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The Kind of Help We All Could Do Without

2011

This is Part 2 in a series of posts on labyrinths ~ structures that channel our creative energies in all the right ways.

Part 1: How to Make Sure Your Creative Work Gets Done

I grew up in a household where volunteering was a way of life. Nearly every night of the week my parents were going to a music rehearsal or a board meeting or delivering meals to someone who was sick. My mom has a long and illustrious career in unpaid labour.

What I love about my volunteer-centric upbringing was that it grounded me in the value of serving others. When I see people waking up to the importance of giving back, I think of myself as a teenager: teaching Sunday school, managing the yearbook committee, joining school council, leading a small group on my youth music team. Clearly I learned that lesson early on, and carried it with me into adult life.

A funny thing happened along the way, though.

Serving others became a way of punishing myself.

I gave away my extra time and energy ~ gave until it hurt ~ and didn’t have enough left to properly take care of myself. Which meant that I was too depleted to write.


There’s such warm cultural affirmation in volunteering. People thank you and admire you, and you bask in the assurance that you are doing more than your part to keep society going and take care of the needy. You know that you are not lazy or selfish.

That’s why stopping or cutting back can take tremendous courage.

I admit, I took the easy way out ~ I had kids, which is kind of a free pass to dropping all of one’s commitments. But as I handed over the volunteer bookkeeping and quit the groups and committees, I also had a new understanding of why I was doing it.

Why settle for serving people in a way that hurts you, when you could serve people in a way that nourishes and strengthens you?

I didn’t need some fancy rubric for figuring out which commitments were hurting me. I could tell by the way I dreaded the events, and avoided the emails, and put off the work. I was volunteering out of obligation, not joy, and while people may have benefited, I couldn’t sustain the effort.

Not to mention that my strongest gifts and best contributions sat on the shelf.

Dropping most of my volunteering created a spacious labyrinth that I can walk with a spring in my step. I have the empty calendar and uncluttered to-do list that frees me to serve where I’m most effective and enriched ~ writing books, coaching clients, and caring for my family. I haven’t lost the value of service my parents instilled in me ~ I’ve just redefined it to keep myself healthy and happy.

No doubt there will come a time when my capacity expands and I can take on a more active helping role outside my immediate circle. Until then I’m at peace with the belief that serving myself is just another way of serving others.

Because we are all connected.

What’s been your experience in giving away your time to help people? What changes have you made to ensure that your artist self gets what she needs too?

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{ 9 comments… add one }

  • Marla April 6, 2011, 7:10 pm

    Excellent post and reminder – people in business jobs are especially susceptible to the pressure to join, meet people, show up, market, get out there and it is incredibly depleting when done to excess. Like most common sense, it is not common, though, and cautionary posts are very helpful!

    • kfz versicherung anhänger mitversichert October 12, 2016, 8:13 am

      I’ve been asked to sing solo alot! Solo that no one can hear me! ALthough I love to sing, I don’t do it very well. I’ve never played an instrument unless you count the recorder in third grade and I didn’t grow up in church so the hymns aren’t ingrained in my heart! Therein lies the problem, when it comes to using music to train my children…I need help!I checked out Jamie’s webpage and was encouraged that he is in Canada, that’s where I am from![]

    • 1999.co.jp October 28, 2016, 6:14 pm

      Dreambes, je veux pas te manquer de respect, ou te paraitre condescendant, mais franchement, pourquoi tu l’ouvre? Cette album, Wars of the roses, est plein de bonnes idées, mais c’est vrai, la piste Providence avec ses coeurs c’est mauvais et pas à sa place…et l album dans l ensemble laisse une impression de "j ai raté le c…

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  • Carole Jane Treggett April 7, 2011, 4:21 pm

    “I gave away my extra time and energy ~ gave until it hurt ~ and didn’t have enough left to properly take care of myself. Which meant that I was too depleted to write.”

    I resemble that remark! lol

    It’s sometimes oh-so-tough to follow through with courage required to try and facilitate a healthy balance of service to oneself and to others (especially when one has some needy people around who make that really, really challenging). But the battle is worth it; the results are tangible.

    Just look at you, Alison, as a shining example. I’m really appreciating and benefiting from these posts. Thank you so much.

  • Jeannie Prinsen April 7, 2011, 7:21 pm

    This post definitely struck a chord with me, since I went from being a super-involved-attend-every-meeting type of person to someone who now chooses to do very little in the “outside world” in terms of service & volunteering. I have 2 special needs kids so any “service” I do has to focus on them. Also I need to look after myself and do things that give me joy and fill my tank.

    In that regard two things come to mind: the first is those instructions the flight attendants give you to put on your own mask first and then help someone else (not just because your “job” is to help others, but because you have every right to breathe too).

    The other thing is to stow your belongings securely in the overhead compartment… NO WAIT THAT’S NOT IT! No, it’s this quote from Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak: “Self-care is never a selfish act — it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many lives we touch.”

  • Alison April 7, 2011, 7:53 pm

    @Marla ~ I hadn’t even thought of feeling pressure to do voluntary career stuff. Double whammy. And you’re right, a little mindfulness can help a lot.

    @Carole Jane ~ Glad to hear this stuff is resonating for you. We gather courage from being affirmed in these choices by like-minded people.

    @Jeannie ~ “You have every right to breathe too.” Exactly! And thanks for the Palmer quotation, it’s bang on.

  • Rosemary March 14, 2014, 1:22 pm

    I have done a variety of types of voluntary work. It is true that there is satisfaction to be gained. And the recipients of our time are so grateful. But it can be very depressing to see others suffering. I am not suggesting that this is a reason not to volunteer…just to cut back now and again and do things to nurture and nourish ourselves. We can never cure all the ills of the world anyway. We must look after ourselves.

  • Jackie. Arsh June 20, 2017, 3:54 am

    Hi I am currently suffering so badly , I’m a people pleaser I just can’t say no , I have 3grownup children who never visit , I see everyone get on with there lives ie laughing Drinkinking et. , but me I put on a fake smile false laugh I feel like something has died in.me , I’ve been to doctors who can’t give me the right meds , I suffer from bulminia, restless leg syndrome , so I get prescribed a drug that gains weight and causes rest.ess leg , I took 1 and it messed me up so badly , I was give. Tramadol for my legs of which may I add are on repeat priscription ?no check ups or questions asked , it helped legs yes but I became addicted felt worse still no help , I feel susidal ,phoned for councilling 6months waiting and I can’t afford private , my mind won’t switch off , work pressure the doc has signed me off but I worry how will we cope , life is a living hell ATM no confidence or self asstem

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