Last week I received a couple of Thank You cards, and I immediately felt anxious and undeserving. They mentioned words like "empathetic" and said I "approach my role with enthusiasm, dedication and commitment". I cringed and felt anxiety rising in my chest. I could feel my cheeks flush, and I felt a bit sweaty and nauseous. It was not that I felt ungrateful exactly, but I was embarrassed and felt totally undeserving. This clearly wasn't the reaction that the sender intended, but these words belong to someone far better than me. I was only doing my job, and in all honesty, it was for totally selfish reasons.
You see, it was Volunteers week recently. Cards and certificates will have been sent to many kind and generous people, who volunteer their time and talents to help others, for no other reason than because they are lovely kind people.
Despite the negativity we see in the News, we know there is more love and support for each other, than ever before in our lifetime. We know more people are checking in on their neighbours, walking dogs, doing shopping or delivering prescriptions to the elderly and vulnerable who can't leave their homes. We know key workers have volunteered to work much longer hours to help those who really need them, instead of spending their spare time with their friends and families. We also know key workers who have long since retired or changed careers, volunteer to go back to work in whatever capacity was needed.
I have no problem telling others how wonderful and valued they are. I am also comfortable receiving lovely feedback directly from my clients. I embrace constructive feedback as an excellent opportunity to learn and improve what I am doing. So why do I find it so hard to accept praise when volunteering? Let's look at the benefits first:
Volunteering is a great way to put your life back into perspective
During the 90's, when trying to escape from a troubled relationship (a bit of a theme in my past!), I was given the opportunity to relocate to New York. That led to several other relocations, as I worked my way around various offices throughout Europe.
In 2008, I moved back to the UK permanently. My marriage had disintegrated, I was going through a messy and costly divorce, and now my ex was taking me to court for custody of my daughter. I had left all my friends behind in Europe, together with the security of my home and my job. My two year old daughter and I had to move in with my parents.
I was confident I would find a job again but I couldn't help being really annoyed that while I had been working my butt off around the world, house prices had shot up at home and I couldn't afford the type of property I had worked so hard for. On top of that, my divorce and court case cost me a huge chunk of everything I had worked hard to achieve ….. to say I was fed up and bitter was definitely an understatement.
The only way I could think to put my life back into perspective was to volunteer at the local homeless shelter, Chess. That was to be my first experience of volunteering. I loved being at the shelter and hearing about the stories everyone had. I felt I was doing my little bit to help others, but really, they were doing their bit to help me. Today, if things don't turn out quite as I hoped, I am now able to immediately put my life back into perspective.
Volunteering is a great way to meet new people and make new
In 2015, I was lucky enough to be invited to a corporate volunteering day at Badminton Horse Trials, with the charity Sense. Sense supports and campaigns for children and adults who are deafblind. I love being around horses, and it sounded like a great day out of the office.
While helping out, I met a couple of other girls also volunteering. They had bought a tent with them and were staying for four days. We got on so well, they invited me to stay with them and their dogs, and we rattled buckets together for the whole event! There was nowhere to buy underwear or face wash, I didn't even have a towel to shower with, but it was so spontaneous and so much fun!
Volunteering can help you gain confidence by giving you the chance to try something new
I was loving my coaching work and enjoyed working directly with my amazing clients, but I wanted to serve more people by running training courses and speaking to large groups. The problem was, I had always been petrified of public speaking, and had pretty much been able to avoid it for my entire corporate career. I had learnt the tools and techniques to overcome my anxiety, and I had attended courses in public speaking, but I still lacked the confidence back then to run my courses.
I had come across a charity, Action for Happiness, and really liked the sound of their 8 week course, as it brings people together to discuss issues that really matter for a happy and meaningful life. I learnt so much when I attended, and really enjoyed it. So when AFH contacted me and asked if I would lead a course locally, I knew I had to say yes, despite, or maybe because of my nerves. That was precisely the push I needed to start offering my own courses on overcoming anxiety and increasing confidence. I now love running them and have met so many new friends!
Volunteering can have a real and valuable positive affect on people, communities and society in general.
