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How to Be Truly Helpful

How to Be Helpful | True Radiance Healing ArtsMany of us (dare I say, especially us women) want to be helpful. Understandably so – it feels good to offer support to a friend, family member, colleague, or even someone we’ve never met before.

We like the feeling of knowing that we contributed to making someone else’s life better or easier, especially if they are facing a challenge.

In an emergency situation, we often act on instinct. We can jump in and respond in whatever way is needed without thinking about ourselves. Unless you work as an emergency responder, these situations are probably relatively rare in your life.

The more common situations where we want to help tend to be “chronic:” the partner who always seems to be stressed out, the friend who is in a bad relationship, the family member who keeps making poor decisions, the loved one who is dealing with an illness.

At times, our drive to be helpful causes us to become overly worried, run down, or overwhelmed. A habit of prioritizing helping others ahead of our own well-being can lead us to getting exhausted or even ill. Even in the short term, being highly concerned about someone else’s situation can ramp up our stress level. It can also cause us to offer our help – especially advice – in moments when it wasn’t sought out or desired.

How can we be truly helpful?

Take care of ourselves so that, when we want to offer assistance, we have the energy and emotional bandwidth to do so. It’s the classic airplane guidance: “Put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting those around you.” This may mean giving ourselves permission to put our own needs first when we need to. Ultimately, this benefits everyone else as well because it enables us to offer help from a place of being able to be fully present for them, focused on their needs.

Dr. Kristen Swanson, nurse researcher, found this core idea in her research on caring: “Caring is doing for another what they would do for themselves if it were possible.” There’s an unspoken idea here about not over-doing for others. I think of this often when I am with my aunt who has Alzheimer’s Disease. There are many things she can do for herself – and it’s important to her to do what she can without assistance.

For me to help her with something like carrying a bag in from the car, which she is still quite capable of doing, might help us to get in the door faster but it feels like an insult to her. There are many things she needs help with and that’s hard for her given her strong, independent spirit. It’s not helpful for me to do more for her than she needs.

Remember that people are capable. They have inner and outer resources they can draw on. It may be appropriate to help a loved one access and mobilize those resources for themselves. When we attempt to rescue others from an uncomfortable situation by giving unsolicited advice, it’s like saying that we don’t believe they can handle it.

Sometimes the most helpful thing we can do is to not help, when helping crosses over into enabling. This can be a hard place to come to within ourselves. We usually have judgments, perceiving their situation as bad. But who are we to know, really, what may come out of a seemingly tough experience. It is often in these challenging moments in our own lives that we discover our capacities and strengths.

If we are highly empathetic, we may take on someone else’s fears, pain, or other emotions. We may identify so strongly with them that we feel we are disregarding their suffering in enjoying our own life. But this isn’t beneficial for us or for them.

The only way they may ultimately benefit is from processing their feelings, learning from the situation, and going on to become a more expanded person through the experience. We may be able to support them by talking through an experience with them, but it doesn’t help for us to carry their feelings home with us.

We are able to be genuinely helpful when we respect the other person’s capabilities and when we give freely without expectation or attachment. We can truly be of service when we can remove our own judgments about the situation and mindfully assist in ways that won’t deeply deplete us over the long term.

With love,
Susan

Better than a Magic Force-field: Dealing with a Difficult Family Member

shutterstock_393535201 man with umbrella

In a couple of hours I’ll be taking my aunt to a doctor appointment. This is something we do quite frequently given that she has Alzheimer’s Disease and I am her Power of Attorney for Health-care.

My aunt can be quite an intense person — very judgmental, self-centered and with a strong temper. I still remember the dents in her car which she herself put there by beating it with her briefcase when she got angry one day. That was many years ago, when she still had all her faculties.

A couple of years ago, before each visit I would call in every kind of psychic protection I could think of. I did my best to let her rage and lashing words bounce off of me, but maintaining that level of vigilance could be exhausting.

My interactions with her became so difficult for me that my doctor told me he was concerned I’d have a stroke. And yet, while I could hire help with some things, I couldn’t simply opt out of my relationship or duty as Power of Attorney. I needed to find a better way to handle it.

One day I received this guidance: “be more like a beach and less like a wall.” In my mind I could see the waves rolling onto the beach and then rolling back out again. I understood the message. If I don’t resist her negativity, it can pass just as easily as it came to me. If I argue against it or try to block it then that’s when I feel damaged.

I imagine the martial arts masters who avoid an oncoming attack just by turning to one side and letting the attack pass by them. When there is no place for the attack to land, when I don’t try to block it or attack back, then it simply falls flat.

Here are the secrets I’ve discovered to surviving our encounters:

  1. Limit my time with her. This includes giving myself permission to leave, even if I’ve only been there a few minutes. Granted, sometimes we have to go to an appointment and, as much as I might want to, I can’t leave her on the curb to get home on her own. A certain amount of time together may be required. That’s when the rest of this list becomes really helpful.
  2. Don’t take things personally. This is the one thing that, when I forget it, creates the most grief for me. If (ok, I’ll be honest, WHEN) she says something that really gets under my skin, I can usually trace it to something I’ve taken personally that wasn’t really about me. For example, at our last appointment the doctor asked her how often I come to visit. She replied, “3 or 4 times a year.” In fact I had just seen her two days earlier. I have the option of taking this personally and getting wound up about it, feeling defensive or insulted…or I can remind myself that her sense of time and the words she uses about time (months, days, years, hours) are very loose concepts at best. Truthfully it has nothing to do with me.
  3. Give it a “pass.” I think of many of my aunt’s comments as invitations. They are invitations for me to engage in an argument or an opportunity to allow my feelings to be hurt. Most of the time I’m able to let these invitations go by without responding to them. Sometimes in my mind I imagine stepping aside and watching her words fall on the ground beside me.
  4. Aftercare. It helps me to talk about our visits. Usually I can just tell the story once or twice and be done with it. If I feel compelled to keep re-telling it, I refer myself to #2 on this list. When I get home I like to shift my attention by going for a walk or watching a clip of kittens on Facebook. A good shower or smudging can help, washing away any residue from our interaction that I might have brought home with me.

My aunt is only in her sixties, so I expect I’ll have time to further refine my approach. In the meantime, I hope this is helpful to those of you who, like me, have family members whose welfare is your responsibility but who can take a toll on your own well-being.

If you have thoughts or comments, I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me through the Contact page.
With love,
Susan