It is almost inevitable that during any time spent volunteering overseas that you will have to manage your own feelings of frustration. Communication problems, cultural stereotypes, and differing norms can all result in you feeling irritated, and the most important thing is how you respond to it. Instead of taking it out on others around you, there is much to be learned from reflecting on your frustration and its causes. Below are some questions you can ask yourself and suggestions for putting your feelings into perspective.
Is the process more important than the outcome?
If you come from a highly task-oriented western culture it can be a difficult concept to get your head around, but processes that may just seem slow and inefficient to outside eyes could be fulfilling other purposes. In relationship-oriented cultures such as most of Asia, Africa and Latin America, the process – such as everyone collaborating and no-one feeling excluded – may be more valuable than the “outcome” – the decision made or task completed. This can manifest itself as endless meetings with officials where it seems the main issues are skirted around, or visits to the homes of local farmers for cups of tea and small talk instead of getting down to business.
This is a situation where the phrase “trust in the process” comes into its own. Your direct and efficient communication style is unlikely to be what is needed if people feel slighted that you haven’t inquired about the health of their family. You might be amazed at how quickly things happen after all the preliminaries get done. Even if you don’t change your own preferred method of working, stay open to seeing how other styles can work just as well.
Is it your ego talking?
Many volunteers feel frustrated their expectations are not being met or their skills are not being utilized. If this is the case with you, first think about from where that frustration stems. Do you really feel the project or beneficiaries are missing out or being harmed, or is it more to do with your own desires of what you want to achieve? Consider if being forceful about what roles you want take on is really serving the best interests of others. Does the organization have more pressing needs than to try to meet your expectations? If so, could you offer them a hand with those needs instead? Go back to your goals for volunteering – if you genuinely seek to help the cause, it may mean you end up doing some mundane (but valuable) tasks.
How much of it is cultural?
It can often be a helpful gauge to see if others around you are frustrated by the same issues. If not, it may just be your problem. Talk to local friends about their perspective, and if you find it be helpful, see if you can take on aspects of their view. For example, if the frequency of power-cuts is getting you down, talking to older people who can remember what life was like without electricity, and who still feel blessed every time the light switches on, can help you cultivate a different attitude.
What am I learning?
Unfortunately, dealing with frustration is not a skill unique to the situation of overseas volunteering. Most jobs, and in fact most areas of your life, will spark this emotion from time to time, and learning how to deal with it may be one of the most important life skills you can learn. Through managing your own feelings of frustration, you can cultivate qualities such as patience as you slow your expectations down, or empathy as you experience challenges others deal with every day. Viewing these situations as opportunity for growth can help quell some of those more negative feelings.
What other areas of your life can you improve?
It may just be there is nothing you can do about the source of your frustration – after all, difficult bureaucracy or mistaken cultural assumptions are here to stay! Think about what else you can do in your life to decrease your feelings of frustration and cultivate a different attitude. Maybe starting your day with a yoga routine will ground you and help you put things into perspective, or going for a run after work, or writing a gratitude journal. Recognize that even if you can’t control a situation, you can control your reaction to it, and choosing to respond with calm tolerance over anger can be powerful.
For more tips and advice on issues commonly experienced when volunteering overseas, pick up the Learning Service book!