Give Back to Others by Giving to Yourself First

Arms Open

“We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.” ~Dalai Lama

I looked out my window and saw only sand. I was on a Beechcraft 1900 turboprop flying into Baghdad in the fall of 2003.

The U.S. had invaded six months prior and was occupying the country. From day one, I loathed the idea of invading a sovereign country, so as my plane spiral landed to avoid surface-to-air missiles, I said to myself, “Why am I here?”

From the youngest age, I wanted to give back—stop war, end poverty, ease suffering.

Upon graduating from college, I joined the Peace Corps and embarked on a career working in post-conflict humanitarian assistance. In my mind, giving back meant flying to a war-torn country to help the suffering victims.

So even though I considered the invasion of Iraq to be a gross violation of international law, I went. And after Iraq, I went to Pakistan, and after Pakistan, I went to Sudan, and after Sudan, I went to Afghanistan.

I went from one hotspot to another, always wanting to give back, but never feeling able to. I lived inside walled compounds, isolated from the reality that occurred on the other side of the concrete barriers, and not fully welcomed by the people I was there to serve.

And in time, I became addicted to my Indiana Jones lifestyle. I thrived on the adrenaline rush and thrill of working in a conflict zone, zipping around in Black Hawks, meeting people from all over the world, and living only day-by-day.

As the years passed, an awareness crept in that I was not giving back at all.

First, my focus had shifted from helping those in need to living the most exciting life possible. And second, I realized that the so-called war victims knew their circumstances better than I ever could.

The local populations didn’t need someone living inside a walled compound in their country capital. They needed someone with a few resources, living among them, speaking their language, and helping them to discover their own solutions to rebuild their lives and country.

Then, the travel caught up to me. My insides began to feel hollow, as if all I had was my next adventure and only my next adventure would relieve my growing discontent.

So, I decided to do one of the hardest things I’ve ever done: stay put. I settled in a quiet town in the Netherlands and began working as a humanitarian analyst, only viewing conflicts from afar.

Hardship hit my personal life and I yearned to board the next thing smoking and fly to any warzone where I could focus on the pain of others and escape my own. But I resisted the urge and stayed put.

By staying put, I was able for the first time to give back to the most important person in my life: myself.

By staying put, I became more self-aware and present. I filled myself up with love and approval, knowing that I didn’t need to travel to the ends of the Earth to play my part. And when I gave back to myself—not in a selfish way, but in a nourishing way—I was better able to give back to others.

And now, giving back has a new definition.

It means stopping in the morning when I’m late for work to chat with my elderly Belgian neighbor who served in World War II and always thanks me for saving his country.

It means being fully present when a loved one is talking to me. And it means blogging about peace and uniting with others who have a shared vision.

If you yearn to give back, but never feel like you’re making an impact, try the following:

1. Work on yourself.

It seems counter-intuitive to focus on yourself, but if you’re suffering or neglecting your inner needs, you must first give back to yourself.

2. Give back in small ways.

Learn the woman’s name who makes your morning chai latte and tell her that she brightens your date. Put money in the meter of the car parked next to yours. Compliment a friend or coworker (especially the one who tests your patience) in a way that makes them feel special.

3. Once you feel good about points one and two, start giving back in bigger ways.

Donate money to a cause you truly believe in. If you’re short on cash, donate your time. If you’re feeling inspired, join a movement or start your own.

Giving back is a process that begins and ends with you. And nothing brings more abundance into your life than when you are giving back from a true place of love.

I still thirst for adventure, but I channel my inner Indy into my writing and storytelling. I’m considering a trip later in the year to Burundi, Cambodia, or maybe Namibia—but only to experience another culture and expand my understanding of humanity, not to fill an empty void.

That void is being filled with self-love from the comfort of my living room.

Photo by Justin De La Ornellas

About Allyson K. Stroschein

Allyson Stroschein is a recovering adrenaline junkie and the storyteller behind Shanti Pax, a blog dedicated to telling inspirational stories of peace. Shanti Pax uses the art of storytelling adventurism to view current-day events through a spiritual lens. Learn more at or connect on Twitter.

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  • lv2terp

    Beautiful and inspiring story of truth, courage, and triumph! Thank you for sharing your message and wonderful tips! 🙂

  • Allyson Stroschein

    Thanks so much. I really appreciate the kind words.

  • Lynnette Hoffman

    Wow I could seriously relate to that post in so many ways. I too have had to force myself to stay put– have not left Australia in 14 months now, which I don’t usually tell people because I know how ridiculous it sounds, but for me getting to the 12-month mark without flying off on an adventure was a massive challenge. I’d love to hear more about your aid work experiences.

  • Allyson Stroschein

    Thank you so much for the comment, Lynnette! I completely understand the 12-month mark being a milestone! I love this line from a JRR Tolkien poem, “Not all who wander are lost.” I write about my aid experiences and other peace-related stories on if you’re interested in hearing more.

  • Bethany @ Journey to Ithaca

    Wow, I love that!

    So often, we use adventure seeking and the like, as a way to neglect our own needs. Or we get “busy,” filling our days with commitments, so that we feel like we’re giving something. Just slowing down, and ending the chaos, can really go a long way.

  • Judi Schwahn Rauscher

    Beautifully said, Allyson. Glad your mom posted it and nice to know what has been going on in your life over these last few years. Proud of the young woman you have become.

  • Allyson Stroschein

    Hi Bethany. Thanks so much – I appreciate the comment. You are so right. We have to remember that sometimes the best action is non-action.

  • Allyson Stroschein

    Hi Judy. Thanks for the comment – so kind of you to say!

  • megs

    Thanks for this great post 🙂 It reminds me why picking up and leaving for an adventure at the age of 30 may not be in my best interest. In many ways I think it would be running away from what I don’t have, rather than making what I want for myself here. I have always said that you cannot be happy with others until you are happy with yourself, and I feel your outlook goes hand in hand with mine.

  • Allyson Stroschein

    Thanks for the comment, Megs. I would ask the question, “Why do I want to go?” and wait for an answer to appear. Sometimes taking a risk and challenging yourself in a new way (such as leaving for an adventure) is just what you need. But using adventure to escape discontent should usually be avoided, because the discontent travels with you…

  • shikira

    I come here as an inspirational pioneer in my own right, and having overcome huge social and personal adversity for many years. I still seek wisdom and courage to thrive, perhaps write books on the aftermath of childhood abuse trauma (I am a survivor). I am not happy with myself nor the direction of my life, especially being out of work and struggling with clinical depression. My philosophy about life has always been positive; optimistic and full of hardened courage, which I have shared abundantly with all others. However, it has not changed and does not change the social injustices of exclusion if you are mentally ill and/or in receipt of government hand-outs that do not pay for a new bed because the old one has broken, or a day-trip somewhere if you cannot take a holiday. I have not forgotten the lux of amazement I once felt when I was 23 and travelling the breathtaking senescence of Canada in 1997 – such a long time ago now, and will unlikely ever step foot on such sacred land again or shake hands with a humble and wise native Indian American. It is okay to feel blessed for what you have, even if you don’t have anything at all, yet I live in a society that flaunts ‘everything’ everyone else has and I don’t – depressingly impossible to have your pulse for ‘spiritual’ well-being on the up most of the time!.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    Shakes your hand. Im not canadian but my relatives told me i was 3/4 native american:P Im not that wise, but im not a total flake either:)