Something we all need from time to time and it is something I feel so tangled about. Let me start out by saying I am a shitty helper and an even shittier help recipient. I am also learning about what will make be better at both of these things. I want to talk about help because as a human being I need it. Every day I need help. And my world is better if I receive it too. So here is as far as I have gotten with the untangling so far.
I have been helped immensely by my friend Vicki in understanding help and the glorious gift of a clean ask. I wrote about it in this blog post. Reading that today made me cry - the generosity of a clean ask and the clean give was something that up until that time i can't ever remember seeing. There always seemed to be so many rules around help and asking and politeness that i tripped up more often than i care to remember.
But this reciprocity between giving and receiving is the stuff of deep humanness. It is the in breath and the out breath and i had felt like i had been wanting to hold my breath rather than participate in that flow. Like there would be some badge of honour for holding the breath that was my birthright and my responsibility to tend to so that i was well. Is it that it is so akin to the life death life cycle that we are scared of the flow of giving and receiving I wonder?
Help in our western world is something we are often ashamed to ask for and more often ashamed to take. I learned pretty early in life that it was better to give help than receive it, and I think this stems from power. The giver of help is the one who is seen as better than and can bask in the beneficent glow of having imparted their goodness on someone less fortunate, hell let’s just say it, less than, them.
I know I watched things foisted on people they didn’t want. Heated fights over who was going to pay for things where the one who ended up paying wasn’t paying attention to the feelings of others they just wanted to be The One To Pay. (cue spotlight and admiring glances). I didn’t like the feelings this aroused but I watched the dance so many times it became normal.
I learned to equate asking for help with weakness, power under, and when I had the temerity to ask (or observed others squirming under the weight of asking for help) I discovered that what greeted me was seldom what I needed. When I asked for help with something, often what I received, rather than the thing I needed, instead what i was delivered was a big pile of shoulds. Steaming hot with righteousness, the shoulds landed on my doorstep in a well–meaning pile that I had to be grateful for and spend quite a long time sorting through and disposing of.
Let me give you an example that makes me cringe when I think about it. My darling friend was struggling with anxiety and a physical body that broke down/through under the weight of an immense burden. I had never dealt with anxiety myself (it’s come to live in my house now so I know it much more intimately, I am sad to say) and her health spiral was frightening. I went into help mode. My nursing background kicked in, with advice and recommendations. My creative side kicked in using information from other friends who had managed anxiety I made a set of cards. With “helpful” advice and “calming” thoughts on each card I thought I was going to really make a difference. I presented these to her, in the midst of her anguish and release saying maybe she could pull one to help. Oh Lord. Here is a woman of immense beauty and love almost crushed under the weight of her own sorrow and illness and I was giving her cards for fuck sake. Now I am grateful to say she is well again and yet I reflect now on what well-meaning arrogance those cards represented. They also represented my own discomfort in the face of her overwhelming pain.
In the face of her sorrow I could only manage to say the equivalent of “do this” “just be…” or “it’s all…” I turned, in my own discomfort, to flimsy generalities. In the face of her sorrow I could not bear to be nose to nose with her and with her broken heart.
And that is what I think is at the crux of my problem with help. When we ask for help we NEED something. And help needs to be what helps. Not what makes the helper feel useful or important. Not necessarily what makes a sudden change. Help needs to be there.
Help needs to be that which nourishes the help asker. It’s as simple as that. Not what we think will nourish them. Not what nourishes us. Nope. Help needs to nourish the asker.
And the uncomfortable truth is that all help begins with witnessing. Really seeing the difficulty that the person needing help reveals. Not glancing at it and running for muffins, but looking it in the eye, breathing with it. Staying with the person in their place of need and seeing the need for what it really is for them.
Not leaping in with a “Well when i….” story (raises guilty hand) Help is about dropping our stories and supporting someone to hold their story, their own need in the gentle spotlight. We must caution against knocking the person’s hands away from their own need in order to help, usually with the conviction that we can do it better.
But instead help is hearing the other person’s truth and having the guts and the compassion to sit with it is the help that matters.
And before my inner martyr starts girding her loins, let me say help is in my experience only worthwhile when we as the helper do what we can. Not exhausting or depleting ourselves. Any help like that has a very short shelf life and starts to smell like resentment pretty quickly. When we help in a way that is freely given and doesn’t cost us a huge amount, we really help. For bonus points we might model self care in a way that is liberating but that is not the point, when we give it must not be about martyring ourselves.
Help is seldom, unless specifically asked and even then not always, telling someone what to do. Anything advice-wise that starts with “You should…” Is a sign i am on the wrong track. If the word should makes an appearance we are usually wanting to be in control of what happens and taking the reins away from the person who needs help does not help them, it helps you. The reins must remain firmly in the hands of whomever is in need. And asking for advice,after hours of soul searching, i have come to see, is me wanting my deepest needs to be confirmed and advice seldom nails that so is again, seldom useful, even if well intentioned.
Supporting people to learn to find their own way through the confusing business of life is true help. Staying with them while they figure out what their unique recipe is – that’s true help.
Giving something to make you feel better is not help for the other person although it might of course be helpful to you but own that and don’t make it the other person’s responsibility. The guilt of throwing away a well-meaning but for us unpalatable casserole is adding burden not taking it away.
If you need to do something and you want to see results and the person isn’t asking for anything. It might be good to say “I want to help and I am a doer – what do you need done?” If you are lucky there might be lawns or laundry or groceries and if not, please remember that is not a rejection or an insult to you, rather it is a statement about what that person’s need looks like and at the moment it just doesn’t match what you have to offer.
If we help in ways that remind the person in need that they know, that they have capacity then we strengthen and en-courage them. That is what help looks like.
Help sometimes requires us to remember people are doing the best they can. People are vulnerably asking us to meet them as humans, not as the better model of human but as a person who knows what it is like to need. Help truly is what helps.
My dear friend has helped me by never mentioning the cards again (lordy I hope they made good kindling). Learning to sit with my own discomfort long enough to be able to tolerate the discomfort of others has taught me a lot. Need and discomfort are basic human experiences and when we shun them we shun true connection. And true connection is the deepest gift of friendship.
If we can help both as giver and receiver; if we truly connect in the vulnerable and needy spaces we have as humans we affirm life and build love.
And if in doubt, build connection. Connection always helps.
i would like to know if this was helpful - please let me know in the comments
x love jane