Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Getting By With A Little Help

I once gave a talk to the graduating class at the University of Kansas School of Social Work. I identified myself as a “recovering social worker.” What I meant was that I had brought to consciousness some of the less than admirable reasons why I myself had become a social worker thirty years earlier. I’d wanted to earn my right to take up space on the planet by being useful to others; I’d wanted to rescue others (this reflected in an early poem I’d written with the opening line, “If you would just let me save your life, perhaps it would not hurt so much to know I cannot save my own.”) and – as an extension of these two reasons- I’d wanted to save the world. Sigh. Oh yes, and I’d found that focusing on other people’s problems and dramas distracted me from my own messes and unhappiness. Sigh again.

Now I wasn’t trying to discourage these budding professional helpers. I was just trying to point out that it might be useful to do a little self-examination and see what shadow (as in unknown) motives they might uncover. I assured them that the degree to which they could be effective “helpers” depended in part, on their willingness to know and own their own darker reasons for wanting to help. I wasn’t negating the hopefully very real possibility that we all offer help to others at least in part because we were genuinely compassionate. I was just suggesting that that might not be the whole story. Certainly they weren’t becoming social workers for the prestige or the money.

I haven't been social worker for years, but I'm often in a position of counselling or helping others. I continue to examine my motives and try to bring to consciousness any agenda I may have in helping. But all of this raises another question: Can we really help each other? And, if so, what does useful help look like? Even in the area of emergency physical assistance where needs seem obvious, there are still questions about what kind of help is best and how it can be delivered most effectively for long term good.

I think of my experiences as a recipient of others' assistance, and I find a few things have been consistently true for me when I have received offered help. So here are my observations about what is and is not helpful:

Advice that is not asked for is rarely helpful and often feels like a judgement rather than support. Even when requested, advice is only helpful when it is qualified by knowledge of the giver’s limited view (as in, “ignore this if it doesn’t speak to you”) and based in experience.

Platitudes, no matter how true, rarely penetrate the dark shell of despair. Telling someone it’s all about unconditional love or that the only thing that matters is friends and family just rolls off the back of real grief, anger or terror. The possible exception to this is when the platitudes are put to music. So, if you must, hum a few bars of the Beatles’ “Love is all there is,” don’t say it. Similarly religious or spiritual “truths” that are abstract are best kept to a minimum. Telling someone they must “learn to be unattached” when they are experiencing the pain of loss is not helpful.

I have been helped by many: those who could listen without judgement; those who could speak from their own experience; those who could just sit with me in our common human struggles; those who were good at creating a container where I could express my vulnerability (a couple of wonderful therapists come to mind); those who could laugh and cry at the same time; those who made me a cup of tea; those who would allow others to help them when they were in need; those who could work with me instead of simply for me; those who offered what they could without depleting themselves or putting themselves at risk.

So the next time you need help, it might be good to pause and consider what kind of help you need and who is likely to be able to provide it. And the next time you want to help another, it might be wise to pause and reflect on and ask about what kind of help might be useful (making suggestions is okay- sometimes when we are in dire need we don’t know what would help. ) Considering what your unconscious motives may be can avoid causing unintended harm to yourself or another.

It shows great strength and self-knowledge to ask for and receive the help you need. Mostly what we have to offer each other is our presence, our open-hearted willingness to sit in the messiness of being human together and lend each other a little courage and faith when one of us is feeling that courage and faith are hard to find. While it is true that we each have our own path, that doesn’t mean our lives aren’t enriched by offering and receiving help along the way.


  1. This is sooooooooooo true :
    Advice that is not asked for is rarely helpful and often feels like a judgement rather than support.If I am sharing from my heart what I am feeling or a perspective that I see; and someone gives me their advice on how I "SHOULD"
    feel or think......It makes me feel judged.
    Actually it can even feel like a putdown.Denise

