How are you feeling after service?
Are you feeling empowered daily with all the new experiences that deepened you and the wisdom you gleaned as a volunteer? More confident than ever and ready for anything?
Or are you–like I was after Peace Corps—feeling kind of loose-ended, and wondering where that bolder, more confident, capable you from service went?
If so, it’s not just you.
One of the most common things I hear from people I coach is that they’ve just gone through these incredibly powerful volunteer experiences, but somehow feel… less confident afterward.
Shaky with resumes and interviews. Missing the larger social circles they used to have. Or stuck in a job that sounds pretty good on paper but for which they have no passion.
Most heart-breaking, people sometimes feel like they were at their peak during service, and doubt they’ll ever be able to be that person again.
This is a brutal, terrifying thought—especially considering most full-time volunteers finish service in their twenties.
These types of thoughts can make you small and overwhelmed. So I’m encouraging you to think two other things instead:
1. It makes sense that service is a hard act to follow.
Volunteering was a life-changing experience for most people I work with. It was also deeply fulfilling: an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10 is something I hear often.
If this is you, it’s not hard for you to explain why.
Maybe you loved the community you lived with—coming home every night and talking about work and the world. You loved having people you could be vulnerable with, argue with, keep messing up and starting over with. Going deep with.
Maybe, if you were an international volunteer, you felt empowered by living in a new language and radically different culture. You loved the relationships you built across language and cultural barriers, and seeing and experiencing things you never could at home.
You could probably go on and on.
Add to this the fact that while service inherently presents many challenges (which is of course part of the point, and the reward), most full-time volunteer programs are structured to handle a lot of practical details for us.
Thus, while you didn’t make much money during service, you also were probably provided with some or all of the following: housing, a place to work, a stipend, health insurance, a community, group retreats/in-service trainings, community and/or spirituality nights to process your experiences.
After volunteering, it’s a lot to arrange all these pieces, plus find fulfillment… not to mention money :). To boot, it’s the first time doing this “real world” navigation for most volunteers who served right or soon after college. So a taller order yet.
If you can stop and let in that struggle is completely normal in this transition—that there’s nothing wrong with you—it will release some weight and open up space in you.
And that eventually creates forward movement.
Go ahead: pause, and try it right now.
2. Service didn’t make you who you are. It brought out who you are—and gave you the opportunity to live it.
Imagine a high point during your service.
Maybe you were with your host family in your African village when they got electricity for the first time.
Maybe you were at your job in inner city Chicago celebrating with one of your homeless clients who just got permanent housing, or at a women’s march with your housemates.
What made that time so good for you?
Let’s say, for example, your high point is remembering your 12-year-old African host brother flashing a huge smile as he turned on electric lights in his home for the first time.
Was the experience powerful because you were able to celebrate with people you cared about getting something they really wanted, and had waited a long time for?
If so, maybe connection is a key value for you.
Was it that you were able to witness and participate in a unique experience you likely couldn’t have had at home?
If so, maybe adventure is central for you.
Was it that you knew this change would help the people in your village live safer lives and improve their schools?
If so, maybe growth and/or autonomy is bottom-line for you.
Maybe all of these things made the experience powerful for you.
But if you slow down and really try to understand yourself, you’ll probably see that there is some part of the memory that moves you the most.
And that part is related to a value, and once we understand our values, we can start to imagine a lot more opportunities to live them.
How building a life after service sometimes goes:
I loved my time in Africa and really miss it. To be happy, I better find a way to go back to Africa, or work in a non-profit that serves Africans.
Maybe you do love Africa (I know I do), and maybe you will ultimately end up moving there, or working with Africans at home.
But it’s too quick a jump to assume that’s the only way you can be happy—not to mention generic. It’s not likely you’d be happy and confident long term doing just any type of work with Africans.
So it’s more fruitful to start from the inside—with what values come up for you during your highest points—and let those lead you outward.
Let yourself focus for a few minutes.
- Recall a high point from service. What made it so great? How did it make you feel? Free-write if writing helps you learn what you know.
- Identify one value (e.g. connection, creativity, humor, etc.) that made that experience so meaningful for you.
- Ask yourself: What is another thing, large or small, I can do this week to live out the same value?
Then do it!
Your service is, and always will be, your owned experience. You will always have that to turn to for evidence of what you can do—and hear this: you are still the person that thrived in it.
But you also aren’t just your service.
You have a much longer story to tell. Your values will help map you forward, and consciously living from them will, bit by bit, help restore your confidence.
Take a deep breath. You’ve got this.
If you found this blog valuable, please consider sharing it with others who might benefit, too. Want more support moving forward into your next empowered chapter? Sign up for my free starter course, 5 Steps to a Fulfilling Life After Service, right here.
PHOTO CREDIT: Aziz Ancharki