Seven Innocent Mistakes Volunteers Often Make

By David Paul, M.D., Ph.D. & Bonnie Paul, Ph.D.

Having worked with thousands of inmates and large volunteer teams in medium-to-maximum security prisons through The Freedom to Choose Project, we’ve seen firsthand how selfless service brings out our own potential for transformation. However, there are a number of pitfalls that can interfere with our abilities to help others.

Consider the below seven innocent mistakes volunteers often make, and for more, come to our April 2 lecture “How Selfless Service Can Transform You and the World,” part of the SBCC School of Extended Learning Mind & Supermind series. We’ll be discussing how volunteers can learn and practice service skills that have the potential to transform both their lives and the world around them. 

1. Forgetting to prioritize self-care – before, during and after

We have a ground rule for all of our events: Take care of yourself, so you can help take care of others. Selfless service is not a sacrifice, it is an informed, heartfelt choice. It starts with service to ourselves – which we consider the first step to becoming the change we want to see in the world. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we won’t be able to take care of others. Ignoring this ground rule can result in burnout, also called compassion fatigue.

2.  Having an agenda

Selfless service is just that, service for the sake of service. Having an agenda is not selfless, it is selfish. Agendas can be quite varied, and include things like recognition, reward or an expectation of certain outcomes. We have a saying: Expectations are recipes for disappointment.

3. Underestimating the capacity of those we serve

When serving others, recognition that many people are quite capable, and underestimating the capacity and potential of those we serve can unintentionally limit them, or unintentionally create dependency. Instead, we have the opportunity to hold a vision of people as capable of handling their challenges, which in itself is empowering.

4. Assuming we need to “fix them”

Many volunteers make the assumption that it’s their job to “fix” someone else’s circumstance or lives. Heartfelt service is not about fixing, it’s about assisting: a heartfelt outreach from one valuable human to another. Sometimes the best assistance is knowing someone truly cares.

5. Feeling guilty – “I’m not doing enough”

One of the challenges of volunteering in truly challenging circumstances is dealing with guilt over feeling we can’t help “enough.” Or, feeling guilty because we compare our (better) circumstance with someone else’s. Advances in neuroscience are showing us that the biggest problem with guilt is that it blocks our ability to serve in a truly heartfelt way.

6. Offering too much

While not often recognized as such, over-giving is a setup for volunteer burnout. It’s also a violation of our fundamental ground rule: Take care of yourself so you can help take care of others.

7. Mistaking Sympathy for Compassion

Upon first blush, it may seem that sympathy and compassion are synonyms. The way we look at it, they are markedly different in an important way. Both include the important ability to empathize with another’s situation. Compassion involves awareness of someone’s pain, and an inner calling to help. Sympathy has pity in it: “Oh, poor you!” Volunteers often feel this is a useful emotion, however neuroscience is teaching us that this subtle form of judgment is not only bad for our own health, but it may block our ability to truly be of service.

Mind & Supermind lecture: “How Selfless Service Can Transform You and the World”

WHEN:                Monday, April 2, 2018, 7:30 – 9:30pm

WHERE:              Schott Auditorium, 10 W Padre St, Santa Barbara, CA 93105

ADMISSION:       $20

EVENT INFO:(805) 687-0812

Please register here.

Course number: 202197

About the SBCC School of Extended Learning

The School of Extended Learning responds to the diverse learning needs of the adult population in the Santa Barbara community by advancing career and life skills, and building bridges to credit.

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