Ask a Feelings-Witch: Organizing Burnout

In the Cards is a monthly advice column by Carly Boyce, a queer and genderqueer femme witch based in Toronto. With a background in community-based sexual health, grief work, and suicide intervention, in addition to several years of tarot reading, she brings gentle advice and the wisdom of the cards to your questions about life, love, and feelings of all sorts. To submit a question, send an email to with the subject line: Ask a Feelings-Witch. Questions will remain anonymous, and may be edited for length.

Dear Feelings-Witch,

I’ve been on the organizing team for a local meet-up group for several years. I want to quit. Organizing work is stressful and tedious to me, and I no longer really enjoy the meet-ups myself… It feels like I don’t need the community anymore because I’m at a different place in my life. I feel like I’m shirking a responsibility if I leave. I’m a happy person with a happy life; I’ve benefited a lot from the work of people who share my identity. I feel a sense of duty to give back to my community by helping to keep this group going. And it’s not that I don’t have enough time or energy…this just isn’t how I want to spend it.

If I leave, I know there is one particular person who will wind up picking up all the slack. They’re a friend of mine, and I feel bad leaving them in the lurch. But I don’t like this work, and because I don’t like it, I don’t do it well. I put things off, I don’t bring the enthusiasm to discussions and meet-ups that I think newcomers deserve to see. Things fall through the cracks. I can’t figure out whether to find some way of getting the enthusiasm back and doing better, or leave and hope someone steps up to the plate, even though I don’t think they will.

What should I do?

This question is really hitting me where it hurts, gentle reader!! A sense of duty coupled with the stress of organizing and a decline in your feelings of benefit or connection to something you are working on is definitely a recipe for feeling bad about the time and energy you are spending on it! The decision of whether to re-invest or get out is a tricky one, and even once you decide (at least provisionally), there is the question of *how* to get your groove back, or how to leave in a way that doesn’t feel awful. To puzzle over this question, I used my Collective Tarot deck, which is like my tarot mother tongue. I think it has some beautiful ideas and questions to offer you. Let’s get into it.


Heart of the Matter: Accountability (Justice)

This card is asking you to take a hard look at things as they are, not as you wish them to be. I can hear in your question a desire to do right by your community, to be invested in this work, to enjoy it and do it well—and yet, you don’t *feel* it. It sounds like your frustration and dissatisfaction are getting louder, and asking you to listen. This card agrees—it’s time to take a real look at what’s going on here, and honor your truth in it.


The Collective Tarot deck renames this card “Accountability” which is a real hot buzzword in activism and organizing these days, so let’s talk about it for a second. The dictionary gives me synonyms like responsibility and liability, so that makes accountability sound like a real bummer. But I think there is more to it than that. I think accountability is about honoring what matters to us, and not doing that in isolation. Accountability is about mutual interdependence, learning from mistakes, and hope for building a different world. It’s asking people in your community to hold you to high standards, and letting people know when they aren’t living up to their own values and commitments. I think that actually sounds pretty exciting. Donna Haraway gives a definition of kinship in her book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene that I love: “to whom you are actually responsible” and I think there are some questions of kinship in your tie to this identity based group. I’m also really interested in Kim Tallbear’s work around kinship, Blackness, and Indigeneity, and this podcast interview is a great place to start learning about her ideas. Kinship can be about ancestry, ethnicity, sexuality, values, local community, and so much more. Many of us find ourselves wondering “who are my people?” and even if we have an answer, how we seek those people out and connect with them can still be confusing and fraught.  It sounds like at one point in time, you felt deeply that this group was made up of your kin, but now that feels less true? You still share identity with them, but do you feel kinship? Who do you feel that sense of kinship with these days? I wonder about what changed in the group, or in your life that shifted this. Are you connecting with your communities in other ways? Is your sense of your own identity transforming such that you have a stronger pull in other directions? Does it feel less like the group is also responsible to you? Is there anything that would shift that?


This card is saying that in order to feel good about how you move through this hard situation, you have some reckoning to do around questions of kinship, accountability, identity, belonging, and reciprocity.  


What to do: Intermission (The Hanged Man)

I’ll just tell you, I have a fairly new and hard-won bias towards quitting. My habit for most of my life was to stick with things (relationships, jobs, volunteer gigs, housing arrangements) for a very very long time after it was evident (or at least should have been evident) that they were *not working*. So it’s been super liberating for me to learn how to quit. Sometimes I stop reading a book in the middle if it isn’t grabbing me, which would have literally horrified me ten years ago. All this to say that I was *hoping* to pull the Eight of Cups or the Death card or the Six of Swords here, all of which would have given you permission to cut and run. Instead, we have the Hanged Man, which is a card about the transformative possibility of being (temporarily) stuck.  


Think of it this way; if you want to write a poem, you start with paper and no rules, right? Some folks can do that, but lots of us are frozen by the total freedom of a blank page. Limiting the possibilities can actually spark creativity. So if someone gives you four words you have to use, and says it has to be 17 lines, and three lines have to rhyme, you can get to work on that poem. You might end up breaking some of those rules with your finished piece, but they give you a framework to begin creating in.


