How Volunteer Managers Can Take Care of Themselves

Stress and Fear in the BrainI’ve been overwhelmed by the responses to my blog post “Do You Feel Lucky, Volunteer Managers?” because the comments illustrate how entrenched the “ugly” of volunteer management can really be. This reiterated for me the times I completely lacked the capacity to make positive changes because I felt alone in being affected by these negative influences.

Whenever I felt unable to deal with the difficulties of my position, I utilized a set of positive coping skills that I think are critical for any volunteer manager – both to achieve your goals in your work and to maintain your own happiness.

My position as a volunteer coordinator at a sexual violence counseling nonprofit had me thinking about the differences between positive and negative coping skills on a daily basis. I think where someone is in terms of “the good, the bad and the ugly” of volunteer management has a lot to do with how strong their copings skills are. I tend to think of coping as a kind of spectrum, influenced by emotional, physical and environmental factors. These are factors that are often out of one’s control.

For example – when I started my position I thought, “I am going to be hearing traumatic stories on a daily basis and providing therapeutic support, so I need to make sure I go to yoga class regularly.” It was not just that going to yoga was an unconscious release – I was able to have a thought process that was calmly self-affirming the importance of self-care. But in the thick of negative influences, I lacked any motivation to go to yoga or understand it’s importance on an emotional level. On the rare instance I went to a class my mind was racing and every part of my body was tense, teeth were grinding, and I was holding my breath. Yet back at work I could remind clients and volunteers to breathe. I was on auto-pilot, and I needed to employ some positive coping skills.

I believe there are three components to monitoring your self-care:

Part One

The first part is compiling a list of your own positive coping skills. I say “your own” because they have to be the things that work for you. Only you know what helps you. However, to get you started here are the ones that work for me:

  • Movement: For me it’s yoga, hiking, biking, dancing or some other form of physical activity.
  • Channel your inner rock star: This is an easy one – music! Sing at the top of your lungs!
  • Giving: I like to make mix CDs for people. I like to make other people feel better. I like to make people laugh.
  • Be kind to a stranger: I know it’s cheesy, but sometimes holding the door for another person, for example, can have a big impact on your own mindset.
  • Channel your creative soul: My creative outlets range from painting, writing letters, or seeing my surroundings as art to be witnessed.
  • Practice gratitude: Take time to think about what you are thankful for. When I feel really good, I take time to express that gratitude.

Part Two

Part two is finding a way to be intentional about reflecting on where you are with your self-care. Create a list of tools that you can lean on when you’re not sure where you are on the spectrum of positive and negative coping skills. Here are some of the tools that worked for me:

  1. Relationships: How am I interacting with people? Do I find myself getting easily annoyed with people that normally never bug me? Do I want to spend time with people in my life? Do most of my interactions with people revolve around conflicts we might be having?
  2. Food as ritual: What I put into my body makes a world of difference. Taking time to enjoy cooking a nice meal for myself. Eating slowly. Being intentional about breathing while I eat. How motivated do I feel to clean up the mess made from cooking? When I find myself quickly scarfing down peanut butter on a rice cake for dinner, standing in the kitchen, no plate involved, tossing the knife in the sink unwashed – it’s trouble.
  3. Breathing: How often am I holding my breath? Be intentional about noticing your breathing patterns. Our breath is closely connected to our emotional well-being.
  4. Time: How am I spending my time outside of work? For me, if I’m more inclined to watch trashy TV that I don’t actually enjoy rather than read a book or spend time with friends, it’s a bad sign.  How often this happens can indicate where you are on the coping spectrum.
  5. Asking for help, reaching out: A great quote is “No one can fill those of your needs you won’t let show.” This is a great self-check tool. When was the last time you REALLY let someone know how you are feeling? How often are you the listener rather than allowing others to listen to you?
  6. The little things: How do you cope with the things that are stressful but are not the end of the world? In traffic are you screaming or are you excited about what’s on the radio? When someone cuts you in line at the grocery store do you think they are self-centered or just absent-minded? Do kids annoy you or make you smile? If a pigeon poops on you is it funny or does it ruin your day?
  7. Memory: Stress and PTSD affect memory. Do you find yourself being more forgetful than normal? What sort of things are you forgetting? This can help you gauge where you are on the spectrum.

Part Three

Part three is being okay with where you on the coping skills spectrum. Sometimes all you need to affect change in yourself is acknowledging and validating your feelings. Compassion REALLY starts with the SELF.  However, finding the people who will be that extra voice to validate you, is important too. Sometimes this is what you need to spur that change, rather than getting caught up in self-guilt and blame about “I should be doing this,” etc.

Wherever you are on the coping skills spectrum, know that it’s okay and it’s normal. While often volunteer managers are alone in the work we do, and often we give our all to supporting our volunteers, know that you are not alone in feeling stressed and overwhelmed. The coping skills spectrum is meant to help teach you about any changes you might need to make. Know that being burned out is sometimes a side effect of the amazing privilege of having a job that matters.  So take it seriously, and take care of yourself.

(Photo from National Institute of Mental Health)