“We rise by lifting others” –Robert Ingersoll
There’s an endless number of quotes floating around the Internet about the value of helping others. Which seems like a good thing, right?
They inspire us to give, help, and serve. They remind us that we can make the world just a little bit better. They provide a comforting thought when the world seems more than just a little bit terrible.
I’ve met so many people who have shared similar stories about how, in the wake of their own loss, they found healing through helping others in their grief. People have started support groups, Facebook pages, advocacy organizations, or they’ve volunteered with organizations that are connected to the person they lost – the possibilities are endless really. This has got to be a win-win. Whether the benefit is coping, a boost of feel-good positive emotion, or actual physical help – it seems positive all around.
In fact, a couple years ago Dr. Suzanne Richards conducted a review of dozens of studies on topics having to do with volunteerism. Dr. Richard’s study, which you can read in full at the link above, found that research consistently shows increased mental and physical well-being, decreased depression rates and lower mortality rates in those who volunteer. Alright so, volunteering in your grief = good. Case closed.
Wait, what’s that? There’s a catch? There’s always a catch.
Remember how we told you all that coping exists on a continuum? This means that coping that looks “negative” can actually be adaptive in some instances, and coping that looks “positive” to the outside observer can actually be harmful when used as a means to persistently avoid facing one’s own grief. Well, we’re going to go ahead and put volunteerism on that continuum as well, because as wonderful as helping others sounds, one can actually cancel out any positive benefit if they take it to excess or if they do it for the wrong reasons.
All of you compassionate and caring people out there are probably thinking – “this is bunk” – but it can happen. For example, it may look a little something like one of the following:
1) Your emotions are overwhelming and excruciating. You hate feeling emotional and don’t like spending too much time sitting around with your thoughts. You have to get up and do something so you throw yourself into volunteer service or advocacy work as a distraction. Now you work so hard you don’t have time to spend time dwelling on your own emotions.
2) Your situation is terrible and devastating and it seems like the worst thing in the world. You think maybe if you spend time helping people who are even worse off you will realize your situation isn’t so bad. So you throw yourself into work with individuals who have problems that seem way worse than you can imagine.
3) You’ve heard from others that helping others can make a person feel better. Although you feel emotionally fragile and overwhelmed by the work, you know the research says volunteering helps your physical and emotional well being. You figure you will fake it till you make it and eventually it will probably start to help.
4) You thought you were in a pretty good place with your grief and you felt inspired to give back, but now that you’re engaged in the work you’re feeling overwhelmed by the depth of others’ pain and frustrated that others don’t seem to be making progress in the way you had hoped or expected. Overall, you’re confused about why you all of a sudden feel worse than when you began.
The differences between positive and negative coping can be so slight at times and one almost always has to take the good with the bad, so how does one know when they’re getting those benefits on volunteering vs. when they may need to take a bit of a mental health break? Well first there are a few things you should be aware of:
Volunteerism as avoidance:
Avoidance is a tempting pattern in grief, especially when your avoidance is packaged in a really positive behavior that others reinforce. Research from 2008 has shown that low levels of volunteer services can have a positive impact, while volunteering to excess (as defined as volunteering for more than 800 hours per year) undermines those positive mental health impacts. This is relevant because avoidance is often a cycle that you have to engage in excessively in order for it to be maintained.
We have written about avoidance before so we won’t rehash it all again, but if you think you may be throwing yourself into something (volunteer service or anything else) in an effort to avoid your grief, you should give the article a read.
Motivation for volunteerism:
Next, in 2012, Sara Konrath and other researchers asked whether the motivation for volunteering has an impact on the individual. They contrasted people who serve for altruistic reasons as opposed to those who volunteered for self-related reasons (social connection, self-protection, learning/understanding, or self-enhancement).
This study reinforced the positive health benefits of volunteering found in other studies when the goal of helping was truly altruistic. Interestingly, when the individual’s goal was not altruism but self-enhancement, learning/understanding, etc, participants actually did not experience positive health benefits. In these instances, mortality rates were actually increased rather than decreased. Weird, right?
It’s important to note that in light of these findings the authors included a discussion about whether it is better to volunteer for a self-focused reason rather than not at all. The good news here is, compared to people who didn’t volunteer at all, the mortality risk wasn’t much different. Also, the authors speculate a bit about their findings, and they suggest that there are significant stressors that can come with helping others, stressors that can have a greater impact on us depending on the frame of mind we are in when we are serving others.
A number of other research studies also found that volunteering and/or providing social support to others is associated with negative mental health outcomes like feelings of burden and frustration when those being served had overwhelming problems, intense demand, and needs, or did not show reciprocity.
I don’t point this out to dissuade anyone from volunteering, but the implications of the research seem obvious for those who decide to help others in their grief. We wrote a post about the special considerations important to grievers who choose to help others in their own grief including boundaries, limitations, and reliving grief-related emotions and experiences. We recommend you check it if you decide to get into this work.
Feelings of expertise:
Finally, I think it’s important that we all acknowledge our personal grief experiences do not make us experts on anyone else’s individual grief. Therapists, volunteers, grief-bloggers, and supportive friends all need to keep this point in mind when helping others. When we are grieving we can become very focused on our own grief, our own pain, and our own experience. It can be difficult not to want to impose the lessons we’ve learned onto others.
So, we can’t tell you whether you should decide to get into the work of helping others. On the one hand, volunteerism and advocacy work can be absolutely life-changing, on the other it can also be stressful and overwhelming when we ourselves are struggling.
So our parting words of wisdom are to be self-aware. Make sure you are volunteering for the right reasons. Make sure you are in a good place with your own grief before opening yourself to the pain of others. Remember the old cliche, you can’t give to others if your bucket is empty. Pay attention to your feelings, notice what’s happening just before or during times when you feel distressing emotion, and check in with yourself from time to time and ask yourself whether this work is actually bringing you closer to a place of healing.
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