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)
I casually meant to start a meditation practice for about five years. Mostly, I thought about how my practice would be structured. I concluded that meditating before bed, while possibly beneficial for my intermittent sleeping problems, was not realistic for various logistical reasons. Meditating first thing in the morning, right when I woke up and my husband was still asleep, made the most sense. I made a mental agreement with myself to set my alarm 15 minutes earlier to build in time to sit. Each night I would look at my clock and think of some excuse for why I couldn’t do it just then. This went on for another six months or a year.
My dad named one our cats Pema after Pema Chodron, the buddhist nun and author. Pema the cat is a Maine coon; she looks like a little lioness with her puffy coat and splendid curving whiskers. She won’t sit in laps, but she loves being petted and brushed and all other forms of attention. Calm, loving, and fearless, she lives up to her human namesake. She recently chased a raccoon out out of my parents house after it snuck in through the cat flap, and then ran onto the porch to make sure it wasn’t still lurking in the vicinity. My dad calls her his hero and role model.
In my teens, my dad loaned me his copy of Pema Chodron’s, “When Things Fall Apart” during a particularly anxious and difficult period. He told me it was great. He encouraged me to read even a single page. I did read it, and I kept reading it, because it was magnificent and it helped me feel like my feelings were OK, and also that I could manage them.
On my 26th birthday, a big box arrived at work. Inside was a yellow meditation pillow, cheerfully dotted with blue and white, plump and firm and ready to be sat on. It was from, guess who, my dad. I had bought him a meditation pillow, a solid green one, a few years before. He’d gotten very practiced at meditating every morning, sometimes sitting for 30 or 40 minutes at a stretch. I liked the idea of owning a meditation pillow; it made me feel virtuous just having it around. Maybe people would be impressed with me. But I didn’t use it. I hoped my cat might adopt it as a perch. Instead it lived on a bench in the living room, propped up on its with a bunch of other ordinary pillows.
Eventually my dad bought me a copy of another one of Pema Chodron’s books, “The Places That Scare You.” Like “When Things Fall Apart,” it tackled the mental anguish, insecurity, anxiety, and pain that challenge all of us with love and also absolute clarity. You can let difficult times and experiences harden you and make you afraid, the nun counseled, or you can use painful feelings to deepen your own sense of compassion and courage. It is the best kind of sobering, certain advice that you need when you are circling the drain. I read it most of the way through and left it on my bedside table for a while, in case I wanted to reference it. Over the years, I loaned it to friends during breakups and re-read it during times or pain and uncertainty. Like many reckoning, confronting truths, the writing makes perfect sense as you read it. Then you put the book down and you’re stuck with your bad feeling again and you can’t quite remember what it was you thought you learned while reading it.
What finally got me meditating wasn’t strength of character, or will power, or maturity. It was personal crisis. My dad, the same one who bought me the books and the meditation pillow and who named the cat Pema and who calmed me down whenever I was upset, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of bladder cancer. There are plenty of books that say they can help you through that kind of thing, but I didn’t want them.
It’s OK if you don’t read the Pema books cover-to-cover, my dad said. Pick them up again whenever you need them. It doesn’t matter what page or chapter. You’ll find something useful.
One night after my dad’s diagnosis I looked at my alarm clock and decided I had the motivation to set it back by the 15 minutes that I had up until then only had the courage to think about. This small act that felt so significant took about five seconds to complete. The next morning I got up, pulled my practically new meditation pillow from the bench where it lived, and dropped it in front of my living room window. During the one or two times I had tried to meditate in the past, I’d lit a candle to focus on. This time, I just looked straight out my window at the southern magnolia tree planted in the sidewalk outside. The leaves moved in a similar way to a candle’s flame, to and fro, gently swaying. I sat for 10 minutes, using a meditation app I’d downloaded on my iPhone. When I got up, I felt better. I mentally corrected myself from the feeling of “better” by remembering something I’d read in one of my Tricycle newsletters:
Meditation is a haven away from the ubiquitous world of self-improvement. It’s not just that there’s no such thing as ‘bad’ meditation, but there’s no such thing as ‘good’ meditation either. It is what it is. (Barry Evans, “The Myth of the Experienced Meditator”).
