Many chose to protest – a decision viewed by some as an empty gesture of the entitled and by others as a courageous stand of the outraged. Regardless, as a behavioral scientist, I can tell you that these athletes – alongside many of us – are fatigued.
Right now, many Americans are experiencing something we call “identity fatigue” – exhaustion from everything we’re being asked to do. Wear a mask. Protest for social change. Hire a diverse workforce. Buy sustainable goods. Get out and vote. And don’t forget to do your job – from home.
Playing all of these identities – hero, activist, green consumer, possible contagion, mindful citizen, dutiful employee – is exhausting. It’s exactly how professor Roger Reeves described the pressures of protest on Black athletes in his moving essay, “Black athletes were exhausted with bearing the dead on their shoulders.”
“They were exhausted, so they stopped working,” wrote Reeves. “Exhausted by the pandemic and laboring inside the bubble that allowed the NBA to salvage its season and profits. Exhausted by the isolation. Exhausted by this latest summer of killings by the police and white supremacist vigilantes.”
Do you see it now? Reeves is talking about the compounding pressures of multiple identities on these athletes. I count at least four: Black American, citizen surviving the pandemic, hard-working employee and mobilizer for social change.
How many roles are you being asked to play?
Remember how tired you felt when your mom barged in on a Saturday morning, demanding you do the chores you’d been putting off all week? Now amplify that to a national scale – and add a racial reckoning, an ever-present climate crisis and a global pandemic.
This kind of fatigue can pose actual dangers. The UK government used it as a reason not to impose stronger regulations to curb the spread of the coronavirus, arguing that too many restrictions would cause behavioral fatigue and lead to non-compliance. In the U.S., we’re being hit with so many changing demands at once that even the simplest actions, like wearing a mask, can get blurred.
Luckily, behavioral science can help us all fight the fatigue.
Practice radical acceptance
One study found that not fully adopting an identity can lead to burnout and fatigue. Self-doubt is a big part of this, as is playing “out of position” in multiple roles. Operating as an executive, a teacher’s assistant and a Zoom technician all from your kitchen table can make it difficult to adopt one singular identity. The remedy here – rather than rejecting these new roles – is to practice radical acceptance. Yes, life is weird now – but accept it, stop fighting it and move on.
Pick your sources
Consistent miscommunication and mistrust can push us to tune out the world. First, we weren’t supposed to wear masks, and now we are? No one knows anything, so I’m listening to nothing, right? Wrong. You can combat this tendency by being a smart shopper for accurate information. Don’t follow hashtags on Twitter, follow accounts you trust to tell you the truth.
Limit your options
We all love the freedom of choice, but having too many options can actually ruin your motivation to make any decision at all. It can also make you unhappier with the choice you do make. Some, such as Steve Jobs and Barack Obama, limit their clothing choices to free up brain space for work. Others cook ahead on Sunday, so they don’t have to decide what to make for dinner every night. You have a shirt that looks good on a Zoom call? Amazing! Buy one in every color.
Among many other things, this pandemic has reminded us of our interconnectedness and the potential of our actions to impact those around us – a realization at once empowering and exhausting. And as we continue on in face of these challenges, knowing what is causing this exhaustion might help us better manage identity fatigue and provide a healthier way to engage with the world.
Lilly Kofler is vice president of behavioral science and is the U.S. lead of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Behavioral Science Unit.