Taking a Beat from My Obsession with Helping
I’m a naturally giving person. Giving and helping are second nature to me, enough so that I often take it too far.
Giving Away Too Much
I grew up being preached to about giving more and being selfless, how I should be helping others all the time. It wasn’t until around 2001 when one of my lessons with the Black Forest Clan asked me to list ways I might volunteer to help others, ways I already did and ways I might in the future. I think the lesson assumed I sat on my butt and did nothing, and that it was designed to teach me to volunteer more, but it had the opposite effect. It wasn’t until I began making a very long list that I realized just how much of my time went to volunteer activities and to helping others.
I’d been kicking myself, trying to manage my time better, so I’d kept a log for a couple of years, yet still hadn’t paid attention to where my time was going–there was simply never enough time to do all the things I wanted to do with my writing career, so it took a distant back seat to everything else. I was shaken to learn that I was spending between 40 and 60 hours a week, every single week, volunteering my time to friends and to strangers. That was on top of working 40 to 60 hours a week for a paycheck. That was also the year I’d just given away $75,000 worth of a small how-to guide I might have published and earned income from to support my then-dream of writing full-time.
But I gave it away. Because I felt good doing it. And because it reached people who otherwise might not could have afforded it.
The lesson that was meant to make me more charitable actually made me take a beat and re-examine how I spent my resources, so that I had more balance in my life.
(Hey, are YOU looking at how YOU spend YOUR resources?)
A Big Change in Volunteer Activities
One of the bigger changes in my life then was that I stopped volunteering for projects when the call went out. It wasn’t that I stopped volunteering altogether. Someone would always drop the ball and we’d have a last-minute emergency. That’s when I’d step in to fix things. Before, I had been taking on additional volunteer work and fixing last-minute emergencies. (I’m a good fixer, you know. My bosses and everyone around me recognizes that talent as a major part of my skill set.) This way, I had more time and felt less taken advantage of, which is something that invariably happens when you get out of balance with being naturally giving.
But as someone who finds helping others to be second-nature, giving too much is a trap I have to be extra careful of. The sheer joy of helping is always there, ready to lure me into imbalance and overtake my own needs and desires with activities that would further someone else’s goals.
That’s not a bad thing. It’s not the fault of anyone else. It’s just the way I’m wired.
My Own Obsession
Someone brings me a very worthwhile and fun project and I can get completely obsessed with the project and the shared creativity in bringing a project to life and to financial stability. It is an absolute thrill to me. Like a drug. I can do this with my own projects, but I tend to be solitary with them. When helping someone else, I have someone I can share the fun with, so it bloooooooms. In some cases, I feel absolutely fated to help someone, and it’s a spiritual calling that I feel I must attend to, though maybe not to the levels I’m tempted. The better the project, the more likely I am to go overboard and forget my own projects–something I struggle with and must be mindful of. I’m aware of the problem–I just have to remind myself of where I am and not let myself get too carried away.
Last summer, a friend came to me with a new project he was considering. He didn’t know how to go about it but he knew that I had a little bit of experience with it. I immediately launched into my usual helpful mode, all excited and brainstorming like crazy. We had many a lunch together to lay out a path forward. It was an artistic project, an enticing one, and he needed help coming up with a business plan and a few ideas beyond that. To me, ideas are easy. Sometimes too easy. So easy that I don’t place value on them. This has always been a problem for me because I don’t struggle with ideas so a part of me can’t understand just how valuable they are.
Without a second thought, I jumped into the fray with him. He had an artistic project he wanted to turn into a business and it was…sigh…exciting. It was unique. It was fun. And I got to help. To create. To share the god-spark. Sure, he’d done some research, but a piss-poor job of it and he confessed as much. Me, I knew exactly where to go, what he needed, and exactly what he needed to make things work. I knew these things because I’d done it before, for myself and for others. I also had friends networked who could help him get his artistic business off the ground. He loved having me help, and I loved helping him. But by the end of the summer, I had done more work on his project than he had, and sadly, more work on his project than on any of my own.
I caught myself creating lists of galleries that would show his work when I should have been creating galleries of new book covers for my own work. Uh-oh.
The project was his, not mine, but we shared a common vision and loved working together and co-creating this vision we shared for his art. He was very content to have me handle the business aspects while he handled the artistic aspects and pushed more questions and research my way. I was okay with that, too. I didn’t even notice how many weeks went by without me writing a single word on my novel. Months later, we ended our friendship for unrelated reasons but he begged me to stay on and help him with his project. By then, I’d realized that I’d let myself get out of balance on the project as well, spending too much time on it and not enough on my own stuff.
I’ve had two or three similar situations in the last year, and I find that the more excited I am about the project and about helping the person, the longer it takes me to regain balance and pull back from their project and their excitement, and put time on my own projects. If you’ve noticed my upward blast in writing productivity, then you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been able to take a beat and regain control of my own projects versus focusing on someone else’s that may or may not ever get done.
I can’t say that won’t happen again. I’m naturally prone to helping where I see a place I can help and completely forgetting my own projects if someone else has a more exciting pool to play in or is rather charismatic and enthusiastic about their creative projects. Someone always has something interesting that I genuinely love to be part of. Some people ask for a little help and others ask for all my time.
My challenge is to give a little bit of help and step back, to be available when asked but only if they’re prudent with how much they ask of me. Some are, some aren’t. Some will take as much as I give and more, and others will be put off by my constant availability and excitement when they want a break from it themselves.
As one of my friends I was helping last month said to me, “I appreciate your help, but what are you getting out of this?”
I answered her honestly, “I’m learning a new skill that I can use for my own projects.”
And that’s the key. Balance in everything, as usual. Balance in giving. Balance in helping. I can give and I can help, but I need to keep that in balance with how much I give and get back and help myself. Perhaps that’s a very selfish thing to say but for those of us who would willingly and unconsciously give ourselves away completely to some wonderful new creative obsession that just got dropped on our doorstep, it’s necessary for my own survival and for the projects I myself love and that no one else can do.
My new rule, that’s working for me at the moment, is to take a beat when I feel I’m obsessing over someone else’s creation and allow myself to give a little help–but no more than I am giving my own projects. If I’m helping someone else more than myself, it’s time to step back.