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Combating Burnout and the Emotional Obstacles in Model UN

Written by Frank Pobutkiewicz

I'm the founder/Managing Director of the All-American Model UN Programs! If you have any questions, please email [email protected]. Happy MUNing!

April 26, 2019

Combating Burnout and the Emotional Obstacles in Model UN

By Brian Johnson (All-American Model UN, Robbinsville High School)

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

Moments ago, the chair’s gavel slamming the desk marked the end of the third committee session. Delegates disperse, teenagers in suits begin filling the halls— deliberating where their new-found friends might meet for lunch or how to finish their bloc’s working paper. Some find solace in this break, appreciating the calm from the storm.

You, however, cannot. Yesterday, you walked into committee and something happened. It could have been the moment you sat down, it could have been the second your placard fell short of the primary speaker’s list, it could have been when that guy from Utah with the lime green socks stole control of your bloc. Whatever it was, something knocked you out of the moment. Half the time, your nerves are so overwhelming that your speeches suffer as a result. The other half, you are struggling to keep your eyes open and your head spins. Eons later, a final strike from the chair’s gavel marks the end of the conference, and you shuffle dazed toward the closing ceremonies.

What just happened?

The Problem

More likely than not, you have experienced a classic case of burnout: mental and often physical exhaustion sparked by overwhelming stress. Now, Model UN delegates are no strangers to stress; it’s the name of the game! Constantly vying for control, working against the clock, ensuring everything falls exactly into place (and adapting when it does not). It is a lot to handle! So, it is no surprise when the stars do not align you are left feeling lost.

Since stress is such a complex mental roadblock, it can spring from almost anywhere. For MUN delegates, Burnout can be easily defined into two categories: motivational and circumstantial. Motivational burnout happens when you just are not engaged during the committee. From SPECPOL to the UNSC, delegates everywhere encounter topics that they don’t connect with or conferences they would rather blow off than try their hardest during. Circumstantial burnout can be a bit trickier though. For delegates, circumstantial burnout surpasses motivational in that the delegate is, at the very least, trying. Circumstantial burnout often arises from disorientation, overwhelming anxiety, and uncertainty. Ultimately, burnout can come in varying degrees and from varying sources— but it is not impossible to beat.

So by understanding burnout, how can we solve it?

Burnout can crush a delegate, but it is not the end of the world. A critical part of the skillset of an advanced delegate is the ability to take preemptive action to avoid burnout, recognize when one is experiencing it, and what to fix in order to get back on track in the middle of a conference or committee session.

Remembering to Breathe

Like any affliction, start small. When you have a sore throat, the first step is not to down six Amoxicillin; you stay hydrated, rest up, maybe gargle with salt water. Never overestimate your condition, and do not attempt rewiring your brain just yet.

First, relax. Try breathing exercises, count to ten a few times, punch the guy that keeps loudly ripping note paper (actually, do not do that last one!). Sometimes, you just need to slow the world down and regain clarity. That is all.

But, sometimes, it is a bit more complicated than that. If you are still gripped with existential dread and impending doom, you must identify whether your burnout is motivational or circumstantial.

Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize

Model UN, as an activity, performs a diverse variety of purposes for a diverse variety of people. Some do Model UN to hang out with like-minded, outward-focused people. Some do Model UN to learn about world cultures and global politics. While we respect those interests and promote them, All-American does wish to instill a strong competitive attitude within its subscribers. Therefore, if you are in a motivational rut, keep your eyes on the prize: gaveling!

Understandably, many delegates find themselves confused as to why they are even there. Why care so much? Why even try to run a bloc? Victory provides purpose and purpose solves the issue of motivation. So be self-aware; remember where you are. You cannot gavel if you are too busy mulling over whether your paper will pass or whether your speech during the moderated caucus made an impact. The potential to win— with all of the flash and perks— provides a great way to combat motivational burnout.

Working Within Your Means

In every conference, even those you gavel at, you will experience moments of weak performance. You have lost control for a bit, maybe someone stole your seat during an unmoderated caucus. It happens to the best of us.

Optimism is the key to making dreams into reality. Reach for the stars, and if you fail, you will at least hit the moon, right? Unfortunately, blind hope can lead down a weary, disgruntling path. You do everything right, and nothing works out. Though philosophies differ and some may tell you to press on— sometimes, accept the facts. Pull out while there is still time.

But if you are not going for the gavel, what is left?

