Sorry but no (with all my love)

I am only one of the many people who like helping others. This might be a troubled world, but there’s so many who care, many who volunteer in some way or simply have a passion for making the world a better place and not leaving anyone behind. And that’s great.  That is how we get to make the world a better place, one by one, contributing with what we have, the best we can.

But offering help also has some challenges, especially when you are outside the frames of an organized volunteering activity.

Let’s talk about the help we offer to each other in our local societies.

In Reiki we learn that it’s important to have a proper energy exchange, so that the person receiving really values what is being received. It can take the shape of being paid for your services, but between friends it is most often some kind of tangible or intangible exchange.

There is a place for everything, and volunteering expecting nothing in return is perfectly fine – as such, I decide to take aside X amount of time and spend it on the cause of my choice. Volunteering, in an organized manner, has clear boundaries.

But what happens with friends or with certain groups where you recurringly help? Unfortunately, very often we are taken for granted, especially when the skill requested happens to be your day-time job as well.

I am a translator by profession, and it has happened to me repeatedly that people expect me to translate for them (either translate some minor written text or more often interpret at some event). Most people do not seem to realize how very exhausting translating actually is. And that I do not have “8 hours per day to translate”: my brain capacity is limited in a given day, so the time I take to translate a small blurb of something is time that I have taken away from my paying clients.

Worst is the feeling when I have been making an effort to do simultaneous interpreting for someone at church or elsewhere and they were not even paying attention – perhaps get distracted checking their phone for messages! I end up exhausted and upset.

That’s what can happen when friends and acquaintances want to use your professional services for free, with no energy exchange at all.

More people will relate when I apply this to us who are therapists of some kind. In particular if you are a coach or psychologist, where you get paid to listen to your client’s problems. What happens when a friend comes and needs to be heard? In an optimal friendship situation, the exchange is mutual: we talk about you for about 50% of the time, and then we talk about me for about 50% of the time. In specific periods, one of the parties may have more things to share or discuss, but as long as it varies, it’s fine.

The problem occurs when a given friend needs 90% of the shared time, on a regular basis. If there is no exchange, the person giving often ends up feeling drained, exhausted, and often with a feeling of being abused.

So what can you do to prevent such a situation? Setting up boundaries becomes a necessity. Decide that you will turn off your phone at a given hour in the evening, perhaps take a whole day off every week, or more. Do listen to your friend in need, by all means, but if the problem is large, try rather to empower your friend by giving him/her tools to deal with the issue, or even refer to a professional (or another professional rather than yourself who might be too close to help, as a friend). And if the problem is “chronic”, then make sure your friend is not just complaining about it, but is also taking steps to actually deal with the situation. We all need to vent, but venting alone will not fix the issue.

Constantly “helping out” can be like giving the fish to the hungry person – but teaching them how to fish is the only solution in the long term.

Learning to say no is sometimes a heart-breaking experience, but remember your first duty is towards yourself. Remember the instructions we are given in the airplanes, about putting your own oxygen mask first and then helping your own child? Well this is in fact the same. If you give and give, never recharge your batteries and never rest, you will burn out. And then who is going to help the others? You need to recharge your own batteries first, and be mindful of your strength and capacity! The world will be better off with you helping “a little” but over many years, rather than you helping “a lot” and then nothing, being burned-out. You can only love your neighbor if you love yourself! Please, do take that much-needed time for your own meditation, yoga practice, or “recharging exercise” of your choice. Then, and only then, can you be a long-term tool to help people around you.

May you be inspired to make the right choices!

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