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Non-Profit Blues Got You Down?

What to do when working for social justice actually means sitting in front of a computer and fighting with the photocopier…

I’ve known for a long time now that my purpose in life was somehow connected to changing the world around me. Fighting for justice, working for social change, and resisting the mainstream in some way. Over the years, this has looked like different things, with ups and downs all along the way. Living my dream? Sure! Loving it every single day? Not so much.

After college, I began what would become a five-year stint working in non-profits and philanthropy—living my activist dream and creating real valuable change in our society. Right??

Yes, there were many moments—glorious and exhilarating moments—when I felt completely in my element. Falling asleep in my rather-crappy apartment, I’d know that I did good work that day, changing hearts and minds, and truly helping others find their empowerment. But, there were other times, ones that I can remember so viscerally, when I wanted to scream at my frustration that I wasn’t doing anything useful or exciting at all, and nothing around me seemed to be changing.

A few of those moments took place in front of an old photocopier—stressfully trying to complete a mindless task that my boss had handed me in a rush, and inevitably having to do the whole thing over when I forgot to press “color, two-sided, staple left top corner.” Ahhh! Though wishing I could have an Office Space-inspired slow-mo cutaway with a baseball bat and said photocopier, I would instead put my good-girl mask back on and continue to the next chore.

In the moments of passionate fulfillment, it was easy to feel like I was finding the true purpose of my life. But, when the frustration inevitably came, I would throw my hands up thinking I was somehow losing my way. That rollercoaster is so confusing!

What do you do when the peaks and valleys of social change activism inevitably get to you?

Here are a few tips to get you started:

1. Watch the frustration, and then do something about it!

Although others might advise you to just push past the anger or depression and “pay your dues,” there is valuable information to glean from those ‘photocopier’ moments. What is your frustration telling you? Is this just a fleeting moment, or are you really in need of a job change?

Especially in non-profit or activist work, folks tend to be generally overworked and underpaid. If that’s the case, then it’s time to get clear about WHY you’re in this position.

If you’re trying to move up the ladder, then get really focused on learning the skills and building the relationships you need to stand out from the crowd. Ask for more opportunities: “Can I come along to that meeting?” “Is there any piece of work I can take off your plate?” “Would you be able to cover the cost of attendance for this conference?”It’s time to take control of your own future. Reclaim your personal authority, and be your own advocate.

If you’re just working to work, then acknowledge that that is what you are doing. Landing a job, any job, might be a necessary step. But when that boredom monster rears its ugly head, you’re going to need some strategies to figure out what it is you really want to be doing. Focus on those menial tasks when you’re at work, but your downtime (evenings, weekends, long subway commutes) is the time to become a social scientist, an explorer, of yourself. This is about identifying what makes you tick, and what type of role you’re best suited to play.

Start with 1-2 moments when you felt completely ‘on:’ in your element, joyful, and powerful beyond belief. What were you doing? What skills were you using? Distilling down these moments can lead you in the direction of building the life you want to be living every day.

2. All the small things

Days where you feel down and upset are to be expected—it’s just part of the natural expansion and contraction of life that we all experience. But during those days of quiet sadness or rambling annoyance, it’s the small things that will get you through.

Focus on the present moment, and breathe. Meditate on what’s around you: the colors in a nearby painting, the smell of fresh air, the feel of your foot hitting the pavement. Put up a few affirmations on post-its in your bedroom or on the cover of a notebook, or copy down some of your favorite quotes to hang on a vision board. Inch your way through the day.

These small daily practices will add up to a day’s worth of reflection, and provide you with a little self-love in the process. Just follow your intuition towards what your soul is really yearning for.

3. Always remember your true Purpose lives inside you.

Our external lives and experiences shape our realities. But, your capital ‘P’ true Purpose, takes place in your own inner spiritual world.

Jobs, relationships, money, and surroundings will change, and ebb and flow, throughout our lives. The one consistent thing you will always have to rely on, is you. Your true Purpose is to get to know yourself fully, love yourself deeply, and be the best caretaker of mind, body, and soul that you can be. This lifelong journey is why we’re each given this one precious human life.

No matter the external challenges, remember to look inward and spend time nurturing the daily practices that nourish you to the core. If you want to change the world, start by taking care of YOU!

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