How to Help
"I don't want to live in the kind of world where we don't look out for each other. Not just the people that are close to us, but anybody who needs a helping hand. I can't change the way anybody else thinks, or what they choose to do, but I can do my bit." (Charles de Lit)
I recently found myself in a conversation with a friend -- we'll call him Jim. The conversation had somehow or other gotten tense. I didn't mean for it to go that way. It just turned. It began to feel hostile. It sounded like Jim was accusing me of something.
I paused. I took a breath. And in that moment it occurred to me that the topic at hand -- which we'd been discussing in purely hypothetical terms -- was something about which Jim felt very passionately. There was something going on beneath the surface. Jim had gone through something similar to our hypothetical topic. I should have remembered that. He was still very hurt and angry about the way things had gone.
More than that, though, I began to realize that Jim was holding onto his anger and hurt. He had been wronged by someone whom he had loved and respected, and now he had an overwhelming urge to convince me that this other person was wrong and shouldn't be trusted.
I tried and tried to help Jim see things differently, but that quickly became an exercise in futility. Jim had his mind made up. He was determined to be angry and hurt. It was as if this was what he wanted. He was committed to it, and all he wanted from me was validation.
Later, as I processed through that conversation, I was reminded of times I've done the same thing. I spent years fuming, feeling like a victim. Any threat to that comforting sense of self-righteousness only served to further stoke the flames of anger within me. When I eventually found the wherewithal to let go of that grudge, I felt frustrated at how much time I had wasted. I had unnecessarily injured myself.
This was one of the reasons why I wanted to help Jim so badly. I wanted to help him get out of his own way. I wanted him to do what I had failed to do for far too long. Seeing his stubborn commitment to remain bitter reminded me of how embarrassed I had been when I realized that the only person I was imprisoning with my refusal to let go was me. I had enjoyed being a victim, receiving attention and pity from others.
That internal conflict -- those mixed-up emotions and motives -- made it impossible for me to offer Jim any sort of unbiased support. Jim needed to come to his own conclusions and make his own decisions if he was going to resolve this. I had judged myself, and I was judging Jim.
It's impossible to help someone you've judged. People do not open up to genuine help when they feel like someone is looking down on them. No one wants to have your baggage projected onto them -- even if your intent is to help them.
Also, no one can be coerced into believing something if they're not ready to believe it.
So, how can you help someone? What is it that actually helps people create internal change when they act as if they don't want help?
First, you must check yourself. Does the other person need help, or are you just trying to fix something from your own past by fixing them? Why are you so attached to their choices? Perhaps this is an area of your own life where you still need healing.
Second, let their choices be theirs. Their challenges, their choices -- these are their lessons to learn, and they must learn them at their own pace. There's an old proverb that says, "You cannot wake someone who is pretending to sleep." I take that to mean you cannot help someone who does not really want to be helped. All you can do is love them until they're ready and willing. Love them until they learn to love themselves.
Third, stop judging them and encourage them instead. Plant seeds. Ask questions. Talk less. Listen more. If they don't want help and you find spending time with them to be draining, limit your time with them. Put tools in their hands to help themselves, show them how to use them, stand back, and be there to love them when they fall down. Repeat as necessary.
Fourth, stop trying to make them do what you want them to do or be what you want them to be. You can't decide what's best for them. You cannot love someone and try to control them at the same time. You can only choose for yourself. Sometimes the best help is to let someone figure it out on their own. Heal your own stuff so the other person can see that healing is possible.
Fifth, let go. You're not responsible for them. You're responsible to them for what you choose to you and how you choose to live. Focus instead on your own well-being. Draw good boundaries so you can be stable enough to support them when/if they ask for it. Refuse to manipulate or interfere with their journey. Butterflies need the strength they develop breaking out of the cocoon in order to fly. If you help them break out, they'll die.
Sixth, letting go doesn't mean cutting them off. Letting go just means refusing to manipulate them. Letting go also means accepting them for who they are -- warts and all. You may decide that it's not safe for them to be in your life, or you may choose to limit your time spent with them. If so, communicate this to them in a way that lets them know that their actions impacts other people. But, patience is a virtue. Never underestimate the power of someone who sticks with it, even through tough times.
Finally, remind them that there's an unlocked door ahead. They'll walk through it when they're ready. They may need you to remind them of this periodically. Nag them gently with this information.
In a follow-up conversation, I tried something different. I spent my time asking Jim questions. I tried not to speak a single sentence. I tried to just ask questions. One of the questions I kept coming back to was, "So, what are you going to do?"
Eventually, Jim said, "You went through something like this, didn't you? How did you handle it?"
I got to tell Jim what I regretted. How I'd been so eager to cling to that unfair treatment for so many years. How I'd allowed it to shape my identity. How I'd ended up missing out on a lot of life by doing so. I acknowledged that he's a different person in a different stage of life than I was at the time. I told him I can't make any assumptions or judgments about his particular situation or what's right for him. But I did tell him that I wish I'd let it go a lot sooner.
I hope that by owning my junk I may have inspired him to do the same. I'm coming to believe that one of the best ways we can help others is by continuing to help ourselves in their presence.
Photo Credit: Christopher Campbell