Toxic help

August 1, 2018 § 4 Comments

A couple of years back, through gulping sobs, I got my children to call my friend, Alison. The reason? I’d been crying non-stop for several hours and I couldn’t stop. I knew I needed help, but I didn’t know what help I needed.

This, actually, was huge progress. I’ve never been good at asking for or receiving help. So the simple act of asking my children to call a friend for me was massive. And I sensed that Alison was the right friend to call.

She was. For starters, she lay next to me on my bed in the darkness and laughed at me – lovingly. And then patiently – and with humour – she teased the problem out of me and coached me into finding solutions.

This was good help – but not all help is good. Sometimes it can be quite detrimental.

I’ve learnt a lot about help in the past few years – partly by necessity, and partly thanks to a brilliant life coach who taught me how to receive help. Many of us struggle with asking for help. Or we push it away when it’s offered, because the cult of self-sufficiency tells us we are weak and needy. Perhaps our pride has fooled us into believing we must keep up appearances at all costs – even if that cost is our sanity.

These days, however, having learnt (mostly) to ask for help, I’m more interested in the way we offer help. In Anne Lamott’s wonderful TED talk, she says, “Our help is usually not very helpful. Our help is often toxic. And help is the sunny side of control. Stop helping so much. Don’t get your help and goodness all over everybody.”

That gave me pause the first time I heard it. Help is the sunny side of control.

The trouble, you see, is not so much that we want to help others. It’s the way we do it. Partly, it’s because people don’t know how to ask for help, how to express what they need, but there’s also often a large measure of arrogance – and control – in the mix.

So many of us (myself included) often have a kind of well-meaning saviour complex: we not only see that people need help – we also think we know how to fix it. So we swoop in, uninvited, solve problems A, B, and C to our satisfaction, and then shake our heads in bewilderment when the recipients of the ‘help’ aren’t grateful, or don’t respond in what we feel is the appropriate manner.

This kind of help is the toxic kind – and I’ll be perfectly honest here – I’ve had to unlearn it. It’s disempowering. Its controlling. It’s patronising. It can be invasive. It assumes people are not capable of solving their own problems. And it also assumes that they have the same priorities you have.

But I get it – you want to help. What now?

The key is to offer your help in a respectful way; with consent. Even in an extreme situation, tread lightly. If someone is lying unconscious in a ditch, for example, consent for your help might not be possible or practical, of course. But bundling them into your car and carting them off to the hospital won’t be helpful either, if they happen to have a broken spine.

I did a first aid course a couple of years ago, and one of the things we learnt there was to ask conscious patients for permission to administer first aid. Not everyone wants your help as a first aider  – some people prefer to wait for the ambulance. This may also apply in situations that don’t require bandages and CPR.

When faced with someone in a dire situation – death, divorce, abuse,mental or physical illness – by all means offer help and support, but follow some basic guidelines:

1. Don’t offer advice if you’re not explicitly asked for it.

2. Ask a) whether they need help and b) if they do, what help they require, and then do only that.

3. If you do offer unsolicited help or advice, don’t expect gratitude. You probably won’t get it, nor do you deserved it, probably.

Offer support. Listen. Sympathise. Knowing there is a resource is usually enough for most people – it is their decision whether or not to make use of it or not.


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