  2. How reflective this article is for me. Interesting too that you say "recovering social worker". I learned during my rehab days about rescuing ... I never realised what a rescuer I was until then ... I was always trying to protect people from getting hurt when it was necessary for them to feel that hurt and shame, it was probably the first time they ever "felt" anything. I think in a way it might have been my attempt to counteract the hurt I had caused as well as not face up to more hurt that was happening in my life. Then you get the "people-pleasing" side of things, which I never was, but was surrounded by them. These people pleasers usually end up being enablers to whatever it is you are battling with making it okay to carry on self-destructing, only because they can't face their own insecurities. In the early days, I was so serious about my recovery that all I wanted to do is service, service, service until I realized that I needed to fix myself first. Luckily I am now at the stage that I can give what I have by giving it away in the form of authentic living and honestly sharing my own experiences to help a fellow recovering addict. The programme works like that - one addict helping another only because we can relate to each other's sufferings as well as hope for the future. This is when the bond is formed as you can see the true reflection in that mirror when someone is talking from experience and walking their talk

  3. Good Morning and thanks for these thoughts. I am a widow and live on a widows pension. I am blessed to have a friend who gives me $200. each month. No strings attached, no power, no pity, just love.
    This allows me to keep my vehilce on the road. It gives me so much more; mobility, freedom, independance. For me this gift keeps away possible depression. I am aware there are gifts we cannot put a dollar value to however sometimes it is about what one really needs.
    I am so grateful for this gift, from my earth angel.

  4. My most important things about false and real help I learned at my CoDA group and from the books by Melody Beattie. I'm afraid I was awful with what I thought to be caring before I learned the better way. My best lesson was: never stop someone crying. Only sit with her/him silently without touching, and hand over the tissues. They will stop at their own time, and then they will have genuine relief. Then, there is time enough to talk and to hug.

  5. Very profound Oriah. Thank you. Standing ovation from a little farm in a dark, gloomy, cloudy, California. Thanks for having the courage to share the line from the poem whenever you originally wrote it and now again.

    It is so often that people say, "in helping you, I am really helping myself..." which is fine...but as you said, being conscious is what it's all about to decrease unintended harm to another and onself.

    Thank you.

  6. well I keep reading about the timing of the topics and this time its my turn -have friend who is having hard time -today topped it off for her I wanted to help so I went and went sledding with her kids and had dinner and listend to them play music. motives- yeah it makes me feel good to help others, I would want someone to be there for me , someone has been there in exactly the way you mention oriah and wanted to do that for others maybe its need for fairness thinking i owe it but I hope not I hope i truly want others to have that experience. i was not able to do what this person had done for me but I was able to give two kids who are having s really hard time a little fun. i really wanted to outright ask them how they were -was not sure if I should so remembered another post here or on facebook about if the answer is not hell yes dont do it so i just sledded and had fun. I can only hope it helped. I can only hope i did it for the right reasons and if not it did no harm so...

  7. I remember that talk Oriah. A friend was in charge of organizing your appearance at that event for KU and when she mentioned that you were going to be presenting I asked if there was any way I could be in the audience. I had read your books up to that point and was excited at the possibility of hearing you speak. Somehow she arranged for me to be in the theater with the others. I remember the laughter in the audience at your words "recovering social worker" changed to keen interest in what you meant by that. What you shared that day made a profound impact on me. As the oldest of 8 children I have always been the one to "take care of" others needs - it was just a part of the pattern of growing up in my family that was imprinted on me. Your words gave me the beginnings of a new way of thinking. In the 10 or so years since that day I have come a long way and notice that I still have a long way to go. I now work in a healing profession and the focus is of course on helping others. It is a constant challenge to remember that I cannot save any life but my own (to paraphrase a Mary Oliver poem). I put down that heavy baggage over and over, only to have it reappear in my hands, weighing me down. The blessing of consciousness is that I can indeed put it down every time I notice. And with practice the noticing comes more and more quickly. Sometimes the words don't even get a chance to leave my mouth. Sometimes even the thought gets noticed immediately and I can step back to a place of simply offering a sacred space for the other to do whatever they need to do. It is more and more obvious what is mine to work with and what is not. Thank you for opening that awareness in me on that day. Your willingness to share is a great gift to those who choose to listen. As a postscript, I have noticed that people in whom the desire to save the world is particuarly strong seem to be more susceptible to autoimmune challenges. I'm not sure what that connection is, but it's definitely a pattern I have become aware of.

  8. i keep forgetting to mention i graduated from KU. :)

  9. As usual, your words are poetic. I just find myself nodding, crying "exactly!".

    This is what I found as well - after a degree in Psychology, stints as a Life Coach, attempting to "help others" through education. And yet all I was doing was smacking one more label over an empty vessel.