I got up the next day and the next day and the next day and kept doing it.
My dad had four rounds of chemo, each spaced three weeks apart, through the spring of 2013. He weathered them as well as we could have hoped. He was tired, and sometimes very heavy with the intense awareness of his mortality, knowing he was sick yet not feeling like a sick person. But mostly, he was alright. I joked that he was the valedictorian of cancer. In mid summer he was scheduled for surgery to have his whole bladder removed, and a new one refashioned from three feet of small intestine (I called this his DIY bladder). Three days before his surgery, my mom organized a mass meditation for any friends and family who wanted to participate as a cosmic, prayerful exercise. My husband got up early with me that day so that we could coordinate the timing of our meditation with my family, who were in a different timezone. He used the meditation pillow because he can’t sit cross-legged comfortably, and I took a couch pillow. We sat together we sat for ten minutes.
When my dad got out of surgery, he was very weak. He had to stay in the hospital for five days while nurses constantly took his vital signs, emptied the many tubes and bags coming out of him, and cheerfully made him do all sorts of things he did not want to do. He had an ornery French-Canadian roommate named Jean who complained constantly about the quality of the hospital’s care but refused to be discharged. It was July. Outside, New York cooked like an oven, but inside the hospital my dad could not get warm.
He and I didn’t talk about meditation in the first few weeks of his recovery. I thought about bringing it up, but I didn’t have the energy. Sitting on a pillow felt like an insurmountable effort for me, let alone him. After about a month, though, once I was back home and he was more mobile, I mentioned it. No, he hadn’t been meditating, he told me. Yes, he had been thinking about it. He would do it. Maybe he would start today.
Image: George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo (1924)
My first salary negotiation was for my very first paying job. I was 22. I had already been an intern at the organization for a few months, and the executive director called me into her office, where we sat on uncomfortably high stools around a very small table. She said that she was happy to offer me a full-time, salaried position and told me the salary. It was not much money, but it was a salary and a title (my first other than “intern”) and I was thrilled. I knew that I was supposed to negotiate, probably from listening to my family talk about work. But had no idea how to do it, and felt extremely awkward. I think my boss did too. I remember feeling like we were dueling with our eyes closed, both too scared to look at the damage we were causing. I remember saying something about how I had expected the salary to be higher and she agreed, offering a slightly higher number. I readily agreed. We could uncover our eyes. I had increased my salary by a couple thousand dollars.
Lesson: Negotiations are not comfortable. It’s ok that they aren’t comfortable, just be prepared for it. Sitting through awkward silences is a killer tactic.
When I left that job for my subsequent job, I didn’t negotiate. At all. I remember standing in an empty private office at the job I was leaving, speaking on the phone with the president of the company at my future job. He was very matter of fact. “You will be paid this per hour, which comes out to this annual salary. Including benefits, it comes out to… which is a very good amount for someone with your level of experience.” I knew that I wasn’t supposed to accept on the spot, but I had no idea how to ask for more, especially since his offer was already a lot more than I was making and I was desperate for a new job. I told him that I needed to think about it, and he said that I should get back to him as soon as possible so that he could let other candidates know. I called him back the next day to accept. I later learned that there were no other candidates and that he doesn’t like negotiating and really does think his offers are fair.
Lesson: Different people have different attitudes about negotiation, but it never hurts to ask.
My next negotiation was more of a freak out than anything else. I had been working at this company for over a year and was I was enjoying the work and my level of responsibility. The company had regular annual raises and promotions, and my boss had pulled me aside beforehand. As we walked around the block in the residential neighborhood where the office was located, he let me know that I wasn’t going to be promoted because I hadn’t been in my position for long enough, and that I could expect a promotion in another 6 or 12 months. This sounded reasonable to me when we talked about it, but when I got the email that listed all of my coworkers who were getting promoted, I was upset. I felt that everyone around me was being promoted, while I had just taken over a big project and had gotten nothing. Instead of dealing with this calmly, I exploded when my boss later stopped by my desk to tell me what my raise was that year. I don’t remember what incoherent words tumbled out of my mouth, but it definitely involved something about how I would have been making more if I had been promoted. To his credit, he didn’t get defensive. He recognized that I was upset and said that he would follow up with me later. We exchanged a few emails (where I explained myself more rationally), and he ended up giving me a slightly bigger raise (and I was promoted six months later).
