Often a time, friends or relatives call or meet us to air their grievances. They come to us wanting to share their problems and a shoulder to cry on. Our natural tendency is to listen to them and then give them advice or try to find a solution to their problems. It’s only natural to want to help our loved ones and not see them suffer.
What happens, though, if the person comes to us with the exact same problem again and again? What if we keep hearing the same thing for months, even for years on end, sadly realizing that the person has done nothing to change the situation and has not taken any advice that we have given them? What if we see that the person has no desire to make any effort to solve their problem and just waits for a magic wand or for someone else to do the work for them?
Many people come to me as a life coach or as a teacher to help them learn how to cope with such people. They often refer to them as toxic or negative and they feel frustrated and drained of their energy every time they come into contact with them. At the same time, they feel guilty for feeling that way. They believe that “have to” listen to them and try to help them because this is what good friends/daughters/people do. And the vicious circle continues…
What such people don’t realize is that not everybody who talks about their problems is actually seeking help. Some talk about their problems because they need to vent. Others want to be the center of attention and even pity can do the trick. Some are just looking for “suckers” who will do all the work for them. Another reason for sharing problems is to present oneself as a “victim” or a “martyr” with whatever “benefits” that might entail. “Victims” for example see themselves as powerless. Therefore, there’s no point in trying to get out of the situation; there’s no point in making an effort. Someone else must do it for them. Either their “villain” must change or a “savior” must come to fix things for them. “Martyrs” on the other hand see themselves as superior to others. Their sacrifice makes them feel self-righteous and they use their sacrifice to manipulate others in the form of emotional blackmail as they believe they merit to get what they want.
In order to avoid the frustration and break the vicious circle, here are the 5 steps to follow when wanting to help others.
After listening carefully and in an unbiased way to what your friend/relative etc. has to say, try to find out what they expect from you and why they told you what they did. Maybe they need your help. Maybe they just need to be heard and to be given space.
Here is what you could say to clarify what is expected from you and act accordingly:
“I hear you and I am here for you. I just want to make sure that I will stand by you in the best possible way. Why are you telling me this? What do you need me to do for you?”
There’s nothing more honest than these questions. Once they are answered, everything is clear. There are no underlying expectations from either party and the relationship will deepen as needs will be met.
“Victims” and “martyrs”, on the other hand, might be surprised at your reaction and try to avoid giving a clear answer. They will try to pull the same stunt next time they talk to you but you should remain faithful to your decision to find out what they expect from you. If this continues, I’m sure you will do your best to protect yourself and your energy from them.
2. Make sure they are asking for YOUR help
Once you have established that the person actually wants to be helped, you should make sure you know whether they need your help or not. Maybe they are telling you they need help but how can you be sure they are asking for your help? Maybe they want you to help them seek help elsewhere or give them a pat on the back for the fact that they have finally decided to seek help. Don’t assume that they need YOUR help.
To help clarify that point, here are some questions you could ask:
“What do you need me to do?”
“What can I do for you?”
“What do you want my role to be in all that?”
If they clearly want your help, go ahead and do it as long as you respect rule number 3. Know your boundaries/limitations!
If they don’t, you could say something to the effect “I am here for your whenever you need my help. Don’t forget that!”
3. Know your boundaries/limitations/needs
The type of person this blog is mostly about has a hard time setting boundaries. Their desire/compulsion to help is so strong that they often forget their own needs or limitations. They will bend over backwards to help the friend/relative in need forgetting that they too have needs (rest, self-care or their own problems to solve). If this is the case, make sure you do as much as you can do and go as far as you can go to help your friend/relative but don’t go any further. Know when to say no, be honest and make sure your own problems are solved before you embark on helping others. Some people become helpers to forget about their own problems and feel better about themselves when their own lives are a mess!
A vivid example I use to help people understand that they need to take care of their own needs before they go about helping others ending up feeling exhausted and frustrated is the oxygen mask on the plane. Before take-off, you are reminded that, in case of depressurization of the cabin, you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you help others. If you pass out, both you and the person that needs help will die of lack of oxygen. Therefore, don’t forget to “breathe” before you help others catch their breath.
4. Acceptance – Respecting people’s journey/choices and their free will
Another very important rule is that you have to respect the person asking for help and know when to let go. What I mean is that friends/relatives who you see suffer and who you want to help have the right to decide for themselves whether they want to change the situation or continue the suffer. You have to respect their right to choose. I know it’s hard to see your loved ones suffer, especially when you know and when you feel it in your heart that you can help them and that they can benefit from your help. But you need to remember their right to practice free will. You need to remember that we are not all at the same point on our journey of personal development and that some people need to learn a lesson or pay karmic debts.
Who do you think you are to know better what’s best for them? Who are you to interfere with the grand scheme of things bypassing a person’s free will?
If you have trouble grasping the grand scheme of things, the following story might help you do so.
One day, a man hiking through a forest stopped to admire the bark of a tree covered in butterfly cocoons. As he was looking, he was surprised to notice that there was a small hole on one of them and slight movement. Amazed at the opportunity to witness the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly, he decided to stop his hike for a while to admire one of nature’s miracles. He waited and waited but apart from an obvious struggle of the bug to break free of its cocoon nothing happened. The hiker got really worried seeing that the struggle was taking quite a long time and thought that the insect would suffocate or hurt its wings. He couldn’t allow that! He had to experience the miracle of life and not the untimely death of what would become a magnificent creature so he decided to take matters into his own hands. He took our his swiss army knife and snipped the cocoon to make the hole bigger. He was really proud of himself when the butterfly finally quickly emerged!
When he looked more closely though he realized that the butterfly had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings. He thought that this was normal and continued to watch the butterfly expecting that, at any moment, the wings would spread and the proportions would be restored. He believed that in time the body would shrink and the butterfly’s wings would expand. He waited and waited but to no avail. Nothing changed. The butterfly would have to spend the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It would never be able to fly.
When he googled the process of the metamorphosis on his smartphone, he learned that the butterfly was SUPPOSED to struggle. In fact, it is the butterfly’s struggle to squeeze its way through the tiny opening of the cocoon that pushes the fluid out of its body and into its wings. Without the struggle, the butterfly would never, ever be able to fly.
The man’s good intentions ruined the butterfly’s life…
5. Practice (self) compassion
Whatever the person decides to do, whether they want to solve their problems and get out of the unpleasant situation or not, remember to practice compassion. Compassion does not equal pity. Compassion is not condoning. Compassion is just being there for people, reminding them that you are there for whenever they need actual help. Compassion is looking at them as a fellow traveler on the journey called life. Compassion is recognizing their true value as human beings rather than characterize them as weak or cowards.
Self-compassion is also necessary when it comes to our boundaries and limitations. We have to remember that we are travelers too, on the journey to self-discovery and that we are human. We can allow ourselves to feel whatever our heart is feeling even if this is not the “spiritual” thing to do. Remember the pitfalls of positive thinking?
Self-compassion is necessary especially when we suffer seeing the pain of our loved ones; when we suffer at the thought that things could be different. Self-compassion might allow us to distance ourselves from a hurtful situation rather than continue to experience pain, in which case we are far more likely to be ready to help when our help is sought and not feel exhausted, disappointed or bitter.
If you are a helper/empath/problem solver finding it hard to follow these rules ending up feeling exhausted and/or frustrated, don’t hesitate to contact me for help. I know how it’s done. I am one of you too and I have managed to break the cycle 😉.
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