My daughter was approaching her teenage years, and I felt ill-prepared for what I thought may lie ahead, so it made perfect sense to get to know teenagers better. I came across the charity Yes Futures, who teach children and teenagers confidence, communication, resiliency and self-awareness skills. Furthermore, they introduce students to their Play Your Part day volunteering in the community, a World of Work day in an office environment, and a three-day residential trip Into The Wild. They stood for everything I believe in so I signed up to be a volunteer coach with them.
It is so rewarding seeing the children thrive in such a supportive setting, and I love seeing them embrace the volunteering day. The children get a fantastic sense of achievement from helping the community and feel proud of their contribution. It is also a great team-building exercise and confidence booster, encouraging them to problem-solve together and push outside their comfort zone. I have the privilege of watching this happen.
Today, I am sure I am a more understanding and encouraging parent because of my experience with Yes Futures, and my daughter has volunteered on their residential trips too! I also decided I would work with teenagers in my own practice, to help them overcome their anxiety and be more confident in themselves. This is such a critical age, as many teenagers struggle with anxiety, so if I can teach them the tools and techniques to help them at this age, it saves a lot of anxious times later in life.
Volunteering can help you learn new skills and gain experience
When I decided to change careers, it was obvious to look for a charity where training and supervision were being offered while I brushed up on my skills and experience. I volunteered with Family Lives, a nationwide charity who listen and give users the space to talk about anything family related. I have gained so much knowledge and experience there, not just from everyone I talk to on the helplines, but I get to discuss different perspectives with other volunteers too. I know this makes me more understanding, confident and empathetic with my own clients, as well as my friends and family.
Volunteering is a great way to feel part of a supportive team
I am a self-employed Anxiety Management and Confidence Coach. My team either work remotely or offshore. I spend most of my time working on my own, or directly with clients and it could potentially be quite lonely. However, because of my volunteering, I am lucky to have several teams of colleagues to turn to and brainstorm whenever I need to.
Volunteering teaches you something when you least expect it
I will never forget the day when I volunteered to go to Hemel Hampstead ski centre for a corporate volunteering day. It sounded like lots of fun as I am an avid skier. We met up with some kids and adults from the charity Headway, who offer services to brain injury survivors and their families. Several people in the group suffered from Epilepsy (as does my mum). One of the guys had been caught up in an avalanche a couple of years before while skiing, and his brain had been starved of oxygen.
I could see and feel his excitement when he approached the slopes in an adapted ski chair. He was led by a guide from DSUK, and I will never forget hearing him "Whoop!" as he skied down. He had clearly loved skiing, and it was evident that he had regained the freedom from his old life for those few short minutes. I learnt a lot about embracing fear that day, more than I have ever learnt in all the books I've read, or talks I've listened to. It was also a reminder of how quickly life can change, so I promised myself I would be a little bit braver every day.
I can honestly say I have met so many amazing people, and had so many amazing experiences through volunteering. My life is so much more abundant because of these opportunities. I have also met and bonded with many people who I wouldn't have had the pleasure to meet otherwise.
Volunteering is often thought of as an altruistic activity, involving giving without any expectation of reward. For many people, the notion of giving is the significant motivation. However, volunteering can also bring its own rewards to the volunteer. My ethos has always been to match every paid hour of coaching with an hour of volunteering, as it enables me to continually learn and develop. I also know I am a better Mother, Coach, Employer, Partner and Friend because of the experiences I have.
So, I now understand why I found reading the Thank You cards uncomfortable. Because I perceive I gain more from what I do, than what I give. And I realise why I was slipping back into old habits and was unable to take the compliments and praise from others. It was because I didn't think I deserved it. At that moment, when I opened the cards, I didn't feel I was good enough. But using the tools and techniques I teach, I was able to soon overcome this, and I will now hold my head up high and be loud and proud of what I do. The reason why I chose to volunteer is irrelevant, and the experiences are priceless!
Volunteering can be a way of solving problems that we face personally, so if you are interested in giving it a try, thinking about how you want to benefit from volunteering is a good start to finding an opportunity that's right for you.