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How can we help without rescuing or fixing?

I was having a chat to my friend Wendy this morning – she is a marvellous help. I think ‘helping out’ is in the very fabric of her being and she does it so well and so cheerfully that her help lifts the spirit. We were chatting about an instance where an elderly person had reached out with a text to a family member, stating awful isolation and hopelessness and the longing, of the recipient of that text, to help – to make it better.

What I recognised in that moment was a pervasive issue for us helpful types. In my counselling training we were reminded constantly to ‘stop rescuing’ – so hard for us back then …. A room full of people who had signed up for counselling training for the very purpose of helping! Twenty years on the trainee therapists I see are often just the same as I was back then – eager to help. Why else would a person spend huge sums of money on therapist training and put themselves through a gruelling personal journey? Not for money and that’s for certain!

When I later trained to be a couples therapist, we explored the dynamic when one member of the couple (I wont gender stereo type here) wants to ‘fix it’. Every issue, problem, or feeling that emerges in the life of the couple is met by a proposed solution. To the recipient that can be so frustrating – they often just want to be heard and held. Yet the one offering the solution is only trying to help and to make it better relieve stress and pressure.

Tragically Rick and Kay Warren (of the popular book ‘The Purpose Driven Life’) lost their son to suicide. Kay powerfully described the people who tried to ‘help’ her after their loss, who began with the words “At least ……” “At least you know he’s at peace now” “At least you have other children”. Its kind of cringeworthy to think of that from this vantage point but you can be sure that those people were trying to be helpful- they were trying to find that shred of hope to hang on to. Did they help? NO they didn’t help at all.

I work with a very poorly lady in constant agony who has endured a huge amount of suffering in her life. Lots of people want to help her. “It can’t last forever”, “ take one day at a time”, “ your family needs you”, even “Just think about something else!”. More people who are trying to help.

So how can we help without rescuing or fixing without offering platitudes without those “at least….” statements?

The University of Wisconsin, Centre for the Study of Pain ran an experiment where participants were asked to put their feet in freezing water – what they discovered was profound: Allowing a companion in the room allowed the person to endure the pain of having their feet in icy water for twice as long. The point of the story is this: simply being with someone in their pain is often enough. Acknowledging that they are in a difficult position, that they are struggling, that they are in pain.

Assuming that the helper is not doing so for the lovely positive strokes they get when their help hits the mark, it could be a relief to us helpful types that we can help just by being there – if not in person at the moment, then in a text or a call.

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