solutions in the realm of emotional work. Increased emotional awareness, empathy, and boundaries all hold enormous potential as solutions. My writing on trauma and how it affects our ability to bond and work together, and therefore disrupts our organizing, is an example of how I find this analysis can be helpful to those of us in movement work.


Here are some things that come up often in social justice work which bring up strong emotional responses:

Investigating and deconstructing our own oppression.

It is transformative to understand how our culture and institutions limit our lives, thoughts, perceptions of reality, and wellbeing. It can also be a emotional process, one full of grief and anger. Grasping the extent to which injustice, violence, and brutality shape our lives is maddening!

Unpacking our oppression can also bring us to reanalyze our past experiences. It may help us understand past traumas in a whole new light, and can free us from shouldering the blame for our hurt. Rehashing our trauma and oppression can also be painful, and reignite a lot of past hurt with new vigor.

Becoming aware of oppressive dynamics in our society makes us much more sensitive to injustice. They don’t call us angry Social Justice Warriors for nothing — we are angry. And for good reason.

Investigating and deconstructing our own privilege.

Nothing provokes an emotional reaction like the word “privilege.” In our mythical meritocracy, no one wants to hear that they inherited their achievements and social standing. I often write about white fragility, and of course this is the best example, but examining other privileged identities can also be uncomfortable. This discomfort doesn’t always come from indignation, either. For example, I have straight friends who hesitate to discuss their straight privilege with me. They clam up when asked to think about how our realities differ in a heterosexist society. Most likely they experience guilt or shame. While there is debate about whether guilt is valid or useful in these types of situations, those feelings, along with anger, sadness, and even grief, can all come up while unpacking our privileges.

This is where many of us will embark on a quest to be “one of the good ones,” or as Kai Cheng calls it, “a performance of virtue.” This is a related yet very complex emotional landscape that we must also acknowledge. Everyone involved in social justice work holds some privileged identities, and makes a journey through here at some point.

Secondhand trauma.

This happens when we have a direct window to someone else’s traumatic experience. This is a real diagnosis also called “secondary traumatic stress.” It often occurs in people who work in direct service occupations, but can also happen to those whose work is not based in that realm. It can also impact us to varying degrees. You may not receive an official diagnosis, but you can still feel affected by witnessing the trauma of another.

Grieving history, ancestry, and the present.

As mentioned earlier, grief can come up when we unpack oppression. Learning about the extreme violences and injustices of the past and the present can trigger this. I chose to include ancestry because learning about their suffering — or their terrible actions, depending which side of history your ancestors were on — can be very painful and powerful. Learning about or witnessing injustice in the present also has this effect. Try observing your emotions as you watch the news or walk around your town, and you’ll know what I mean.

This relates to secondhand trauma, but I’ve separated the two because this one is less a personal experience of another’s trauma, and more something you experience by observing from a distance. Both rely on intense empathizing and taking in pain that is not our own.

Moral obligation and burnout.

Moral obligation is that feeling of urgency we experience in relation to social justice work. “I feel like I should be doing more, because it’s the right thing to do, and if I’m not doing more, then what am I doing? Am I a bad person?” And the spiral goes on. In some cases, this can lead to a sense of martyrdom, or flat-out refusal to accept the limitations of our bodies and livelihoods. I’ve heard people explain they’re missing meals, or classes, or even doctor’s appointments to be at a certain action or meeting. I’ve committed myself way beyond my capacity because I feel it’s the right thing to do, and that someone has to do it. Some of these tendencies mirror the pathologies Tema Okun mentions in her piece around white supremacy culture in organizations. I’m including them here because they are also emotional issues that are hard to distinguish from their insidious systemic roots. Whiteness and the capitalist drive for productivity are chief among these.

This can lead to burnout. This is a multi-symptom condition. It results in feelings of helplessness, depression, and a disinterest or inability to take part in activities we burned ourselves out on. In particular, I have noticed both of these in relation to direct action.

Hyper-criticism, cynicism, and depression.

