I can vividly recall her hunching forward on the office couch and casually stating in a session,
“Well, I guess I'm just not a good human.”
Wait, say what?!
Now in my outside voice, I wondered aloud, “Ok, and what led you to that conclusion?”
“I don't care or do enough.”
As it turns out, this young woman was a student in a helping profession program. She was consistently receiving messages about important causes that, if she cared at all, she should advocate for. Which she did. However, there was a finite amount of time and energy to be had.
Whether it was explicitly communicated or her own interpretation, she believed there was never enough she could do to feel like a caring and compassionate human being.
So how do we answer that question? How much must one do to be considered a “good human”?
Spoiler alert: there is no shortage of meaningful, valuable, amazing, or critical causes in this world. Endless amounts of struggle, disadvantages, and mistreatment exist. Sad? Yes. Unfortunate? Yes. Worthwhile? Definitely. True? Yes.
With that, there is competition for our hearts. To tap into our conscience and humanity. Through all forms of media, the heartstrings are creatively being pulled—as they should be. There is nothing wrong with that.
However, when the message becomes ‘If you don't pick up the torch for our cause you must be a heartless cold slab of flesh and you should be ashamed of yourself,” it has then transitioned into weaponized guilt and shame. Such a message may be self-inflicted or communicated by the cause (subliminally or otherwise). Even directly by passionate peers. So much depends on what meaning we attach to it.
Having our human value attached to an unattainable giving expectation is a losing proposition. For everyone. As individuals, we will burn out and be unable to contribute even what time, energy, and resources we do have.
Organizations will be unsustainable as their contributors will fall away. Even if they do get the support, it will not remain loyal if based on guilt and shame. Unfortunately, the proverbial baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. A worthwhile mission will lose its steam. A capable, compassionate individual will withdraw from how they can bring light into the world.
So what can we do? How can we develop a balanced approach to giving and compassion?
Here are a few thoughts and strategies that may assist us in finding that balance:
Shift from a results-approach to a values-approach
- A result is something that is concrete and can be checked off. Ex: I volunteered 4 hours at the dog shelter. A value is undefined and there is no ‘destination’ to get to. Ex: I value the well-being of animals.
- This shift is a game-changer. If I focus on specific results, there is no guarantee they will happen. As long as I maintain those results I can feel good. Once I do not, I feel yucky. If I value animals, I will take opportunities to nurture that value when I can but I don't base my sense of worth on a specific result. If it doesn't happen now, I still have that value and will take the next opportunity to nurture it.
Accept, I mean really accept, that we are limited.
- Choosing to politely decline a worthy cause does not mean “I don't care.” It could mean I have a finite amount of bandwidth.
- I care about all misfortune, but if I tried to help all of them, I wouldn't have anything to live on!
Respect your beliefs.
- Even if someone is trying to shame you for not supporting the Cyborg Annual Tea, give yourself permission to stand by and trust your gut.
- Accept that we have a conglomerate of beliefs and they evolve over time.
Before jumping in ask yourself, “What value is driving this?”
- Be mindful if the answer is a sense of guilt without any genuine value attached to it.
- If connecting it to a value of yours is elusive, consider running a quick cost/benefit run-through of the next steps.
It’s ok to take a break.
- In fact, when we take the opportunity to refill the ‘gas tank’ we will be able to give even more.
- To keep on pushing and pushing will wind up being less helpful. Which would undermine your value of giving, right?
Should you still get involved and throw support to areas you’re passionate about? Yes, definitely. Just do it with intention. Remember that we can only try our best with what we have at any given moment. And by doing that you’re caring for others—and yourself.
Shmuel Fischler is a licensed clinical social worker based in Maryland where he directs a specialized group therapy practice, CBT Baltimore. Shmuel is passionate about creating relatable and accessible mental health content. To nurture those values, he hosts a popular podcast, Mental Filter, and combines his love for sports and mental health in this video series (#Game_On). He is sought out nationally for lectures, consultations, and clinical supervision.