Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Volunteering: Narcissism Needed

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 6, 2014


Asking people to give up their time, for no obvious monetary reward, means that the anticipation for the volunteer is that there will be narcissistic gratification-the healthy kind. Selling volunteer work, so to speak, means highlighting the positive self-esteem that follows from helping others. This affirmation comes both from the volunteer work, itself, and also from the peers and supervisors who value the contribution. Libby, fifty-two, comes to mind. She comes in hurt after an email exchange where her peers asked her to volunteer to teach, to which she politely responded that she was not available, fulling expecting an expression of disappointment, but instead getting a rather flat response of “OK”. “The fact they asked you meant they wanted you, but when you rejected them, they did not express your value to their organization, and so I can see how you felt bad after that.” I say, highlighting that although no one likes being told “no, thank you,” the onus is still on the program chief to acknowledge the value that Libby might have, and in the past has, brought to the training program. This narcissistic stroking is vital to the success of any organization, particularly a volunteer one. “My guess,” I tell Libby” is that the person who asked you was now moving on to thinking who else he could ask, that he did not stop to think about keeping you on the bench for future opportunities. My sense is that was very short-sighted of him.” I say, wondering about Libby’s sensitivity, along with the way that quality volunteer organizations work to maintain their staff. “For you to give up your time, you must feel that your efforts are going to a place where your skill set is valued and appreciated, not just by the students, but by the administration,” I say, supporting her in her view that without affirmations, she is less likely to want to work for them in the future. “This is healthy narcissism, needing to get strokes for a job well done.” I say, directly supporting her view that those emails could have been more thoughtful. “I wonder if you are hurt, because you are torn.” I say, returning to her vulnerabilities in that email exchange. “Oh yes, I like teaching, and I might have enjoyed the opportunity, but I don’t like feeling like I am a check box and now they move on to the next person, as if I have no individual value.” Libby says, reminding me how important personal understanding is in our world of fast-paced challenges. Understanding narcissism is vital to organization success. If Libby ever runs her own organization, she will be sensitive to that.

5 Responses to “Volunteering: Narcissism Needed”

  1. Shelly said

    I guess I don’t understand the word narcissism. I’ve always thought narcissism, but in this sense, you use it in a positive light. Also, not only volunteers need to be appreciated for giving up their time for free to help others. Everyone likes to be appreciated, period. Is that also narcissism? We volunteer because the Higher Power wants us to make the world a better place and this is how we can contribute to doing that. All of us have talents and we need to use our talents, whatever they are, to doing just that. The narrow-minded say that we volunteer because it makes us feel good. The selfish people say we volunteer because we want to get something out of every situation. Only givers understand that we volunteer because we have this need to give of ourselves to makes the world just a tiny bit better for others.

    • Yes, narcissism is often thought about in pathological terms, but there is healthy narcissism, where one tries to feel good about oneself by doing life-affirming activities. Narcissism becomes pathological when one can only focus on one’s own needs and not pay attention to the needs of others. However, like everything else in life, the art is to find the sweet spot between taking care of one’s own narcissistic needs, and those of others. In this example, organizations need to understand the healthy narcissism which leads a person to volunteer, and in so doing, to remember to stroke that narcissism as a way to positively reinforce behavior which heals our world. Yes, both volunteers and employees need these strokes, but volunteer jobs make it more obvious, as that stroking is the major reward which propels the behavior forward. As with parenting, when behaviors are good, we want to take note, so that they continue. “Catch them being good” is a common parenting technique which needs to be generalized to all relationships and working environments. Thanks.

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