It seems a bit cruel that sometimes the richer a volunteer experience is, the tougher the transition feels into life afterward.
There are obvious reasons for this: we’re losing a unique community and work life we had that gave us purpose, meaningful challenge, joy. And we also have to make a lot of decisions at once—where to live, what to do, what community to build, how to make income, and so on. It can be overwhelming, take time, and feel lonely.
And even if we have something immediately lined up afterward, we often just miss the identity of being a volunteer.
Is this challenge just inevitable, for a time, or can anything really make the transition easier?
Not easier, necessarily, but it can become more stable and grounded. Start by doing these two things:
1. Give yourself a proper ending to your volunteer experience.
It doesn’t matter if you finished service years ago and are already in a new endeavor, finished yesterday, or are still finishing it. For many of us, volunteering is one of the most powerful experiences of our lives so far. Losing it can feel like losing a part of ourselves.
We need to take time to let the volunteer experience settle—and gently, intentionally mark its closure—before something new can take root and flourish in us. If we don’t, we can remain stuck in the past—always comparing new things we do to volunteering, and sometimes doubting if anything will fulfill us as much as that did.
It will, in time, but not if we haven’t made space for it.
And how do we do that?
By honoring and clearly signaling to ourselves that this rich experience has finished—one of many we’ll have in our lives—and giving it a secure, peaceful place to rest in us.
Other cultures around the world sometimes mark significant endings through ritual. In South Africa, where I did Peace Corps, a funeral can be a several day and night affair. When my host brother died, my host mom went through a standard four-month grieving period and at the end, said literally, “I’ve stopped crying.” Of course she still missed her son. But in the space the culture allowed her, she’d experienced a real shift. And I believe she got there faster by being fully in her loss than she would have if she’d just tried to gloss over it and push ahead quicker.
In our case as volunteers, taking time to unpack the loss of the volunteer experience and identity helps us clear ground mentally, and eventually make room, get new ideas, and build excitement for what’s calling next.
Since volunteering meant something different to each of us, how to best experience your own ending is personal. Start by just considering what would help you gently lay down this chapter. Feel into what would help you celebrate it, grieve what you need to, and give thanks for all you want to. Some volunteers I know invent their own rituals to mark this ending. Others write letters to their volunteer experience as though it was a person—or even a series of stream-of-consciousness letters over several days if there’s a lot to say. And others go somewhere in nature and have a conversation with the experience. Think about what resonates with you, and how much time feels right to take.
Bottom line, in giving yourself closure, let the experience settle. It will always be part of you, but the paradox is, it’s only in intentionally letting volunteering end that you can fully integrate what you learned from it—and bring it forward with you.
2. Give yourself some regular, open time alone, and consider who you want to be—in whatever you do after service.
People ask us, and naturally we seem to focus on what we’ll do next after volunteering. But it’s equally, if not more, important to consider who we want to be, in whatever we do next.
Transitions expert William Bridges points out that while a change is external—a move, a new job, etc.— a transition is internal. He writes that with any outer change, one must do their own “inner reorientation and self-redefinition” or “the change won’t work, because it doesn’t ‘take.’”
Who we want to be is something only we can answer, and we have to turn inward to find it. Again, other cultures have old traditions to honor and facilitate such inner transitioning. A classic example is an initiation ritual: sending adolescents to the wilderness alone for a time (sometimes with certain tasks) before they start new chapters as initiated adults.
If you can’t be in wilderness right now, arrange space alone for yourself to just be, not do, in another way. Walk or jog for half an hour in the mornings. Sit alone somewhere with tea, or free-write, or meditate, for 45 minutes before bed. Listen to ocean or other centering sounds while you’re driving. Use the open time to just hear yourself, and whatever insights might be trying to pop up, in the space you’re creating.
No one else—no book, course, friend, or teacher—can tell you what you can. So gently stay with it. Stay in the room.
Taking this open space for myself is what I didn’t know how to do after Peace Corps—for years. Soon after South Africa I started graduate school. Initially, the adrenaline of the new experience carried me. The problem came a year in, when I knew that field wasn’t what I wanted long term, but was too afraid to change course because I didn’t want to lose time.
At first, I tried to ignore my doubts. When that become impossible, I tried other work I had some interest in. In short, I focused outward, looking to different career tracks to give me fulfillment—and felt increasingly frustrated and lost when they didn’t.
I didn’t know how to slow down, turn inward, and hear what was asking for attention there. If I had, the transition still wouldn’t have been easy, but it would have been much more grounded and my choices more informed. And ironically, I would have saved myself a lot of time in the long run—not to mention money and heartbreak. Above all, I would have better known who I was in the transition—and now I get that when I know that, the question of what to do becomes much simpler.
Even when we accept that this kind of alone time during transition makes sense, it’s hard to be in wilderness—real or self-devised. The last thing we often want to be after volunteering is alone. Above all, trust that in the space you’re creating, you’re cultivating something. You are.
And, in exploring who you want to be now, one thing that can bring the process more energy is recognizing that in this transition, you’re not trying to reinvent the wheel or become someone else. The opposite: in learning how to listen to yourself, you’re actually leaning in and becoming more yourself—becoming you, 2.0. A person who can draw from volunteering and everything that’s come before and since, to choose who they want to be, and what they want to focus on, in life now.
Even though I consider my own transition into a fulfilling post-volunteer life to be complete now, I still take regular open time alone meditating, walking, and free writing, because some of my best ideas and insights come that way. We all know the feeling of being stuck on something (I get this especially while writing) and then getting up to walk to the store, and the way through we were searching for is suddenly there. To more deeply explore the value of regular, open, quiet time to ourselves, I highly recommend William Bridges’ book Transitions: Making the Most of Life’s Changes—especially his content about the neutral zone.
Transitions are complex and take time—especially after an experience as moving as volunteering. It’s a real loss—which is one way we know it was so significant for us—and with that comes real suffering for a while. So let yourself breathe: it’s absolutely not just you, and a testament to the depth of your volunteer experience how much you feel it with you now.
I’m not sure there’s a way to make the post-service transition easier. But I have learned for sure that this loose-ended time does pass when you work through the transition consciously. And the reward at the end is so worth it: yourself—ready to give the best of you, to be your own unique light in a new chapter. You’ve so got this.
I hope this blog was a valuable read—but also hope you won’t stop there 🙂. We can have strong insights, but then easily forget them when we don’t take the next step into action. What’s one action you can take right now to lead your own transition forward? Please tell us about it in the comments. Writing it down makes it more real for you, and helps others know they’re not alone.
If you liked this blog, please also consider sharing it with others who might benefit. Finally, do you want more support transitioning forward as your strongest self? Feel free to sign up for this free starter course, 5 Steps to a Fulfilling Life After Service, right here.
PHOTO CREDIT: Vek Labs