This situation, this group, this system that you are a part of and helped to build—these are your poetic rules for right now. Here you are with these folks in this place with these responsibilities, and this card doesn’t think it’s time (yet) for you to get out. It does want you to be planning your escape route though, starting small, wiggling around, seeing what changes are possible without radically altering the system. Are there people in the group you think have the skills or the interest in taking on even one small task that you’ve been holding forever? Are there people in other parts of your life who you think could both benefit from this group and also contribute to it? Does the group need to grow in size or in skills to compensate for when you go? Can you start mentoring someone to teach them how to do what you do? At a meeting recently, my friend and organizing buddy Chanelle said something brilliant that I think might be relevant to your situation; she said “overwork is a missed leadership development opportunity.” When I asked her if I could use that line in this piece, she credited Ella Baker and her legacy for that concept, and maybe reading about her work might also be helpful for you to think through how and why you organize?  It seems clear that you are feeling overworked, and I think it is possible that Intermission is asking you not to miss this opportunity to develop new leaders in the group. It’s saying that it isn’t too late, and you might just have the remaining juice to leave the organizing ground more fertile without you than it even has been with you. One last thing; when you approach someone in the group to take on a task or role that’s new to them, don’t pitch it like a favour they’re doing you, or a burden they’re taking on. Think back to what this group has meant to you, how it made you feel connected, how it changed your life, and bring that into your pitch. You are inviting someone to have a role in shaping and sustaining something that mattered to you- and might matter to them a great deal.


What to think about: Four of Bones (Pentacles)

The Four of Pentacles’ central message is this—you (your time, your skills, your gifts, your heart) are worthy of protection, and much of that protection comes from you. As a card for your consideration, I think it has a few sets of questions for you.


The first bunch revolve around how you got to where you are now. You are overcommitted, and that feels pretty bad! How did it happen? Was it gradual, or did something happen that shifted the balance of work more towards you? Can you remember the moment where you started to feel resentful or stretched too thin? What was going on for you then? What were the things you said to yourself that let you get overextended? Did you know you were in too deep, or did your feelings surprise you? So many of us learn about our boundaries by sailing past them, or having them boldy crossed, and those experiences can be painful, even traumatic. It’s on all of us to develop the awareness of what it feels like when we are *approaching* the place where a limit lives, rather than only being able to react or respond once the line has already been crossed. Have you been in this overloaded place before? How did you get out? Do you already know your patterns in knowing, finding, and honoring your limits?


The second set of questions hearken back to the stuff that came up around the Accountability card; the Four of Pentacles wants to know more about your boundaries and relationships. How close to or separate from others (in the group and outside of it) are you feeling, and how do you feel about that closeness or distance? How sturdy are your boundaries? It sounds like you might be feeling underappreciated, and I wonder if the other folks who are in this group know that you are feeling that way, and if not, how you can let them in on what’s going on for you? It can be really easy to get stuck in binary thinking; you have to either stay in this exact (unpleasant) situation, or get out entirely. What would happen if you held onto some pieces, but started saying no more often to responsibilities that try to worm themselves onto your plate?


This card also makes me want to ask you this—what are you protecting yourself from? I have some guesses based on your question, but only you know what you’re feeling afraid of in this. I want you to know that you, your time, your energy, your gifts are absolutely worthy of protection; and also, it can be helpful to get clear on what the threats are, what strategies you’re using for protection from them, and if those strategies are working for you. Are you worried about other people being hurt or angry if you leave? Are you worried about uncomfortable conversations if you decide to stay but set more boundaries? Are you worried about feeling disappointed in yourself? Are you scared of losing connection with what brought you to this group in the first place? Whatever your fears are, they might be instructive in figuring out where you go from here.


Fours in the tarot are all about structure, and Pentacles is the earth suit, all about the material world and practical realities. In this position, I think it’s asking you to articulate the plan you’re working under right now (perhaps without knowing it exactly), and to also articulate the ways you wish to be operating, and see if you can find ways to close the gaps. Most of all, I think it’s telling you to be intentional about how you move forward, don’t get passive and let things happen. If you need things to change, you’ve got to start changing them.


What to be careful of: Nine of Bones (Pentacles)

This is *such* a sweet card. It talks about moments when things are working well, when you feel like a cog in a machine that’s doing something you feel good about, and you can rely on your fellow cogs. It’s also about taking (or at least giving yourself) credit for all that you’ve accomplished. It seems to me that many folks who move through the world as women (or are socialized/read as women/feminine) have a habit of taking most of the blame when things are going wrong, and little to none of the credit when things are going well. In this position of caution, the Nine might be asking you about your relationship to credit and blame as it relates to this group you organize with.


It sounds like you feel really responsible for the continued existence of this group, and like it all rests on you right now. I want you to know that *this exact feeling* is a symptom of burnout, and that it is likely a lie your brain is telling you. It’s likely (maybe even guaranteed) that the group will not remain the same when you leave, and that’s actually a good thing. It will become what it needs to be and what it can be with the folks who are actively engaging in it. They will adapt it or create something new. The thing you loved and worked so hard at may cease to exist; it may also become something different and equally amazing. It might even become something you want to join again later. I’m reading this book right now, called Emergent Strategy, by Adrienne Maree Brown, and it’s a whole brilliant and exciting thing I think everyone should read (at least 3 times through), and Adrienne got a lot of her inspiration from Octavia Butler, legendary Black science fiction writer, especially from this section of  The Parable of the Sower:All that you touch/ You Change/ All that you Change/ Changes you/ The only lasting truth/ Is Change.” We humans have such a hard time with this!! Sometimes, we have more tolerance for a crummy situation that is stable, than for an exciting or fulfilling one that isn’t. You contributed so much to this group; changed it and were changed by it, and now you want to do something different. That’s great. The group might want to be different too. You can let it evolve. You can even let it struggle.


The whole thing about organizing and groups is that they aren’t about one person, so if this one feels like it is right now, that’s a strong signal that it’s time for it to start transforming into whatever it will become next. In your question you said that you hope someone might be able to step up, though you have some doubts. I think that the dream scenario isn’t some*one* stepping up, but rather the responsibilities being spread around a little more, so that no other single person gets into the jam you find yourself in now. I think you can trust the enthusiasm and wisdom and skill in the group to figure out how to continue on without you, and you can help with this transformation by seeding some skills, diffusing some work and some power, and then by getting out of the way.


Good luck!