Let’s Talk ‘One Person Show’ Syndrome & Grassroots Community Work

Photo of Taimour standing in front of purple flowers in a peach colour tshirt

It’s October, and in 2 months I plan on having my 1 month break from managing Expert By Experience. Historically these breaks, that happen every 6 months, have allowed me to take a slower month where I can plan for the future, reflect and generally work in silo on smaller tasks. Generally speaking, by the end of the 1 month break, I am itching to come back and start afresh with brand new ideas, project plans and everything in between. For a month that’s defined as ‘rest’, it sure doesn’t serve that purpose, but that’s fine because I love what I do.

This time, however, as I approach our December break, I cannot wait to take the month off and be disconnected from Expert By Experience. I feel a great level of guilt writing that statement, but I cannot deny that is how I am currently feeling. Does it make me a bad person for admitting that? No. What it does indicate, however, is that I am at the point of burnout after a very intense 19 months since the start of the pandemic. One of the main reasons I am nearing burnout is because I suffer from ‘One Person Show’ Syndrome. A relatively new term in my vocabulary, I felt it was worth exploring ‘One Person Show’ Syndrome in the hope that it would help others in my position.

What is ‘One Person Show’ Syndrome?

‘One Person Show’ Syndrome, in my view, can be defined as the belief that you can do everything under the sun when it comes to running your initiative, even if help is on offer. While this may sound narcissistic on a surface level, what differentiates ‘One Person Show’ Syndrome from everyday narcissism is that it is a product of working with no resource, funding and running on very low capacity over a long period of time.

‘One Person Show’ Syndrome is something that affects many other grassroots organisations like Expert By Experience. It’s safe to say that after 2 and a half years of managing Expert By Experience, I have firmly developed ‘One Person Show’ Syndrome.

How does ‘One Person Show’ Syndrome play out?

‘One Person Show’ Syndrome has played out in a variety of ways for me. One of the most noticeable symptoms of ‘One Person Show’ Syndrome is the development of a ‘I’ll do it’ attitude. Although at first my ‘I’ll do it’ attitude really helped me and EBE grow, it now serves as a detriment.

Detrimental, How?

There are various reasons as to why ‘One Person Show’ Syndrome can be detrimental, on an organisational and even personal level. For example, on an organisational level (I use the term loosely because on a grassroots level structures are very fluid), my ‘I’ll do it’ attitude can and does result in over-work, especially as the organisation grows.

Similarly, on a team level, it creates ‘bottlenecking’ (heavy reliance on one individual who is over-capacity). While the organisational by-products of ‘One Person Show’ Syndrome are expected and common, it is the translation of such behaviours in my personal life that are unexpected.

To give some context, prior to my journey in mental health in a professional capacity, I used to work in the corporate sector. Generally speaking, due to my lack of passion for the role I was much better at being able to compartmentalise my 9-5 job from life outside of work. However, what I have found since venturing into mental health work full-time is that because I care so deeply about the work, the boundaries have become a lot more blurred. For example, the transfer of my eager ‘I’ll do it’ attitude has meant that I actively end up taking up leadership roles in personal spaces. Spaces where I am meant to be relaxing. Equally, from the lens of my self-identity, it has been quite challenging navigating this because without recognising it I end up entering a space as ‘Taimour, the mental health activist’ as opposed to simply ‘Taimour’.

I guess what I am trying to get across is that if we are not mindful ‘One Person Show’ Syndrome and its symptoms can quickly start to appear in areas of our life where we wouldn’t necessarily want them to.

Why do I have this?

While it’s easy for me to dwell on the symptoms of ‘One Person Show’ Syndrome, it is equally as important for me to understand why I have developed the syndrome in the first place. One of the main reasons why I have this syndrome is because I feel a level of guilt asking for work from our team who are working on a voluntary basis. As a result, driven by this guilt, I rather do the task myself than feel like I am burdening someone else, even if they’re willing to help. This guilt can be traced back to the deeper issue of working on a grassroots level without much funding. Without feeling like I can offer something materially I feel shame in asking for support.

How am I working on this?

After having spent the last 19 months doing the majority of work for EBE by myself, I am trying to create more balanced ways of working. Ways of working which hopefully will counter ‘One Person Show’ Syndrome and its symptoms. Some of these new ways of working include:

  • Actively saying ‘No’ to new projects
  • Being mindful about my energy levels
  • Openly communicating to people how I am feeling on the day
  • Saying ‘No’ to evening meetings for better work-life balance
  • Actively seeking out micro-funds to build confidence
  • Honouring parts of my identity that are not tied to my activism and work

Running a grassroots organisation isn’t easy, it’s made even more challenging by things such as ‘One Person Show’ Syndrome. With that being said, I’m hoping a mindful awareness around such challenges is able to support me and hopefully others in the sphere to navigate our journeys in a way that is kind. Kind, not only to others in the work that we do but also to ourselves.