Friday, 3 September 2010

It's not Helpful to be Helpful

One day I'm going to do it.  I'm going to make a t-shirt that says, "I'm not here to help" and I'm going to wear it when I see counselling clients on their first appointment.  Why would I do that?  Because it's true.  Being a therapist may include many things, but being helpful isn't one of them.  In fact, I've come to learn that being helpful is actually unhelpful.

I recently read a story about a Russian billionaire who spent millions helping impoverished local in his native Georgia.  He discovered that paying their electricity bills merely led to them leaving the lights on all the time!  

What's going on here? 

Being helpful, particularly where money is concerned, is disempowering.  It tends to foster dependence rather than raise people up in the world.  As the old saying goes, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for one day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." 

The same might be said of the listening arts of counselling and psychotherapy.  While I aim to empathize, encourage, challenge, reflect and notice my clients, the minute I try to be helpful I have an agenda - that something is wrong with them the way they are, or that I don't believe that they can help themselves.  Further, it sends a subtle message that, "I know what's best for you," and can insidiously undermine their belief that they can learn to be effective in their own lives. 

Being helpful can also prolong people's suffering by preventing them from facing the consequences of their own actions or inaction.  The desire to protect people from their problems is an easy trap to fall into, particularly where children and vulnerable people are concerned.  But I can clearly see in my own life that I gained far more when I learned to do things for myself, even when it meant, "learning the hard way."  After all, it is the struggle to emerge from the chrysalis that forces fluid into a butterfly's wings and enables it to fly.  "Help" it by assisting it out of its cocoon and it dies. 

Does this mean we abandon all charity and humanitarian causes?  Of course not.  Compassionate action will always have a place in the world. But the manner in which assistance is administered makes all the difference.  A hand up and a hand out are two entirely different things. 

Today, with perfect timing, I received the following inspirational e-mail from Neale Donald Walsch, author of the Conversations with God books:

On this day of your life, dear friend, I believe God wants you to know...
...that nobody needs your help.

I know, I know...this is a difficult one. But it is true.
Yet this does not mean no one wants your help, or that no one
could use your help. It simply means the thought that another
Aspect of Divinity [person] is powerless without you is inaccurate.

I love it when the universe drops such neat little crumbs to show me that I'm on the right path.  Neale and me, we're singing from the same hymnal.  Can you spot us in the choir?  He's the one with the beard, and I'm the one in the t-shirt that reads, "I'm not here to help."  (And a green light sabre, of course.)

1 comment:

  1. You know what? I sometimes reflect about the feelings you share here with us. Once, I saw a lady who was having some hard time walking by the street. I approached her trying to help her. All I got was an angry look and the answer: I can do it by myself!
    But, just as you do, I like helping others, in spite of the bad mood of some people.