Last week I was talking to a nonprofit leader who was completely overwhelmed. She was exhausted, worn down, and full of self doubt. And it wasn’t the garden-variety overwhelm that comes from the normal nonprofit lack of resources. This was a deep and troubling hopelessness about the very burden she as a social change leader was trying to lift.
And it makes sense. Things are really chaotic right now. Some days it feels like many of our institutions — including our Democracy — are crumbling around us. And particularly for those of you who are working tirelessly to create a better world amid this chaos, it can sometimes feel like giving up is the only path.
But, on the contrary, this is the exact moment when we need our social change leaders more powerful, committed, and hopeful than ever.
Our social change leaders are our society’s fiercest warriors, our saviors, our reminders of “the better angels of our nature.” We simply cannot have you starting to doubt yourself and your work.
So what do you do when you face the complete overwhelm? Here’s what I do, and what I encourage the leaders I work with to do:
Take a Breath. A Deep One.
I know in a society like ours that is so focused on the DOING simply breathing seems lazy, pointless and ridiculous. But the truth is that breathing is foundational to every other action you take. It may sound so simple as to be trite, but (shockingly) breathing deeply actual works. It has been scientifically proven to calm your nervous system, reduce stress, increase your immune system and a whole host of other things that our fearless social change leaders deeply need. Most importantly, it gives you space, a minute to pause, reflect, and then move forward with mindful action (as opposed to mindless reaction), something we need much more of right now. So give it a shot. Take three deep breaths right now, and see what happens.
Remind Yourself of The Wins
Often, when it gets really dark all you can see are the failures, the hurdles, the lack of hope. But light and dark always exist, even if it seems that there is more darkness lately. So remind yourself of what you have achieved, the positives that surround you, what you are grateful for. There is always something that is going right for which you can be thankful. Gratitude, like deep breathing, also has proven, positive benefits. And more importantly, if you focus on what is going well, those things tend to multiply. And we all know we need a lot more light right now.
Visualize the Future You Want
This is the exact advice I gave the nonprofit leader I described above. She was so mired in the challenges, the fear, the muck that she could not move forward. But when I asked her to describe what her ideal organization would look like a year from now, she started to describe something pretty amazing. She saw a larger, more effective, more engaged board; she saw a larger staff that freed her up to do more speaking, network building, fundraising; she saw bigger programs, serving more people, more effectively. Her spirit started to lift, and I got goosebumps. Suddenly in that instant she became the leader she wanted to be and the leader her organization desperately needed. I suggested she do that same exercise at least once a day (either writing it out, saying it aloud, or simply closing her eyes and imagining it). The idea is that if you start to exist in the world that you want (even if only in your imagination), you will start to believe that it is actually possible. And belief is more than half the battle.
I promise you, you have more control over the chaos that seemingly swirls around you than you think you do. You are a social change leader because you felt a drive to make the world a better place. But don’t give up simply because the world hasn’t yet become that better place. We need you out there fighting the good fight. So take a breath, be grateful for what’s working, and visualize where you really want to go. And know that by reclaiming your social change power you will get there.
And if you need help along the way, let me know.
Photo Credit: Bosco Shots