While there is no one award scale— Rutgers Model UN (RUMUN) provides a “Most Improved” award; most of the Ivy League University conferences only award Best, Outstanding, and Honorable— there is always an alternative. Before it is too late, start making bounds to grab the second place or third place. For the sake of your sanity, do not desperately cling if it is clear that someone else is dominating. Be the contrarian, attempt to pick off delegates from the external rings of the dominating bloc bit by bit, whip some votes, write a few clauses instead of delegating others to do so for once. However, you do it, change the course of your motivator to something realistic and worthwhile. Otherwise, burnout will definitely grip you!

Always remember that there is an alternative to your current route, and you can take a number of targeted steps to change course and find success elsewhere.

Immersing Yourself in Committee

How many times have you been stuck in the UNCTAD or UNODC watching your fellow delegates drone on about creating “task forces” or placing “sanctions” or doing something the United Nations cannot actually enact? In another way: how many times have you been stuck debating topics that seem far fetched, or discussing solutions that all seem incompetent and/or implausible?

It is difficult finding motivation when debating a topic that you either are not educated about or, worse yet, couldn’t care less about. Speaking honestly, some delegates are interested more by climate change than by refugee crises (and vice versa). And after all, most people do Model UN because it is fun. Why spend hours upon hours in committee if you do not care about the subject?

If you cannot wrap your head around vying for victory, then your motivation troubles can find solace in committee immersion. Roleplaying can be difficult for some, but it is a great way to gain confidence, articulate your points, and most of all: have fun. As many problems of motivation lie with rewiring your brain, try placing yourself into the head of your country’s delegation. Again, you may be disinterested by the territorial disputes over oil fields. But as the delegation of Qatar, international efforts to privatize these fields would infuriate you! Hold onto that emotion, shape your arguments around it! No one likes the kid who goes overboard. But impassioned speeches, sensible arguments, and embodying that delegation will not just catch the chair’s attention, but motivate you as well. Never skimp on the acting: live the role!

The Forest for the Trees

Moving away from the issue of motivation: what do you do when everything just is not working out? When the problem is not the conference or the committee or the topic… what remains?

What remains is yourself. More likely than not, you are internalizing your problems and allowing failure to grip hold. Never let it! If your problems are circumstantial, then the best way to rewire your brain is by again slowly becoming self-aware and evaluating the situation

Once more, All-American MUN is a community built on healthy competition and forward-thinking. Veteran All-American delegates are experts at embracing motivation through a hyper-competitive mindset: peers melt away, speeches and resolution writing enter a distinctive flow, and the only thing that remains in mind is that glorious gavel. While we maintain that this is an excellent way to regain motivation when feeling the effects of academic fatigue of mental exhaustion from a four-day conference, if you are still feeling burnout, we remind you to put everything into perspective.

Model UN is not all about victory. It is about self-actualization, learning, and building bonds with your fellow teammates. Some of my best friends are those I have met through Model UN, and I largely attribute that to the fact that I take committee and the whole conference as an opportunity to get to know others. In recent years, delegates have become acerbic to genuine connection with their peers. Competition has allowed a steady stake to be driven between oneself and others.

Oftentimes, you just need to take a step back and view the big picture. Ensure success and victory, but do not become reliant. Otherwise, those small problems may overwhelm.

Taking Preliminary Measures

Another circumstantial problem which may occur is that of a lack of research or topic understanding. This is perhaps one of the greatest problems facing Model UN delegates today: laziness or an academic schedule at school that disallows proper preparation for conferences. Maybe you only skimmed the topic brief or maybe you failed to really understand your country’s perspective. Perhaps the binder you had jammed full of notes was left on your desk the night before you traveled–or worse, you filled your binder with hundreds of pages of articles you never got around to reading– and now you are “stranded” among a sea of well-researched competitors. Either way, you are out of the loop.

First, begin weeks to months in advance. Not just in writing your position paper, but in understanding the whole of committee–remember the big picture! You must analyze your country’s economic, social, and political steps taken in the past to address the topic at hand; along with actions you wish to propose in committee.

Additionally, understand your committee structure. Are there multiple topics? How many sessions are there total? Will it be a General Assembly or Specialized topic demanding a resolution paper, or a Crisis requiring directives? Asking questions like this may very well save you from a circumstantial burnout!

The Bottom Line

Truthfully, there is no single method for solving burnout. Personal problems, extenuating circumstances, and any number of issues may cause overbearing stress upon a delegate. It is nothing to be ashamed about— whether you are new or experienced, it happens to everybody!

But in learning to grow and improve as a delegate, one must also learn to deal with the problems that inevitably entail from attending multiple conferences per Model UN season and growing increasingly exhausted. Following the advice above will guide you towards avoiding burnout altogether.

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