Lesson: Don’t freak out. Or do, it works sometimes, but I can’t say that I recommend this tactic in a professional environment.
When I was hired for my current position, I had some advantages over my younger self. I was older and wiser than I’d been in the past; I had read quite a bit on negotiation (some favorites are listed below), and I’d taken a negotiation class in graduate school. The class was actually on consensus building for public policy, but it was full of negotiation strategies that can apply to salary, too. More than age, what made me really wise was that the organization posted a salary range with the position description, so I knew what numbers were reasonable. To prepare, I watched some videos from Ramit Sethi, borrowed my friend Rebecca’s book, and talked strategy with friends. I made some notes about why I thought I should be paid more, writing down some specific phrases that I could say. I found the phrases “I would be more comfortable if…” and “it would make this a really easy decision for me” very helpful.
The negotiation was with an HR person, and ended up being a few nerve-wracking rounds of phone tag and two conversations over a couple days. I really wanted this job, but decided in advance that I could go through two round of negotiations. She first offered me the bottom of the salary range, and I countered with some reasons that I thought I deserved a higher rate, while also affirming that I was really excited about the job and the organization. I didn’t give a specific number, but generally asked for a higher salary. I also asked about vacation, hoping for more paid time off, but this wasn’t up for negotiation. She returned with a slightly higher value, and I again said that, while I was really eager to take the position, that the salary made it a hard decision for me. I was prepared to sit in silence on the phone or to defer, but wasn’t going to accept the amount on the spot. I think I was pretty repetitive in this conversation, but I didn’t budge. She went back to confer with others to see what the budget would allow, and in the end, she offered me $10,000 increase in salary over her initial offer, which put me in the middle of the salary range for the position. I was thrilled, and still am. Since joining the organization, I’ve learned how hard it is to get a raise or promotion, so I’m very glad that I negotiated when I joined.
Lesson: Preparation is invaluable. I got so nervous (read: sweaty) during this negotiation; it was extremely helpful to have a few arguments and phrases written down that I would go back to, including a delay tactic. It’s alright, and sometimes even advisable, to postpone and give yourself time to regroup.
I’m sure Small Answers will write more (much more) on negotiation, but in the meantime, here are some of my favorite resources:
- Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, authors of “Woman Don’t Ask” and “Ask for It”
- Ramit Sethi, author of “I Will Teach You To Be Rich”–specifically these: Negotiate Like an Indian and Negotiate Salary Examples
- “The Smart Woman’s Guide to Interviewing and Salary Negotiation” by Julie Adair King
- “Breaking Robert’s Rules” by Lawrence Susskind and Jeffrey Cruckshank
- “Getting to Yes” by William Ury
Image: Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky’s duel (1899), illustration by Ilya Repin
Industry: Video games
Title: Independent game developer (self-employed)
Location: San Francisco, CA
Most interesting job you’ve ever had?
I would say the most interesting moment in my recent career was when I was hired at my previous job and got the opportunity to design and develop my own game. I happened to join at a good time when they’d just received a lot of investment money and were looking to create interesting content for a new online world. Every new hire was asked to pitch and build a game. I had a few ideas I’d fleshed out a little bit, and there was one was the most obvious choice. That idea became Corpse Craft. It was totally unexpected and exciting.
Least interesting job you’ve ever had?
Working as a dishwasher. That was torture.
Any role models or mentors?
I wish I did have a mentor; that’s been something I’ve felt is lacking in my career. I’ve had a couple of role models at previous jobs – both were the heads of the company I worked for at the time and I respected and admired them. My biggest role model is my dad. He started his own non-profit organization when he was thirty one – the age I am now. He just retired from that job this year. (read more…)