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Essay: "Volunteering for Ourselves"

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Elly's Gratitude Group Member Writings
for those experiencing
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, & Orthostatic Intolerance

"Volunteering for Ourselves"

by Barbara Bell, PhD
(a.k.a. TurtleBarb)

Bell photo

Summer 2011

I've been following the recent thread(s) on volunteering and social activism, and am grateful that they've resonated with me and have been rich food for thought. Here are some of those thoughts that I've been typing up over the last week. There's an essay's-worth of pondering here. No pressure to read any of it. I'm putting it out into the universe through Dishy.

Toni's quote from Gloria Steinem about social activism (a form of volunteering) being a drug that helps us avoid really looking at ourselves really struck a chord with me. I did that! A lot. Helping others feels good on so many levels. We feel empowered when we feel like we're helping someone else, especially if we feel like we're preventing someone else from going through what we did. Perceiving that we made a difference in someone else's life gives a feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment. These feelings can briefly fill an emotional void and alleviate our low self-esteem. But only briefly, so we feel like we need to do more to "get another hit of the drug" and feel good about ourselves again. And gratitude and appreciation of our efforts is like catnip for those of us who are uncomfortable giving help, support, gratitude and appreciation to ourselves. That was the most "addicting" part of it for me.

For people like me who have a life-long habit of looking to outside sources for validation and praise, volunteering/advocacy is a sure way to get our fix. My self-worth is largely dependent on what others think of me, something I'm working on. Volunteering/advocacy was a major source of external admiration, which is one reason I've taken a break from it. It was too easy to rely on the crutch of outside praise, and avoid the hard work of learning to appreciate myself.

I've been pondering other things that drive the urge to volunteer. We have such a strong, pervasive "should" energy around it. Giving of ourselves to others is universally regarded as an honorable deed. Many religions and philosophies include commandments that their believers should help those who are "less fortunate," "have less," are "less able" than they are etc. We are told that putting our needs before others is selfish and sinful. In other words, subjugating our needs to others is righteous and virtuous. The opposite is bad and wrong. I was raised in that tradition myself. In fact, all women I know were, regardless of faith (or lack thereof). These "should" messages are reinforced constantly from all corners of life, even from unexpected channels like quotations written on some soda bottle caps and candy wrappers.

But is it selfish to take care of ourselves? Are we less deserving of our precious energy than others? Are we less deserving of our care and attention? And are we really "more able" than the average person, and therefore in a "better" position to give ourselves away?

No. We're just as deserving of our precious, limited resources as anyone else. Perhaps a bit more so, because our resources are so limited. Everyone on this list is "less able" than the average Joe or Jane in some way. It's what led us to EGGdish. We do not have the same energy levels as the status quo, the privilege to assume that if we tire ourselves out today, we will be up-and-at-'em tomorrow or next week. WE are in need of help. WE are the "have lesses," at least when it comes to functional resources. WE are exactly the kind of people that we would want to help if the shoe were on the other foot. But the shoe is on OUR foot, at least for now. That's a painful truth to face. But ignoring that truth doesn't negate it, just like ignoring our self-esteem issues doesn't make them go away.

Everyone on this list has a body that is chronically under a lot of stress. Whether it's CFS, FMS, MVPS, OI, OA, RA, PTSD, MDD, PDQ or XYZ, we have limited physical resources for even basic physiological maintenance functions. Our symptoms are evidence of that. Our recuperative powers are hindered. Every time we push and tire ourselves, we risk using more energy than we can recover before the next push drains more energy than we can recover, and so on in a downward spiral.

We all deserve to preserve and heal ourselves so that we can handle what's next. We all deserve to save enough energy so that we can have a little fun. We are all important enough to help. We deserve care. And, most importantly, we can give help and care to ourselves. We can direct the generosity that we're more comfortable giving to others to ourselves instead, at least during the times when we need every drop of energy to heal ourselves. We can increase our own quality of life. If we can't even help ourselves, how can we expect to truly help others? Depleting ourselves in order to feel good about helping others is unsustainable. "Physician, heal thyself."

Pondering religions again…many of the ones that have commandments to serve others also have commandments to respect the divine by respecting the vessel it gave us. It seems like it would be a great dishonor to squander such a gift by running it into the ground. It would be like someone building you a beautiful car from scratch, and then you drag race it off a cliff.

We are all part of EGGdish because we want to learn how to transform our living through gratitude practice and focusing on what is going well in our lives. We're here because things don't work for us like they used to, and we want to make sense of it. We want to learn how to adapt to the way things are now, to smooth out the hills and valleys of struggling with hardship so we can live on a more even keel. One of the ways to do that is to let go of attachment to old ways and ideas that don't work for us at present. To give ourselves a break. To take the time that we've been given, even if it isn't what we wanted, and use it to heal ourselves. I think a large part of healing for us involves learning to love and care for ourselves, to cast aside the crutches of outside validation and walk on our own strong feet. Otherwise, we'll continue to be blown around by the hurricane of external opinion.

I'm not saying "we should all give up volunteering forever." No shoulds here. I'm encouraging us all to think about the reasons we volunteer and to weigh the costs and benefits of spending our limited resources on others instead of our own healing. Some may not be able to bear the thought of taking a break from volunteering/advocacy, no matter the personal cost. That's not wrong or bad. Life is full of choices, and here on EGGdish we specialize in learning about why we do things and how we can grow from the results of our decisions. We can learn from and be grateful for the consequence of anything we do. If we can't bear to reduce the amount of energy we sacrifice to others, even for a day, then we can examine why not. We can observe how we feel when we're doing the work and after the work is done. We can ponder why we feel so anxious about not doing it, where the driving "should" energy comes from, and whether it feeds or drains us. We can find silver linings. We can brainstorm ways to adapt how we do the work in a way that might be more energy- and self-conserving.

Let's not forget that we do things to help others every day, we just tend to downplay their significance as "not enough to count." A phone call or email exchange with a friend helps them feel connected and cared for. To give love and attention to someone we know is to give a precious gift that many other people don't receive. What a privilege that we get to take such things for granted sometimes. Expressing gratitude to someone is also huge and enriching. We have an abundance of love to give. We can give so much in so many ways that don't involve pushing ourselves to do things that tire us, like writing letters, calling strangers, going places, licking stamps, stuffing envelopes etc. Things we can do from our beds and recliners if we want to. Every time we reach out to someone with an open heart, we are volunteering to make their life better. We are advocating for them.

We have limited resources at the moment, but maybe not forever. Doing everything we can to give our body the resources it needs to heal is one of the biggest ways we can increase our chances of increasing functioning. We can pour all our resources into healing our mind/body now so that we can rise to other challenges another day. We can do the hard work of practicing gratitude, being observers, processing our feelings and reactions, and nurturing ourselves. All of those things will help us cultivate the compassion for ourselves that will make us better equipped to have compassion for others. Giving ourselves permission to devote all of our being to healing ourselves now is the best bet we've got for getting back more functionality and having enough energy to care for ourselves and anyone else we want to in the future. It's a sound investment. We are ALL well worth it.

EGG - Elly's Gratitude Group


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Updated September 5, 2011