Many of us feel called to help people, especially now. Whether our help comes through in our work, or in our families and communities, our hearts know that we need to support each other.
We can’t go it alone all the time.
I’ve always been a big helper. I helped my classmates with their schoolwork, I helped my mom with chores around the house, I became a caretaker when my parents were ill, and I took on a helper role in all of my adult jobs.
I don’t know if it’s something I learned from childhood or whether it is just in my general nature. I do know that our society generally values being a “good person,” especially for women. We’re generally taught to be kind and nice people, and we’re taught that helping is part of that.
But there is also a thing called “being too nice” or “helping too much” or “giving too much.” We are taught to be kind and nice and generous, but not too much.
We’re fed a lot of mixed messages about what it means to be a good person. And a lot of questions arose for me:
Who gets to decide what is helping or giving too much? Is it the giver or the receiver, or both?
How much is too much?
Who gets to decide what help is needed? The helper or the person being helped?
If helping is supposed to be a good thing, why doesn’t it always feel good? And why does it sometimes feel really bad?
And why, when we need help ourselves, does that feel bad sometimes too?
There are swaths of expectations about who we should be and what we should do when it comes to helping and being helped.
We hear about it in our religious and spiritual communities: “do unto others” is the basis of the Golden Rule. “Being of service” is the highest gift you can give. Whenever you’re feeling down, help someone who has less than you and you’ll feel better.
But it’s also a belief in our society that needing help means you aren’t strong enough, or you’re needy, or you’re a drain. And if you need to be helped, then you don’t know what you’re doing and can’t take care of things yourself. You need to be told what to do.
Therefore, we get lots of people wanting to be on one side, but not the other — yet both roles are needed for the dynamic to work.
These mixed messages can lead to a lot of confusion and resistance.
Sometimes that resistance is subtle — in the form of disagreement or avoidance; and sometimes that resistance is more overt — in the case of total pushback, rebellion, or the cutting off of relationships.
It can be confusing and frustrating to be the helper and the help-ee in this kind of dynamic.
If we’re not clear about our intentions, motivations, and conditions of being “helpful,” there can be a great deal of resentment on both sides.
If you’ve ever been on the other side of it — having to ask for help or having someone try to help you even if you don’t ask for it, you can understand what I’m saying.
From the perspective of the person being helped, it can feel like someone is trying to give you advice you didn’t ask for, or help you in ways you don’t need, or tell you what you should be doing.
The situation which you feel is under control, might seem like a crisis to a helper. On the flip side, you might be spiralling into a really bad place but you don’t really recognize it until it’s too late — until the helper steps in to remind you that heavy consequences are arising (aka any kind of intervention).
These kinds of narratives try to enforce the “rescuer” and “victim” dynamic. One is the hero and the other needs saving from a villain (who is sometimes themselves).
Not only is this reflected in individuals helping each other, but it is also reflected in larger charitable systems.
The superb documentary “Poverty, Inc.” (which is available on Netflix I believe) shows how the paternalistic view of charity can decimate the local economies and businesses of the communities they want to assist, by providing too much of the wrong thing out of a desire to help out in crises and disasters. The crisis ends but the long-term effects of the “helping” has the opposite effect — it becomes more about the charity organizations and their executives than it is about the particular needs of the community and their ability to empower and take care of themselves.
I’m not being contrary and saying that helping others is a bad thing — far from it. But as with any human aspect, it has its beneficial side and its shadow side.
The intention of this post is to consider what it means to be helped, and the reasons why some people don’t want to be helped yet we keep trying anyway.
When helping is disempowering
As helpers, we want to show our love and concern for others. We know that if we were ever in a crisis or in a tough spot, we would need help ourselves too. We have compassion and don’t want others to suffer — it can be heartbreaking to witness. When anyone is suffering, it is natural to want to jump in to alleviate that suffering.
However, too often we forget to ask the questions: “What do you need?” “Would you like help?” “How would you like that help to be given?” “From whom would you like help?” “What do you need to take care of yourself?”
The “conditional helper” is someone who deems that they and they alone can be a rescuer or saviour. They decide what should be done, and they do it. They give advice based on what they think or what they would do. They give help based on the systems that they’re used to, even if the situation occurs under different systems. This is the parental aspect — the person needing help is the suffering child and the parent steps in to take care of that child because he or she knows best.
When caught up in these conditions, we forget that there are individuals with their own wants, needs, and desires at the end of them. We disempower their own self-agency when we step in and take over. When we are helping adults, we can risk infantilizing them. When we are helping children, we can risk superimposing our own wants, needs, and desires onto them, forcing them to take on roles and expectations that don’t fit in order to please us.
The helpers also become diminished because their own identities become wrapped up in being seen as someone who is good and helpful.
