Self-care – a guide to flourishing, for volunteers

Setting out as a volunteer seeking to provide support to not-for-profit humanitarian organisations calls for particular qualities which include openness, commitment and flexibility – qualities which tend to shine in each volunteer I have had the pleasure to know and to work with. Volunteering overseas also exposes us to

– situations which we’ve never encountered before,

– cultures which are likely to be fundamentally different in structure and interpersonal orientation,

– a swathe of travel-related stresses – learning how different money systems, transport and communications networks (where they exist), and ways of interacting with others actually takes place.

As an added factor of concern, the work that will need to be done when volunteering for humanitarian causes may be stressful, in and of itself. This blog post aims to address ways that volunteers can provide for their own self-care as they enter into their projects and roles, both exciting and challenging. This paper will address self-care from an integral perspective, based on a 2008 Journal of Integral Theory and Practice paper by Vivian Baruch entitled: ‘Promoting Thriving for Therapists: An Integral Perspective’.

From the article:

‘An integral perspective on self-care entails understanding the three words inherent in an Integral Life Practice (ILP). Integral means comprehensive, balanced, inclusive; Life includes the whole of our existence, the body, our emotions, relationships, work, as well as the various levels of conscious awareness potentially available to experience; Practice is what we actually do to develop ourselves, which enhances our capacity to help and be of service to others, the actions we undertake to fulfill our potential.’

An integral approach to self-care thus implies we can be proactive about setting in place practices and mindsets which will enable us to more fully attuned to present situations that we find ourselves in, growing our capacity to be of service to others, as we walk the path of volunteering in an unknown context.

‘Compassion fatigue’ is a term most often used in relation to experiences of professionals working in the caring professions, whom may find themselves feeling tired, burned out and possibly even depressed (Lloyd, King & Chenoweth, 2002). These symptoms can come into being as empathy and workload, and personal boundaries are broached, and volunteers, whom often find themselves in exceptional and unusual circumstances can be identified as being particularly susceptible to the onset of compassion fatigue, with the particular personality types drawn to volunteering often resulting in a deeper sensitivity to the same concerns and symptoms.

Common attributes of those that thrive as therapists as identified in the 2008 article by Vivian Baruch on an integral approach to self-care include balance, diversity, robust selves, empathy to self and pro-activity. These same qualities may be seen as present in well-functioning volunteers:

Balance: creating clear boundaries between volunteer work and personal life; taking regular breaks and calling on stress-reduction techniques and self-awareness exercises.
Diversity: volunteers can seek diversity within work activities to maintain freshness including interpersonal contact; seeking solutions for diverse problems and addressing possible projects outside of usual work practices back home.
Robust selves: Centering an awareness of self as able to meet obstacles as challenges; volunteers might also find they can embrace diverse perspectives on problems they face.
Empathy to self: recognising situations where the volunteer might feel vulnerable or perhaps like they are not coping, reaching out to others to ask for help is essential to receiving needed support. It might be that a conversation, a short break from the situation, a focus on relaxation and diverting attention for a short while is just what is needed to return a passion for the work to the volunteer. 
Pro-active: Well-functioning doesn’t just happen by itself – volunteers need to look out for ways they can support their own self care and actually act on these. 

The Integral Quadrant model allows for each occasion of consciousness to be viewed as arising on a spectrum from individual to collective experience oriented in an internal or external fashion. In this way we are called to account for our experience in each moment as being made up of (at least) psychological, biological, cultural and social aspects, arranged like this:



An Integral AQAL or Quadrant approach implies that we must address each of these concerns to adequately account for the whole of our conscious experience. As a volunteer oriented to self-care, this can be seen to influence our view in the following way:

Upper Left: Psychological

What are my commitments and intentions in this volunteer role?

What can I do to take care of my emotional needs while I am here?

Are there ways to prepare my mind for what I will experience in this role?

Is there a sense that I benefit from meditation or a spiritual approach, and how can I address this while I am away on site?

Upper Right: Biological

What are the most effective actions I can take oriented to self-care?

Can I maintain a good diet and getting in some exercise while I am away?

Do I need to prepare to take special medications which will help best look after my body given the area I will be working in?

Lower Left: Cultural

What is my understanding of my responsibilities to others in this role and relevant to self-care?

Can I prepare myself for how relationships will be different in the different environment where I will be working?

What ethical standards do I expect to hold myself and others to, as I complete this assignment as a volunteer?

Lower Right: Social

In what way will my understanding of social systems in the community where I ordinarily live shape my expectations as I enter into this volunteer work in what is likely to be a vastly different community environment?

Can I promote a sense of self-care to others in the environment that they find themselves in, knowing it’s benefits for myself?


A simple way to address self-care as a concern is to choose one activity that brings a sense of care for the self alive, choose a frequency for engaging in the activity, and sticking to it. My training as a telephone counsellor on the crisis support line, Lifeline, involved reporting each week on the activity that we had chosen, and whether we had actually followed through in engaging it. That simple degree of accountability saw an incredible transformation in my own ability to engage in self-care activities, no longer sensing them as self-indulgent or trivial, but really coming to an understanding of how these little acts actually contributed to my ability to be a better telephone counsellor. 

These small changes, and big differences in sensing self as flourishing in a network of support providers, with wellbeing of self and others a concern that is never too far out of eyesight. ❤


Baruch, V. (2008). Promoting Thriving For Therapists: An Integral Perspective. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 3, 85-105.

Lloyd, C., King, R., & Chenoweth, L. (2002). Social Work, Stress and Burnout: A Review. Journal of Mental Health, 11, 255-265.


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