By Joy Birnbach Dunstan, MA, LPC, MAC
Help, I Need Somebody
But, like the Beatles sang, “not just anybody.”
Help can be complicated. It’s a wonderful quality to want to help someone with a difficult problem or sticky situation. To care about someone else and be willing to give your time and energy toward another is admirable. Help, however, may be helpful or unhelpful, and it can sometimes be confusing to know which is which.
For starters, it is vitally important you are helping someone with an issue they also regard as a problem. Helpful help brings a person to a solution they want rather than the one you think they need.
Sounds intuitively obvious, yet it is a common occurrence, and something I, like many others, have had to learn over and over again. I can remember clear back to a day in Central Park when I was about 16 years old. I was at a uniquely ‘60s event, a Be-In, where people gathered to hear music, dance, and party, frequently under the influence of mind-altering enhancements. A young man approached me in a panic, saying he needed help, he’d taken 13 of these enhancements, and needed help quickly. I was ready to run to find a phone and call 911 for him, when he spoke again and stated his need more explicitly. He was choking, and what he wanted was some water to wash them all down. One never knows what sort of help someone else might be looking for!
Sometimes the help we offer is really more for our own benefit or ego-boost. I got a reminder of this some years ago, when the lake was really low and very far out. At the time, there were many semi-wild horses living and grazing on the expansive lakefront where I walked my dogs each day. I always carried a pocketful of carrots on my walks and enjoyed making friends with the horses by feeding them these yummy treats. On one of my walks I noticed several men attempting to herd horses into a nearby fenced pasture. A renegade stallion stubbornly ran the other way. This was my chance to demonstrate my prowess as a Horse Whisperer, and so I carefully approached the renegade offering him carrots. Wary, but hungry, he ate one after another, following me as I slowly led him to the pasture. When we reached the fence, I proudly motioned for the men to open the gate and receive my new friend, thinking they must be really impressed by my amazing skill. Instead they just looked at me oddly as one announced, “That’s not my horse.” So much for that ego-boost!
Another form of unhelpful helping is doing it in ways that make the other person feel helpless or take away their dignity. This is especially important to remember when helping someone who is elderly or sick. That person may already be feeling frustration or anger at their limitations. Provide assistance that empowers and helps them to help themselves. An example would be offering to take an elderly friend shopping to select their own things rather than just bringing items from their shopping list.
Maintain a helping spirit, and make sure your helping is helpful by keeping your assumptions and your ego out of it. Offer it with sensitivity and an open heart, and you will find more help coming back to you whenever you might be in need.