    A few years ago the labels all came off. Today I find myself still in pause, filling up myself and knowing that I cannot set out with the intention to Help - rather, to Connect. So I fill up myself and intend to radiate my being (that unique self)...and let that be that.

    Thank you for having the experience to share what you did and the talent and courage to share it.

  10. Lisa, loved the distinction between "helping" and "connecting." Also, being in pause reminds me of a Wendell Berry poem that begins "It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work."

    And Tom- what an accurate image of what it means to become conscious- to find ourselves once again (and maybe a little sooner) picking up something and putting it back down. A work in progress!

    Wonderful comments and insights folks!

  11. Lisa--yes, thank you, for stating it so eloquently and adequately: "connecting." That is what I do (and not necessarily the same with everyone)but I didn't realize the difference it makes until you put i like that. Thank you.

    Oriah--love the line from that poem. Thank you.

  12. I was really upset about the whole idea of helping and motives behind it. Still am but the words connecting instead of helping made me feel better as I have said I have a friend who is able to do that, connect, it is more helpful than anyone who has tried to help just connect, be open, allow them to be, sit with them. I Love it!! I still need to look at motives for helping but am stuck as to how to proceed. hmmm

  13. To the comment above: I think you start by just creating a little space around the impulse to help- just pausing when that impulse comes and asking- where does this come from or sit within me. It is important to approach this kind of inquiry with nonjudgemental curiosity about yourself and the other. It is not so much about right or wrong but just exploring what the feeling is, or what feeling our actions my be trying to avoid. Be gentle with yourself and assume that most of the time our motives are mixed- we just want to know a little more about what they are.

  14. Over the years I have questioned my motivations in helping and asking for help, I found that in essence, beneath all the shadow's at play and all the clever strategizing, what I deeply longed for was real connection , real intimacy, real love, which required a willingness and courage, to allow myself to be seen in my nakedness. All of me, as I am.

    I came to see that sometimes my impulses to help were more an expression of avoidance, of not connecting with myself, not truly meeting all that was longing to be met, to be heard, to be felt within me. And from this place, I could project out onto another and try to 'fix' them, not able to bare the uncomfortableness of all I didn't want to feel. When I become conscious of this, through moments of grace, I know there's something I probably don't want to meet or feel in myself. Sometimes it's moments, sometimes, days or weeks!, but I don't feel that deep connection with myself until I create the space, find the courage to go within and feel and be with what's there. And although, I sometimes may grasp out for help in a desire for quick answers, the times I feel most helped are when someone holds a loving space for me to go to that place within myself, where no one can go but me.

    So I guess, the way that I feel I can offer help that, to me, feels the most honest, is to simply be present for another, in my love, completely welcoming ALL that shows up to be felt, expressed and deeply acknowledged.

    I feel and experience this, as one of the biggest gifts we can offer each other, to hold a space of loving presence, that allows that person to connect with themselves, to find the courage to meet and feel ALL of themselves AND be loved!, which to me is then when true connection and intimacy is possible.

    And this is what i'm so passionately interested in, this level of transparency, this depth of connection with ALL of our humanness and reflecting for each other that space of total accpetance and love for ALL of our messy and raw and beautiful selves to be loved and embraced and welcomed. There is such a strength in the courage of such vulnerability. I guess somehow supporting and encouraging that in myself and others feels the most helpful.

    Thank you for the sharing and inspiration!,

  15. Thank you oriah for the suggestions. I will try this.
    As to the comment above you say what I have been trying to put words to --this too is what I long for deep connection, real intimacy, I long to be able to reveal my nakedness and still be accepted as well as allow others to do the same and still accept them the concept of holding space for someone has come up in books and various other places recently it really piques my curiosity and excites me it seems to put words to being accepted for who you are and allowing for people to explore themselves and find thier own answers I too am passionatly interested in this and wish there were more people ( this blog is great but I do so enjoy the immediate feedback that comes from in person, phone or chat) I could explore this with this depth of connection and total acceptance of as you say all our messy and raw beautiful selves. So many people are afraid of it. I always thought there was something wrong with me because I am passionate and want to explore this vulnerablitly and holding space for others. Having experienced someone being able to do this and loooking back I see where I have done it since I did not recieve feedback I dont know if I was as succesful as this person was for me. I can only hope as it is such a great feeling I want to be able to share it with others. (hmm maybe my issue is debt feeling I owe something for what I get will look into that. ) thank you all for your comments