No wrong way to give volunteer

There is No Wrong Way to Give. What Works Best for You?

Occasionally, I have the urge to do something generous. But then I fail to act on it. Often, my reason for inaction isn’t a good one: ‘it’s not good enough’ or ‘it makes me nervous.’ But we can’t let our own hang-ups stand in the way of making a difference. So, let’s figure out what does work. When you let your heart guide you, there’s no wrong way to give.

The Internal Struggle

I was fortunate to grow up surrounded by generous people. Service to others was not only an integral part of my daily life; it was an expectation. I watched my mom and dad help others in their community and church. Even organized service work at school was a norm; everyone around me was doing it.

It’s embarrassing for me to admit this, especially now, since I write about kindness. But often, I didn’t enjoy it.

There were certain types of volunteering that I found extremely uncomfortable. I would become unreasonably distressed when interacting with someone suffering or in great need–especially if he or she was a child. I remember dreading some service projects, because I would feel overwhelmingly sad throughout the experience and well after.

Interestingly, this feeling of discomfort didn’t dissipate as I became an adult. I felt confused and ashamed that I was shying away from rolling up my sleeves to do the “hard work.” Meanwhile, my teenage daughter was taking care of orphans in Cambodia and going on missions to China. She would return from trips, where she worked with people in extreme poverty, energized and excited by all she had seen and been able to contribute.

What was wrong with me? Was I lazy or selfish? Did I think I was “too good” to do that kind of volunteer work? It left me feeling weak and cowardly.

An Aha Moment

Then, as I was reading Jamil Zaki’s book, The War for Kindness, I had an aha moment. He helped me realize it was time to reevaluate my expectations and self-judgment around giving.

When we perform an act of kindness for someone else, we (usually) show compassion to and empathy for that person and their situation. But, as Zaki explains, there are different types of empathy: “Psychologists make a [similar] distinction between empathic distress and empathic concern. Distress is one flavor of emotional empathy: feeling as someone else does by vicariously taking on their pain. Concern instead entails feeling for someone and wanting to improve their well-being.”

Zaki describes how this might influence our actions:

“Easily distressed people avoid others’ suffering, for instance, refusing volunteer opportunities that will put them in emotional situations. People who feel concern do not.”

Yes. That is exactly what I was feeling: empathic distress. So, now what can I do about that?

It’s Not Just Me

Whenever I come across a new concept in my research, I like to see if it resonates with others as it does with me. Well, this one really did.

For example, I was speaking to friends who volunteer every Thanksgiving at a shelter in their hometown. They explained that the shelter gives out different roles to volunteers: those in the front with the diners (food servers, greeters) and those in the back (dishwashers, food preppers).

Sandy talked excitedly about her enjoyment working with shelter guests in the front: meeting different people from the neighborhood and sharing the holiday with them. Mark, on the other hand, explained how he was much more comfortable doing his part in the back: “I take a lot of pride making sure that the back kitchen is clean and runs smoothly so everyone gets a fresh, delicious, hot meal.”

What Works for You?

Simply put, acts of kindness are good. Obviously, they benefit the receivers, but they also positively impact our own health and well-being. It just makes sense to do them frequently. And for us to do them more often, to create a habit of kindness in our lives, it’s got to work for you.

So, if you find yourself shying away from the giving you feel you “should” be doing, it’s time to reconsider what kind of giving will create a win-win for the receivers and you.

How can you give in a way that helps others and energizes you at the same time?

Consider: What is the best way for you to give? What comes easily for you?

  • Time: Utilize your free-time to help at school during your children’s after-school activities or pick up trash as you wait for your take-out order to be ready.
  • Money: Donate some of those extra funds you have due to an unexpectedly generous bonus or cash gift.
  • Expertise: Share your skills or talents with someone like my friend, Anthony, who taught me about photography or my husband, Vlad, who coaches tennis at a local university.
  • Thoughts/Prayers/Words of Encouragement: Share with your neighbor that you are praying for their mother who is in the hospital or give an extra compliment to the waiter at dinner.

Consider: What energizes or empowers you?

  • Inspiration: Life experience (Like Alan and his sister’s battle with cancer.) or an amazing person you want to model
  • Location: Global or community efforts
  • Motivation: Health, well-being, environment, education
  • Organization: Charity or organization you respect

The possibilities are endless. Finding acts of kindness that are a win-win is doable. Taking the time to think creatively and consider what works for you will pay off for everyone.

Building Your Compassion Muscle

Two rules of life I strive to embrace: moderation is key, and growth is essential. While I think it’s important to consider this perspective on empathy and giving, I believe in having a balance: self-compassion while still challenging yourself to expand your comfort zone.

In the new book, Build the Life You Want, by Arthur C. Brooks and Oprah Winfrey, Brooks explains:

“To become a more compassionate (and thus happier) person, start by working on your toughness. To be tougher in the face of another’s pain doesn’t mean feeling it less. Rather, you should learn to feel the pain without being impaired to act.”

I choose to do most of my kind acts in a manner enjoyable to me. But I also want to take small steps to build my compassion muscle and move away from empathic distress and towards concern. I don’t want to be limited by my own discomfort. I look forward to building my ability to show empathic concern and one day, joining my daughter to make a difference together.

"When we can free ourselves from the idea of separateness, we have compassion, we have understanding, and we have the energy we need to help."
Thich Nhat Hanh

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