The social justice movement nurtures hyper-criticality. According to Kai Cheng:

“The strength of social justice ideology are its sharp eyes and tongue, its ability to reveal and tear open the hidden logic of oppressive systems — a powerful and important revolutionary tool. My fear is that the valorization of critique, and the central role that criticism plays in the performance of goodness, has resulted in a rigid way of thinking that prioritizes the endless re-enactment of outrage and conflict while preventing us from developing strategies for reconciliation, necessary compromise, and collective action.”

While preventing creative growth, hyper-criticality can also lead us into a cynical realm of thought. If our attentions are always on what is wrong, embroiling ourselves in cynicism and ensuing depression is not a surprising next step. Critique is important, but to paraphrase Alexis P. Morgan, it doesn’t fill our cups.

Depression can also stem from many of the other emotional entanglements mentioned earlier, such as burnout, grief, or any of the above.

Hyper-vigilance and hyperconsciousness.

This happens as a result of “callout culture,” and we can experience both sides of this. For example, it’s easy for us to hear an ignorant comment and suppress the urge to respond with vitriol. It’s also common to fear responses like these in the company of other radical people. Both responses stem from the harmful notion of a hierarchy of “enlightened” social justice thought. This is an issue in and of itself, but the emotional aspect of hyper-vigilance and hyperconsciousness is also impactful. Venomous, righteous anger and shameful, paranoid silence both take a toll. Both erode trust, connection, and our openness to vulnerability. This dynamic also creates a fear of one’s own politics and beliefs. This can prevent thorough self-examination.

Alienation and defensiveness.

I’m not sure if alienation is the best word to describe the sensation of moving through the world and seeing so many systems and institutions and activities, etc., that run counter to my beliefs. I feel frustrated and dismayed as I watch my town put up more Starbucks and my family members parrot neoliberal ideology. My friends and I sometimes half-joke with each other that we wish we could “be normal” and not experience this strange alienation.

Being unable or afraid to broach certain topics and express your true opinions with your family, at work, and in other realms can be alienating. It can drive a wedge between you and other pieces of your life you once identified with. This is part of changing our worldview. I included it because it’s important to note that years after developing a consciousness grounded in justice, I continue to feel disoriented and gaslit by all the signs around me that pretend that everything’s fine! things are normal!, as though our world isn’t built on a foundation of oppression.

At the same time that I experience this wish to “be normal,” I also find a knowing within myself which understands that denial of injustice won’t serve or fulfill me, and is not an option. I experience this as a positive emotion, but it can also be oppressive.

I’ve also included defensiveness because this contrast between our own views and the mainstream world creates conflict. These conflicts can lead to all kinds of defensive behaviors. These range from stifling our self-expression to adopting habitual anger.


Engaging with social justice is an emotionally complex experience. I also recognize that my own emotional experiences of social justice work definitely do not encompass those of everyone involved. I do not claim to do that. My goal is to begin to create a map of the emotional impacts of social justice work, so that we can form language and understanding around them. From there, we can create a culture within the movement that encourages emotional literacy and constant reflection and processing as part of our praxis.

I recognize that the emotional impacts listed here tend toward the negative side of the emotional spectrum. There are also many positive aspects to the emotional experience of social justice work. A few of these include feeling understood, committing to a community, feelings of right livelihood, celebrating what society shames us for, and the sweet, sweet taste of direct action victory. Social justice work has many beautiful gifts to give.

It’s also important to note that a solution to many of these emotional ills is relationship building. Depression, burnout, grief, hyper-vigilance, and hyperconsciousness all flourish in isolation, but can be mitigated with connection and trust. This is another reason why emotional literacy is so important. To build good relationships within our networks, we need to be able to navigate and hold space for one another’s emotions and experiences. Doing so enables us to better understand ourselves, work towards more genuine politics, and create stronger movements.

To quote my personal hero Grace Lee Boggs, “We urgently need to bring to our communities the limitless capacity to love, serve, and create for and with each other.” Incorporating emotional literacy is necessary to form the bonds of care we need to achieve liberation.

Image Source: Photo by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash