Mental Challenges

How To Maintain the Momentum for Helping Others Without Burning Yourself Out

Emily Laurence

Photo: Getty Images/Sladic

While it may not scream “wellness!” in the tangible way a big plate of colorful veggies or a workout may, doing good has always been a cornerstone of well-being. Not only does it positively impact the health of others, but scientific research supports that giving back can be beneficial for personal health, too. In fact, helping others can contribute to having purpos, which is one of the key pillars of life in the Blue Zones, which are regions of the world where people regularly live to be over 100 and in good health.

And now more than ever, the need do good by way of helping others is apparent: People are grieving loved ones lost to COVID-19, many are struggling financially because of job loss, parents are stretched thin in trying to balance home-schooling and work, the impending election is a source of tension, and even amid a societal awakening to systemic racism, the far-reaching inequities the system supports continue. Given the abundance of need in the world for help and change, knowing how to help others (and maybe even yourself) is crucial.

“To me, ‘doing good’ means having a generous spirit,” she says. “This takes different forms. Sometimes, it’s as simple as listening to someone, especially now, when so many people are feeling lonely and isolated.” —meditation practitioner Sharon Salzberg

In her new book, Real Change, Insight Meditation Society co-founder and meditation practitioner Sharon Salzberg says everyone has something to give and we all have the power to do good. “To me, ‘doing good’ means having a generous spirit,” she says. “This takes different forms. Sometimes, it’s as simple as listening to someone, especially now, when so many people are feeling lonely and isolated.”

That said, Salzberg also acknowledges that maintaining the drive to help others can be both exhausting and overwhelming as a long-term habit. Below, she provides tips for how to help others on an ongoing basis without getting burnt out.

How to help others on an ongoing basis without getting burnt out.

1. Look for small ways to help others, not necessarily giant ones

When people commit to “doing good,” volunteering may come to mind—but Salzberg says that’s only one strategy of many a person can implement in order to help others. “Doing good isn’t always setting aside an hour each week to volunteer or donating money,” she says. “Sometimes it is that, but often it’s just having a socially distanced conversation with a neighbor who may be feeling lonely or dropping off some groceries for an elderly neighbor,” she says.

The key, she says, is to be more aware of your surroundings. “Living a life of doing good is made up of small actions, not necessarily giant ones.”

2. Perform one generous act a day

One reason why some people with intentions to help others get burnt out is because the amount of need can be so catastrophic that it’s paralyzing in effect. When considering macro-level problems (that, to be sure, do require an urgent injection of attention and resources), it’s easy to wonder if one person can even make a difference.

“I often tell people to focus on one generous act they can do each day,” Salzberg says, keeping with the theme of focusing on small acts instead of massive ones. Even if it’s just remembering to thank someone or show an under-appreciated colleague some compassion, it absolutely does make a difference, she says.

3. Focus on causes you’re especially passionate about

Chances are, the social causes or needs that you care about are different than those your friend is into—and that’s a good thing. Salzberg points out that no one person—or even one amazing nonprofit or advocacy group—can solve all the world’s problems. You’re much less likely to get burned out when you’re focused on one cause you’re truly passionate about than if you’re spreading yourself too thin across several causes.

So think about what it is that gets you fired up. Then, Salzberg says, find others who share your passion—whether it’s via a Meetup group, a religious organization, a nonprofit, or anything else—so you can all work together. Not only does this divvy up the workload, but it also creates a support system you can use lean on, too.

4. Seek out emotional support

“Having psychological support is really important,” Salzberg says, adding that your support system can but doesn’t have to be with others who share your desire to meet needs the same way. This could be a weekly call with a friend, for example. The key is regularly touching base with people who care about you to build you up and make you feel supported.

5. Take time to rest

“Generosity of spirit has to come from somewhere. You cannot pour from an empty cup,” Salzberg says. And it’s true: Self care is vital for being able to maintain the momentum to do good. Salzberg encourages everyone to think about what makes them feel rejuvenated, and she says what this looks like varies from person to person. Whatever self care looks like for you, though, Salzberg says identifying it and making it part of your routine is key.

“Often, helping others actually does energize someone and contribute to their own happiness, but it’s also important to realize when you need rest,” Salzberg says. Furthermore, in order to make helping others an ongoing pursuit rather than a short-term goal is to consider “doing good” as mind-set rather than one-off big-picture actions. This will lead to living a life of generosity and compassion. And that’s the key to maintaining your momentum.

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