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Banning burnout

Times Staff Writer

Eva KATAJA remembers the day more than two decades ago when she told a friend of her desire to become more active in liberal causes -- to “take responsibility” and help make the world a better place.

The friend, a longtime activist, leveled with her. Don’t do it, he advised. You’ll lose friends. You’ll become isolated. People will see you as a downer. You’ll regret it.

Kataja was taken aback but vowed that she would never become burned out and embittered.

Fast-forward two decades through countless meetings, protests, projects, petitions, phone banks, wars, elections and Sept. 11.

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Now Kataja, a marriage and family therapist in West Los Angeles, says: “As the years have gone by and I’ve gotten in deeper, I’m beginning to experience what my friend talked about. I feel discounted and marginalized a lot of the time.”

Championing a particular cause or course of action often can be a lonely crusade, but these are particularly tough times for liberal activists.

Red-state dominance in the last election, the war in Iraq, changes in environmental policy and the possibility of a more conservative Supreme Court have left many local activists feeling as blue as the state they live in.

What they need, one longtime activist recently decided, is some therapy -- a good old-fashioned support group tailored for the liberal activist in need of emotional rejuvenation.

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In February, the Activists’ Support Circle was born. The group is the brainchild of L.A. peacenik Jerry Rubin, who said he saw his friends and colleagues hit an emotional low after the tensely fought fall presidential election. To his knowledge, he says, it’s the first self-help support group in the country for activists.

“Some people were talking about leaving the cause,” says Rubin, who runs the Alliance for Survival, a grass-roots peace and environmental organization in Los Angeles. “But we need a healthy progressive movement. We need to share our frustrations in a safe environment and be there for each other.”

So far, the Activists’ Support Circle has drawn about 40 people to its first few monthly meetings at the Friends Meeting Hall in Santa Monica. The meetings are informal; you won’t find any 12-step program for the weary activist.

But the support group functions, in many ways, like any group therapy. Participants talk, listen, cry, hug and complain.

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“There are so many activists who express just abject despair about what’s going on in the world and in the country,” says Kataja, who acted as a facilitator at a recent meeting. “It’s a kind of paralyzing despair that makes it hard to get up in the morning and do the normal things in life, not just the activists’ work.”

For some, the emotional pain related to their work is deep and long-standing. There is still bitter talk of the “stolen election” of 2000. The war in Iraq is a sore spot, as is their perception that America’s international reputation has been damaged.

The gathering is not aimed at work goals, however, but at the feelings generated by their work.

“It’s not about pushing your own agenda,” says Rubin, who founded the group with his wife, Marissa. “Activists are very committed people. They push themselves. That is a good attribute, but it has a negative side too. We all need to have support and to be able to share our frustrations.”

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Flo Ginsberg, an activist who works on political, environmental and animal rights’ issues, said she knows that the negative emotions she often feels over world events is not healthy.

“My reaction to the news raises my blood pressure to such an extent that I have to sit down and write a letter,” says Ginsberg, who frequently expresses her views on local newspaper editorial pages.

But she can’t talk about her despair to non-activists.

“When I have dinner with my son, he doesn’t want to hear about it,” she says. “There aren’t many people I can talk to. Unless you’re talking to someone equally agitated or involved, you really don’t have a receptive ear.”

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Linda Huf, an activist who attended the meeting with her boyfriend, admitted she had some misgivings about the support group.

“It sounded so lovey-dovey Los Angeles,” she says. “But I feel isolated. I’m very worried about what’s going on in the world. I was worried during the Vietnam War too. But somehow, today, the evil seems too big. It’s as if I’ve given up.”

Rubin says a goal of the group is to re-energize activists by encouraging them to develop healthy coping skills.

It helps to talk about your feelings with others who are experiencing similar sentiments, says Samantha Scully, owner of a bookstore in West Los Angeles.

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“Fellowship is what we’d like from this group,” says Scully. “We’re so happy to be talking together about the feelings we’ve bottled up.”

Because activists of all stripes are often deeply committed to their causes, they have difficulty separating the problems and successes of their activism from their personal lives, adds Dan Henrickson .

“For someone who defines themselves as an activist, they can’t necessarily separate the two,” he says. “You can make choices about how you balance the two, but they are really intertwined.”

Gathering with like-minded people to discuss your emotional ups and downs is simply therapeutic, says Larney Gump, an associate professor of psychology at George Washington University.

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“The research on mental health shows that support is one of the primary curative factors in getting through something,” he says. “Again and again, research shows talking is helpful.”

Activists may be especially prone to emotional exhaustion because of the nature of their work, Gump adds.

“The pessimist isn’t going to get let down because he or she didn’t expect anything in the first place. You couldn’t be an activist without being optimistic,” he says. “But one contributor of burnout is that you keep doing what you do and it doesn’t make a difference. At some level, activists are expecting to make a difference.”

That may be one reason why you won’t find any conservative or Republican activist support group meetings in L.A. -- at least not now. “Fortunately, we haven’t had a need for such a thing,” says Matthew Knee, a conservative activist and chairman of the Bruin Republicans, an activist organization. “And a support group seems very touchy-feely and un-Republican on its face.”

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Republicans didn’t fall into emotional doldrums during the long Clinton years, Knee says, in part because the Republican-controlled Congress and the Clinton impeachment bolstered conservative spirits.

But Knee acknowledges that he felt a bit of sympathy for his liberal friends after the fall elections. “Political activism is a really emotional issue.”

One of the hardest emotions for activists is the feeling that they are failing to have an effect, says Joel Isaacs, a psychotherapist who also attends and helps facilitate the meetings.

“These are stressful times for people who are activists or who want to do good things in the world,” he says. “You wonder if you can be effective. You lose hope.”

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Rubin is adamant that the support group promote personal health and well-being as its major goal. But he says he believes that a healthier activist community will be a more successful one -- in good times and bad.

“Strengthening each other emotionally will help every other aspect of the movement,” he says.


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