Make “Community Work” Work for the Self Too
February 6, 2020

A couple of weeks ago, we shared a post for those who would like to start adding more charitable or social justice work in their lives. This post is for those who’ve already begun and might be struggling with some of the personal challenges social work can incur – even just from reading more about the work that needs to be done. We all have the model of selfless devotion in Mother Theresa types, but social work doesn’t have to look like that. It can be both intense for the self AND good for it too.

Whether you want to call it social justice, community service, or charitable giving, doing something positive for the world can be both a boon to our own sense of well-being and also hard emotional work. It requires confidence and strength in standing up for what you believe is right or better against forces that make it so easy to uphold how things are now. And yet, it also requires humility and a willingness to listen to those who have been excluded or oppressed, and to accept what their needs are, even when their truths are bitter and hard to hear.

It’s a hard thing, to have your eyes opened to things to which you used to be innocent. It’s a hard thing to step out of your comfort zone on your own behalf, let alone on behalf of someone else who might be a complete stranger. It’s a hard thing to want to step out of your comfort zone. It’s even harder to be asked or expected to.

In the face of this, it is normal to feel confusion. It is normal to feel anger. It is normal to feel sadness and grief. It is also normal to feel hope. And we can choose to feel gratitude for the lessons we’re all still learning.

Working for Others Requires Work On The Self

Doing this kind of work requires both more and less of us. Here are some concrete ways to do both:

  • Consider making service a habit, rather than a grand gesture. Are there ways you can fold positive action into your daily life that feel sustainable? For example, large donations might feel daunting or out of reach to you. How about starting with a small, recurring donation? You might feel the pinch of a $120 donation taken all at once, but perhaps a monthly $10 donation would go less noticed. Or is there a way you can do volunteer work that fits comfortably in your existing skill set, or that can even be done from the convenience of your own home? For example, if you’re great at social media, you could offer to help spread the word online. Or if you enjoy hosting parties, you could host get-togethers that are also fundraisers.
  • Not all of us are skilled at holding a conversation about difficult topics on social media or over the dinner table with relatives only seen on holidays in a way that would really make a lasting, positive change. But maybe there are ways we can hold these conversations that are more productive. For example, you could host movie nights or encourage your book club to take on books that confront these issues. It’s not about staying in the safety of like-minded people so much as it is using a safe space to talk about the issues more deeply and confront the things you’re not sure whether you’re right about, to hear from others and maybe just move the needle a little bit more.
  • Tackling big, heavy books about serious topics can also feel daunting. You may even go so far as to buy the book, only to have it languish on your To Be Read list. Thankfully, there are lots of people active online, on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, sharing their perspectives. You can follow their work and build exposure to their point of view into your daily routines.
  • Service work requires showing up for others, but it also calls on us to show up for ourselves. Taking care of yourself makes you more able to take care of others, giving you both energy as well as insight into how to be of service. Meanwhile, neglecting our own needs is a recipe for burn out, and burn out serves no one. The key is to find the appropriate way and the appropriate space for meeting our needs. This might require taking time for self-reflection to see what you need in order to be able to approach the service space with humility and generosity.

How to Show Up for Others and For Yourself

Questions to pose about the self:

What do I have the capacity for today, and can I let that be enough? Our energy to cope with these challenges ebb and flow. Be mindful of what your energy is like in this day, or even in this hour, give what you can, and feel good about it. There will be days when you can do more, and days when you can’t. All of it is okay.

Where might I need support, and how do I get it? We do not need to be selfless to be generous. The key is seeking the support we need from the appropriate sources. For example, we all need validation from time to time, some cheerleading to sustain us and help us know we’re going the right way. It is not appropriate to seek it from the people you’re trying to help though. They do not owe you validation, and their energy needs to be focused elsewhere. Seek it instead from someone else who is doing the service work in a way you admire, and who you trust to be both honest and kind in how they talk to you.

Can I be compassionate and patient with my own imperfections? Be gentle with yourself. Practicing gentleness with yourself helps you be gentle with others. It may sound paradoxical, but being okay with your imperfections also gives you the grace to hold yourself more accountable. When you’re willing to accept your faults, it becomes easier to ask yourself what you can do to remedy them. Not accepting our faults leads to punishment and blame; being compassionate about our faults gives space for curiosity about what we can do to learn and grow. When people see you doing this, it gives them permission to do the same.

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