Like most retirees, I want to do something useful with my time. Without a clear vision of what that might be, I’ve settled on volunteering — the opportunities are endless and the rewards are both immediate and long lasting. Volunteering makes me feel good about myself.
On the surface, my volunteering resume is respectable: I write the feature article and a column for the Experience in Action (EIA) newsletter, I am a pen pal with an elementary school student in Auburn, and I meet with nursing students from Seattle Pacific University (SPU) to help them understand what it’s like to age.
Below the surface, however, this is a paltry contribution. Though the EIA writing takes time – especially when I travel to do an interview – it’s only six articles a year of between 600-700 words – hardly a Dickensian output. My pen pal is just learning to write (that’s what the whole program’s about), and our exchanges are simple and short. It takes more time to drive to and from the post office to mail the letter than it takes to write it. And, the nursing students’ interviews last about an hour; there are only five or so meetings, and all I have to do is answer their questions and tell them what it’s like to be me.
So if I feel good about myself when I volunteer and bad when I don’t, what’s keeping me from more volunteering? The answer, I think, is that I’m stuck in something psychologists call self-sabotaging behavior. Self-sabotaging behavior is described as undermining long-term goals with short-term behavior. It’s that negative inner voice we all have that whispers doubt in our ear that we can’t do it so why try.
An example of self-sabotaging behavior is the person who binge eats to comfort themselves from the fear that they can’t reach their long-term goal of losing weight. Self-sabotage begets stress which in turn begets more self-sabotaging behavior.
We all self-sabotage to some extent in various areas of our lives, and the deep reasons are imbedded in our past. The behaviors themselves, however, are easy to see but hard to overcome. Perhaps my most aggravating and persistent form of self-sabotage is procrastination.
When Mark Twain famously quipped, “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow,” he must have had me in mind! Like all procrastinators, if I just focused the time and energy I spend on avoidance on accomplishment, my productivity would soar and my stress would dissipate.
Sometimes that which we fear most can be the most liberating. For me, my greatest fear, going back to my early childhood, is commitment. Oddly, because commitment is such a big issue for me, once I do commit I’m maniacally tenacious in keeping my commitment.
For example, I’ve been driving by my local food bank twice a day for years, and twice a day for years I’ve found lame excuses for not dropping in to see if they could use some help. It began to seem like I’d have to run out of gas or have a flat tire in front of the food bank before I’d make a visit.
Finally, I overcame the annoyance and stress that accompanied my procrastination and made the visit. Twenty minutes later I’d had a tour of the facility (impressive), a summary of all the work they do in the community (more impressive), and a commitment to spend 2 1/2 hours a week helping with the distribution of food to seniors.
It felt wonderful.