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Balancing Guilt and Gratitude in the Social-Impact Sector

Alexis Perrotta profile image

Alexis Perrotta

A woman wearing business clothing stands in front of a window in an office. She is attaching orange sticky notes to the glass.

Here's a scenario that so many of us in the social-impact sector (and in the workforce at large) may have experienced: you’re feeling unfulfilled in your job or perhaps you're exhausted by direct-service work. Maybe you want more responsibility, more pay, fewer days that leave you feeling emotionally drained; or maybe you want a different job altogether.

But then you walk out the door (or read the news) and see so many people in need. Maybe it's a person holding a sign asking for food, money, or work, or perhaps you talk to a friend who's been looking for a job for what feels like forever.

Oftentimes, it's the reality of all the people out there who are truly struggling that can push us right back to thoughts of "I should just be happy that I have a job." Or maybe this sparks feelings of guilt about wanting to move from direct service to a more administrative or management position, taking a step back from that front lines, on-the-ground work.

So how do you deal with those complicated feelings and move forward?

Remember, compassion fatigue is real

Compassion Fatigue is generally defined as “... the sheer exhaustion experienced in clinical work as we do our very best to meet the needs of others, day after day, year after year.“ It sounds intense because it is—and it can swallow us whole, if we let it.

This is where setting healthy boundaries and engaging in healthy practices becomes useful:

  • Learn how to say no without feeling guilty. Basically, Boundary Setting 101.
  • Process everything. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this term, it means: pay attention to yourself and the feelings that come up for you while at work, write your feelings down in a journal or on your smartphone, and share these feelings with a supervisor or mentor—someone other than your pet.
  • Re-evaluate every now and then. Are you still finding fulfillment through your work? If not, process why. Perhaps your boundaries need an adjustment? Maybe you forgot to use your vacation days? Ask yourself, "What can I realistically change? What’s feasible given my personal or family constraints?" There's no shame in emotions, and no judgement about whether you feel fortunate or appreciative enough. Everyone has their challenges, moments of sadness, and aspects of life that aren't unfolding as they may have hoped.

And remember: sometimes, setting boundaries can mean walking away and finding something new. If that's where you are, that's OK!

Getting past the "I have no right to complain" complex

Oftentimes, the idea of being grateful gets coupled with that old admonishment—whether from your own internal dialogue or from others—of "you have no right to complain."

But here's the thing: gratitude and questioning specific aspects of life, career, or paycheck are not mutually exclusive. Just because you are grateful for some things doesn't mean you can't seek improvements elsewhere. So why so much guilt about seeking out a change or improvement? There definitely seems to be an unwarranted connection between being thankful and feelings of obligation.

The truth is that the two have nothing to do with each other. Having gratitude and a general sense of appreciation for your career, paycheck, or colleagues does not mean that you can't strive for something different or something more. And remember that our goals, wants, and needs are unique, so honor whatever form these things may come in for you.

How to practice gratitude and lose the guilt

First and foremost, steer clear of comparisons. We often hear this advice when we are worried that everyone else is better off than we are, but it's just as useful to quit the comparison game if you're constantly feeling guilty about what you have attained in your personal and professional life.

Here are some suggestions on how to avoid the comparison trap and the subsequent guilt that often follows (and find the gratitude, too):

  1. Acknowledge and accept your emotions. Recognize that feeling guilty is a normal emotional response. Accepting your feelings without judgment is the first step toward understanding and managing them.
  2. Practice gratitude regularly. Cultivate a habit of gratitude by regularly reflecting on the positive aspects of your life. Acknowledge the privileges you have and express gratitude for them.
  3. Understand your privilege. Reflect on the concept of privilege and recognize that your circumstances are shaped by various factors beyond your control. Understanding this can provide context for your feelings and encourage empathy rather than guilt.
  4. Share your resources. Actively contribute to others in need by volunteering your time, skills, or resources. Like my mom always says, sitting around feeling bad for others doesn't help! Taking positive action can transform feelings of guilt into meaningful support for those facing challenges, redirecting the focus to positive impact. Furthermore, you may choose to use your resources to make a difference, whether through charitable contributions, mentoring, or supporting local initiatives. Bonus points for supporting initiatives that empower other people.
  5. Set boundaries on comparison. Limit comparisons with others, recognizing that everyone has a unique path. Instead of dwelling on guilt, channel your energy into positive actions that contribute to your own well-being and the well-being of others.
  6. Practice self-compassion. Be kind to yourself. Understand that while you may "have it good" in some respects, that doesn't diminish your challenges or struggles. Treat yourself with the same compassion you would offer to anyone else.

Remember, the key is to shift your focus from external comparisons to internal fulfillment and growth. By practicing mindfulness, celebrating your achievements, and embracing your unique journey, you can minimize the tendency to compare and reduce feelings of guilt.

Alexis Perrotta profile image

Alexis Perrotta

As the Associate Director of Marketing and Communications at Idealist and a lifelong nonprofit professional, Alexis offers job seekers, game changers, and do gooders actionable tips, career resources, and social-impact advice.

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