I’ve seen so many wonderful people, who are extremely giving and compassionate, completely burn out so much that they can barely take care of themselves.
The helpers put aside their own basic needs (not to mention their potential accomplishments, or desires, or dreams) to put others first.
The praise and validation we can get from helping others allows us to feel good about ourselves, but we can get so caught up in seeing ourselves that way that we stop questioning whether we are really needed — we just assume we are and step in wherever we see an opportunity.
Even if we’re not taking over, we might still offer advice with an expectation that it will be seriously considered — whether or not that advice was solicited in the first place.
We can also disempower people with our thoughts and beliefs about them. If we believe that someone is failing, weak, helpless, or they cannot handle something themselves, then we take away their ownership of their choices, decisions, and actions. Judgment is never empowering — it causes a feeling of separation and emotional reaction, and it takes energy away from finding an empowering solution.Worrying about someone can be disempowering because it projects your fears onto them.Click To Tweet
Worrying about someone can also be disempowering because it is really about projecting the helper’s fears onto them. Either there is a fear that that the helper cannot protect the sufferer from their pain, or that the sufferers are helpless to their own pain. This fear leads to the desire to control and manage.
Furthermore, we, in our society, have also been taught to view pain or struggle as weakness — something to be overcome rather than something to be experienced as a way of learning about ourselves and the world.
These limiting beliefs and fears about those who need help and their ability to handle the situation do not lead to empowering and loving solutions — they lead to resistance and learned helplessness.
Resistance and pushback or learned helplessness
The body automatically knows when we are experiencing something unwanted or un-needed. Our shoulders get knotted, we feel a bit stubborn or resentful, our words get clipped and short. The atmosphere becomes tense.
If this comes up in a close relationship, we try to be polite because the other person cares about us, even though we are tightly-wound and want to push back. We might even start feeling guilty because our minds are telling us to just be nice and accepting anyway.
If this comes up in the context of a larger system or circumstance, our personal wants, needs, and desires are at risk of being unheard, unseen, and unknown because someone else is in charge of deciding what is best for the wider group.
When we feel resistance to what is being imposed on us — no matter the intention of the helper — we have to respond or react. We do this in a number of ways, depending on how we were socialized by our primary caregivers from childhood: we can become pleasers, we can push back in anger or frustration, or we can avoid people and situations altogether. These are the external reflections of our reactions.
Internally, we also react: we can accept what people believe about us or we can reject those beliefs in favour of our own perceptions.
When we accept beliefs that are limiting (we don’t know what we’re doing, we’re not good enough, we are failing, we need help, we need someone else to take charge, etc.), we can fall into a pattern of learned helplessness — we give our power over to the helper and let go of the responsibility of taking care of our own needs and wants. We succumb to the fear and worry and allow their help to give the illusion of feeling safe and secure, rather than empowering ourselves to find our own security and safety.
The key to recognizing resistance is to ask yourself: what beliefs are operating here? Do they serve everyone or just me? Do they feel expansive and loving, or are they intended to relieve a fear or worry?
The power-over dynamic of helping
Resistance and push-back tend to be reactions when there are certain power-over dynamics in place between the helper and the help-ee.
Women, especially, have been taught through the ages to second-guess ourselves, and to ask our friends and family members, “What should I do? What would you do?” Because we are seen as the weaker sex, our self-agency and self-determination is suspect. We have learned that we cannot trust our own discernment.
Additionally, we are taught to be the relationship-keepers. We have to be nice and kind, be helpful, be generous, be warm and loving. To be otherwise is to be considered bitchy or cold.
This leads to a pattern of always trying to be considered good: the good friend, the good daughter, the good wife, the good sister, the good employee, the good boss.
When we hand over the power to others to define what it means to be “good” or automatically play a role without really taking the time to figure out whether it fits for us or not, we become pawns in our own lives.
We take on the helper role without really considering whether our help is needed — we just want to be seen as being “good.” And when we are encouraged to be disempowered in our choices by virtue of being female, we also become the “help-ee.” The constant shifting between these roles becomes incredibly confusing and frustrating.
Men have also been socialized with the limiting beliefs that to need help or to struggle is to be weak. They are the providers and the protectors — they shouldn’t need help. If they do, something is really wrong. This keeps men from reaching out, because it’s not safe to be vulnerable.
Men have also traditionally been granted the power role — the person in control who gets to make the decisions and create the group vision. This can limit the contribution of everyone involved and inhibit collaboration.
These societal beliefs function as disempowering beliefs. They dismiss the real lived experience of the individual and appoint someone in power to take care of them.
