Our theme for the month of March is “Ask the post calvin.” We’re taking on questions submitted by readers and offering our best advice.

Dear the post calvin,

I do a lot of nice things for people. I go out of my way to be thoughtful, encouraging, and helpful. I run errands. I remember peoples’ birthdays and favorite foods. I volunteer to help. I like doing it all because it makes me feel good and like I’m fulfilling my calling and because I feel like it strengthens relationships. But lately I’ve been feeling… unvalued? This feels like whining and I don’t like it, but I’ve just noticed that people don’t even say thank you or anything sometimes. And I sort of feel like no one does these things for me. I know that’s not why you’re supposed to be nice. But I’m human. It’s making me not want to participate in peoples’ lives anymore. Am I being a doormat? Do people just assume I’ll do things now? Is it selfish to want reciprocity?

Oh, and don’t give me any Enneagram advice. My housemate literally never stops talking about it. I know I’m a 2. Yawn.

Sincerely,
Fed Up

Dear Fed Up,

It sounds like you’re dealing with a sort of burn out. You’ve been doing things that you find important and rewarding and philanthropic but suddenly…they don’t feel worth it anymore. When fulfilling the work you consider your calling leaves you tired and unvalued and, well, fed up, it may be time to step back for a moment and reassess. Which is what you seem to be doing by asking these questions in the first place.

The first thing I want you to do is to think about why it is you do what you do. Is it for you, or is it for them? It’s probably a combination both, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s worth checking to see if these roots are healthy and balanced.

You say that you like doing these things because it makes you feel good. You feel it’s your calling, and you think it strengthens relationships. These are great reasons, but except for maybe the last one, the focus is on you.  I’m not going to tell you that you need to start focusing more on others because that is probably neither helpful nor true. What I will tell you is that personally, when doing any sort of service work, I am able to persevere longer when the balance is tipped towards the people I’m serving. It’s a perspective thing.

The truth is, our emotions are so fleeting that building a lifestyle on them is reminiscent of that house built on a stretch of sand. That feel-good high from lending someone a hand is a nice perk, but you can’t live there. Eventually you’re back where you started, except now you’ve lost the hour and a half it took to drive them to the airport. What did you do that for again?

That hour and a half was probably worth more than a little spike in your own temporary happiness, and perhaps even more than the convenience it offered your friend. Did you make a bad trade? I would say that you didn’t, not if you think about your vision.

You have a vision—a way of life that you want to promote and celebrate. And yours sounds like a beautiful vision indeed: relationships strengthened, people showing thoughtfulness and care to strangers, the world softened by friends who encourage and lift up. When you do something for someone else, you are doing something deeper as well. You are communicating value and love to the other. You are creating the world that you want to live in. This is from where your joy must come. Emotions fluctuate; visions turn into mission statements.

I have found from personal experience that engaging in any form of long-term service work requires a certain level of inner work as you grapple with hard things like gratitude, humility, and sacrifice. These are things that I have to wrestle with on a regular basis. Of course, only you can speak to the state of your heart, your inner self. Take some time for introspection and see if that helps at all.

My second suggestion: step back a bit.

Sometimes, you just need to take a break. You can be generous and giving and thoughtful without leaving yourself behind in the process. Maybe the key to serving with a joyful heart lies in doing less. We’re talking quality over quantity here.

If your inner life is sorted and your heart is in a good place, you can give yourself permission to say no sometimes. You can back away from certain tasks, or even from certain relationships if you think that is the best course of action. Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula for this; you’re just going to have to make those calls. Take care of yourself, or you will be of no help to others.

Thirdly, I want you to start asking for help.

You have the gift of being keenly aware of what others need, and you instinctively know how to fit yourself into that situation. I’m not saying it’s easy—you say that you go out of your way to do so, and I’m sure that the things you do for others take up a fair amount of time, energy, and mental or emotional space—but it’s probably somewhat natural for you to live this way. Let me remind you of something you probably already know: not everyone has this gift.

It is absolutely not selfish to want reciprocity, but it may be unrealistic to expect everyone to do as much as you do without any sort of prompting. Thus, suggestion number three: prompt them!

If you aren’t getting what you need or want, then communicate that with the people around you. The truth is, a lot of people just don’t realize that you are craving the same things you are giving to others. There are probably a lot of people in your life that really care about you but are just too busy or occupied or scatterbrained to remember to offer their help or encouragement.

So, ask. Ask for small favors. Ask for large ones. Remind people about your birthday. It will probably feel awkward and unnatural at first, but most people need reminders like this, and hopefully as they exercise this giving lifestyle, you find yourself needing to ask less and less often.

Finally, please know that the world needs more people like you. Give yourself a break, but don’t back out forever; do your best to pull others in. It’s good work. You yourself said it was a “calling.” If everyone would consider that at least part of their calling encompasses being thoughtful and helpful and present to those around them, our communities would flourish indeed.

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