For the last year, I’ve volunteered answering phones one night a week at a crisis hotline. I started doing this to make helping others part of my life. My day-to-day work is full of emails, conference calls, and writing things that no one will read, and I often feel like I’m not making a tangible impact. Although my motivation was to help others, I’ve found something unexpected: mostly the hotline has helped me. Here are six important lessons I’ve learned since becoming a volunteer:
1. I got it good
I started volunteering not long after a big break up, and while I didn’t mean to help people worse off than me in order to feel good about my own life, that’s what happened. Most of the people that call are dealing with a mental illness and/or a serious emotional issue, and have few (if any) people in their lives to support them. After spending a few hours listening to other people’s problems, I leave the hotline feeling so lucky about all the good things in my life, especially my many supportive friends and family members, not to mention good brain chemistry. Walking out of the hotline’s office to head home, I am almost glowing with gratitude.
2. How to take better care of myself
Answering calls can be draining, so it’s important for us volunteers to keep our own spirits up. “Self-care” was a big topic during the volunteer training. I learned my best self-care lesson from the attitude that I take with callers. Recently, I was feeling upset during one of my shifts at the hotline. I had worked myself into a panic about my relationship, worried that my boyfriend didn’t care about me. I took a bathroom break to cry a bit in one of the stalls. I asked myself, “What would I tell a caller?” I had been treating my own feelings dismissively (“I’m just overreacting; everything is fine”), but if someone else were expressing the same things, I would have validated their feelings, telling them that’s its ok to be upset, and talking them through why they are feeling that way. It’s hard to invite your own help, but I have gotten better at it by becoming more practiced helping others.
3. The term “help-rejecting”
This happens a lot on the hotline: someone calls, upset about some problem, and shoots down all of my suggestions, however reasonable. They are help-rejecting, and when someone is help-rejecting, they don’t want my advice. So I try to stop giving it. It doesn’t mean that I’m not actually helping. Sometimes all they really want is to vent to someone who will listen and not criticize. Even with friends, I have found it very helpful to be able to name this behavior. I sometimes get frustrated when I feel like I’m trying to help, only to be met with (usually weak!) reasons that my great suggestions aren’t going to work. Once I can say (to myself), “oh, she’s being help-rejecting,” I can let go of my need to help by trying to solve the problem and just listen.
4. The importance of white space
After I got comfortable taking calls, I was shocked that my favorite part of each shift was the time in-between calls. During this time, I am free to do what I want (limited of course by the need to stay close to the phone). I don’t have to do anything. After all, I’m already volunteering, ready for the next call. I can allow myself to do exactly what I feel like at that moment. When I first started, I made lists of things I wanted to get done, only to find that I rarely got to most of them. I stopped making lists and started just asking myself “what do I most want to do now?” Sometimes, it’s to read the news, catch up on emails, read a book, shop online, or doodle. I’m trying to bring this attitude into the rest of my life and leave more unscheduled time, white space, to do exactly want I feel like that moment. As Brene Brown describes, “Cultivate and appreciate the white space for what it is, not for what I can squeeze out of it.”
5. Sometimes you need to hang up
I have a hard time saying no, and an especially hard time being rude. Our calls generally have a minute time limit: if the caller isn’t having a crisis, I try to politely end the call after about 10 minutes. Most of our regular callers are very understanding of this limit, but occasionally I get someone who argues back or just keeps talking over my attempts to end the call. Eventually, I just hang up (with a “Thank you for calling, I need to hang up now!”). Sometimes, I need to disengage. It feels rude and uncomfortable, but it’s ok.
6. It’s not about you
Here’s how it goes at the hotline: people call and I talk to them – or rather, mostly I listen. Sometimes, by the end of the call, I feel like I’ve helped them, but often I don’t. Neither of these outcomes is really about me. I just meet the caller wherever they are. This is generally true in life. Your partner is upset? Your boss is whispering to a colleague? Your friend didn’t return your call? It’s so easy to react to all of these personally. What did I do? What are they saying about me? The answer: probably nothing. Nine times out of ten, it’s not about you. At all. Your partner is upset about work, your boss is whispering because it’s a sensitive topic about a client, and your friend got busy because her mom needed her help.
When these feelings come up, sometimes I still get upset and wonder what I did wrong. Then, I remember what I’ve learned at the hotline, and I try to list likely explanations that have nothing to do with me, and go back to feeling grateful about my life.
Images: Roy Lichtenstein: “Ohhh…Alright” (1964) and “M-Maybe” (1965)