Whenever there is a power-over dynamic (whether two people in a close relationship, or a person in power over a larger system), there will be pushback and resistance to whatever “solutions” are provided to fix the situation, because they are not solutions which have been actively chosen and put into effect by the actual individuals at the other end of the dynamic.Power equals control equals resistance -- every time.Click To Tweet
How to empower others through helping
Despite the many dynamics and motivations which can affect our relationships, we still need to help each other. None of us is infallible. There will be situations in which we must rely on each other to get through. Everyone will need a bit of help in their lifetime, and all of us will be called to be helpers at some point too.
So how do we help, but do so in an empowering way?
Concern, care, empathy, and compassion are different than worrying or helping. They deeply hold the perspective of the other person — their pain, their fears, their sadness, their anger — and makes room for it without necessarily trying to fix it. Pain and struggle happen because we need them to happen in order to grow, expand, and experience all aspects of life — what we consider to be the positive and the negative.
If we just try to fix or overcome everyone’s pain in the most expedient manner according to someone deemed to be “in charge” then the meaning of whole experience is deflated and we lose opportunities to really connect to each other and allow all of our experiences.
We are only human if we wish for the happiness, health and wellbeing of everyone we love, and also every being on the planet. Love spreads. Love heals. It truly does. But love is unconditional — it doesn’t have “shoulds,” it doesn’t try to “fix,” it doesn’t try to take charge. Love remains, even if someone chooses another path that we don’t like or agree with.
We can express our concern if we see someone acting in a way that has potentially harmful consequences. However, expressing our concern is simply that — an expression of our own feelings. It gives no obligation on the other party to alleviate that concern.
For those of us who are struggling, we need your acceptance of us whether we are happy or in pain. We need not to be judged or labelled. We need to be able to find our own answers, to go through the experiences that arise for us, and to learn how to empower ourselves and use our own voices. We need to allow that pain and struggle to last however long it needs to — it is not in your hands.
Here are some suggestions when you feel called to help someone but aren’t sure how to go about it:
- Be aware of your own lenses and beliefs around helping. How do you view people who take a helper role or people who seem to need help? Are there any power or control dynamics happening here? How do your worries or fears affect the other person, and where are they coming from?
- Be aware of your boundaries as a helper. Do you have the energetic reserves for it, or are you stressed and burned out yourself? What are you prepared to do or not? How much are you prepared to give? Do you feel like you’re giving too much? How will you communicate your boundaries in an empathetic and loving way? It’s okay if you don’t have the energy to give everything you’ve got; and it’s also okay if you need help yourself.
- If you do want to help, start with aligning with their feelings. If they feel crappy or pissed off or really sad, just listen. The way to heal is through deeply acknowledging and accepting all feelings, not just positive ones — we don’t need to get rid of the bad ones as fast as possible. In fact, I think most of us don’t really need help — we just really long to get love and empathy; we want to feel heard and understood. We want to be able to share what we are going through with non-judgmental witnesses. If this is all you feel you can give, then that can be enough.
- Try not to jump to exploring solutions right away. Solution talk is one of the last steps: first one has to acknowledge the reality of the current situation, become emotionally honest about it, feel all the feelings that arise, and process all the thoughts and beliefs that come up. This is the insight process. The solutions arise out of the insight process, not before the insight has taken place, and definitely not before one is ready to make any decisions. This step may require lots of patience and acceptance because sometimes it can take weeks, months, years to go through depending on the situation.
- Ask open-ended questions that allow for exploration. As part of the insight process, some people like to talk it out — they come to understand themselves in conversations with others. If you have someone talking to you about what they’re going through and what options they have, instead of forcing a conclusion, allow them to explore all of the possibilities and come to their own answers. All you need to do is be curious about their experiences.
- Only give advice when they specifically ask for it, but be mindful that they may not see things as you do — they have their own personalities, needs, wants, desires, priorities. And be open to the fact that they may hear what you have to say and decide that something else is better for them.
- Before stepping in with helping actions, ask them if that’s okay. “If I do this, is that okay with you?” “What do you need and what can I do for you?” If you both come to an agreement as to what you will do as a helper before you take action, then that removes the power and control dynamic.
- Trust them. This is the most important key. Even if you are the bestest helper and kindest person in the world, you still can’t take care of everyone all the time. We have to trust that our fellow adults, even if they are in sticky and problematic situations, can take care of themselves and find their own solutions. We also each need to learn and remember that we can trust ourselves to take care of ourselves too — which is why boundaries are so important. When we each take responsibility for ultimately taking care of our own needs — even though sometimes we need a little assistance here and there — we grow and expand through life’s challenges.
We’d love to hear your wisdom about being a helper or someone who asks for a little help yourself.
What felt empowering or disempowering?
What did you really need?
What beliefs do you hold around helping or needing help?
Keep shining the insight light,