7 Innocent Mistakes Volunteers Often Make

7 Innocent Mistakes Volunteers Often Make
by David Paul, M.D., Ph.D. & Bonnie Paul, Ph.D.


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, not recognizing 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. Sympathy vs. 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.

Want more volunteering advice? Join David Paul, M.D., Ph.D. & Bonnie Paul, Ph.D. on April 2 for Mind and Supermind: How Selfless Service Can Transform You and the World. Register Now.