The Problem with Helping


“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. ‘” – Fred Rogers

Such a sweet sentiment. I also loved when Glennon Doyle took it to the next level and told her kids, “…it’s not enough to look for the helpers. We must BECOME THE HELPERS.” Her emphasis. I’m guessing she actually talks like that.

And yet something about the idea of helping, of being a helper, has been sitting wrong with me for a few years now, even as I’ve been known to refer to myself and other coaches, social workers, psychologists, nurses, and others of our ilk “professional helpers.” Still, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what, exactly, was stuck in my craw about that language, or why so many of us are resistant to the idea of being helped (other than the persistence of the autonomy myth).

And then, a few weeks ago, I was reading Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach and I ran across this deeply clarifying quote from an Aboriginal woman in Australia:

If you have come to help me, then you are wasting your time.

But if you have come because your destiny is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Status. The pebble stuck in my craw was status.

While we often think of status in its most capitalistic form – identifiers of wealth by way of fancy cars, designer clothes, and those houses with unreasonably complex rooflines – status exists everywhere. When I got tongue-tied trying to talk to my favorite blues artist, Koko Taylor, backstage at a festival 20ish years ago, it was status at work – my gremlins telling me I couldn’t possibly have anything of value to say to someone with so much more status than me.

When customers are rude to waitstaff and others in customer service, it’s status at play; those same customers are likely to be deferential to others they consider to rank above them in whatever socially-constructed way their (generally unconscious) status structure shakes out.

The unconscious rankings of helpers and helpees are vividly described by the language we use. When we talk about giving “a hand up,” for example, we’re drawing a psychological picture of the helpee being lower, lesser than the helper who, by this image, is lowering themselves (ever so generously, of course) to extend that hand.

If, instead, we recognize that there is only reaching out, not down or up, we find the work together, the intertwined destinies. We find that using what voice, power, and platform we have on behalf of those with less socially-constructed status is part of the action of deconstructing status and, in that way, equalizing power, amplifying a greater array of voices, and, good golly, friends, raising our overall humanity.

Could there be a more powerful win/win than that?

Got a different perspective on helping? I’d love to hear about it. Ready to connect with others embracing the web of interconnection? We’ve got a spot just for you in The Bigger Badder Crew. Curious how coaching could be clarifying, motivating, and transformational? Let’s talk.