How to Deal with Burnt-Out Leaders Who Have Become Bullies in the Movement?

A Patreon exclusive on abuse, criticism, & repair.

Alex Mell-Taylor


Photo by Jakayla Toney on Unsplash

Something that has become apparent to me is that many people in pretty much any environment, whether we are talking about a company or grassroots movement, feel overextended and exhausted. I have written about this before (see Join A Movement That Takes Care of You), and it's a common problem in our society. One cannot go for long without hearing talk of burnout and overwork.

In many ways, this can be compounded in volunteer or activist spaces where you are providing labor for free. If you are not careful, the allure of doing "good" can leave you exhausted and disillusioned. This effect happens to almost everyone in "the movement" who does not know how to establish firm boundaries or, as we will be discussing today, has to deal with leaders who are exhausted and don't know how to regulate their emotions.

The problem

There is a particular type of leader who is stunted emotionally. They have overloaded themselves with "the work," and for months, maybe years, have established fewer and fewer boundaries with their issue or organization of choice. Activism is their life, and they do not know how to compartmentalize it. And so when conflict arises, they tend to take it out on other people within the movement. They yell at fellow activists for disagreeing with their strategy. They define opponents in binaristic terms as enemies or, as in the case of my organization, "wreckers." In essence, they become bullies whose poor emotional regulation conflates all conflict as abuse.

However, unlike a bully outside the movement, they are doing "the work" (sometimes excellent work), and this is what's brought up as an excuse whenever they receive criticism. If you ask them to stop their behavior or engage in repair, they will bring up their feelings of being overwhelmed as a defense. As is typical with burnt-out people, resentments might boil to the surface when this happens, and this is when they defensively talk about all their concerns, both real and imagined, on how they are not supported as people doing "the work."

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