The Delicate Balance between Helping and Fixing: Paving a Path of Independence
By Brad Max, M.S., Alabama Project Director
Most of us enter this field out of a sense of passion and desire to make the world a better place, to help others, or other genuine sentiments. With the most noble of intentions, we set out on a mission to find the wrongs in the world (or one of its small corners) and make them right. Sometimes this is through grand gestures, like marching in protest, or sometimes through simple actions of support, like helping someone dress for the day. In a field built on helping others, it can sometimes become difficult to separate our efforts to help, from the individual’s autonomy in their everyday lives.
The lives of the individuals we serve are complex. Too often, when we observe those we serve we hone in on the struggles and deficits. Whether facing mental health diagnoses and symptoms, substance abuse, homelessness, intellectual or developmental disabilities, or other hardships, our stations within the helping professions give us the privilege of access into the lives of others. We find what is wrong and spring into action to try and make it right. The privilege of access becomes a pathway for us to intensify our engagement with the individual, to make sure the deficits or barriers they are facing do not prevent them from having what we believe is a meaningful experience. This engagement makes us feel influential, important, powerful. We take a noble goal of helping someone and make it real.
People entering helping professions commonly go through a shared experience at the start of their careers. We do and feel just as stated above. If helping someone can make you feel influential and powerful, why would you not? I jokingly compare this to being like a puppy. They see a ball, get excited about the ball, and chase the ball without thinking about the car that might hit them because, in their excitement, they did not see it. I, like many of us, have experienced this. When I started in the field, I just knew that I could change the lives of others for the better, fix their problems, and get them all of the resources they need. Sure, sometimes it worked… but not always. How could that be? I was influential and powerful in my ability to help. How was it possible that someone could refuse that opportunity? How was it possible that I could not solve the problem? How was it possible that I could make the problem worse? The answer quickly became apparent: it was not about me.
Listening to individuals served is part of the basics. However, in practice we sometimes do not differentiate between actively listening or simply hearing. We hear the individual describe what is going on in their life and apply our own desire to save them from those wrongs. Again, this may be a well-intentioned, genuine effort to support another person. Unfortunately, the more we apply the lens of our drive to fix the problem it quickly becomes less about the individual served and more about us and the problem itself. In reality, while an individual may allow us to be part of their journey, their problem was never ours to fix. As professionals we need to take a leap to move from saving others to helping others.
Once we learn to manage our own expectations, many things become more clear. Rarely is the circumstance of an individual a product of mundane circumstance; the situations are as diverse and complicated as the individuals facing them. For some, they have lived a certain way for so long that change is scary. For others, a problem they face has become an escape from other complexities in their lives. For those or countless other reasons, the individual is the expert on their own experience. Learning this can shift our perspective from saving others to helping others, from fixing a problem to creating an environment where there are tools for individuals to work on their problems with as much support as they want. We also have the responsibility to limit those supports to those that the individual truly needs. By focusing on development of self-sufficiency, encouraging the individual to pursue appropriate risks that match their goals (even if there is a potential to fail!), and aiding in the engagement of natural supports outside of the professional treatment team, we make the process more about the individual. The circumstances of the individual’s life may not be mundane, but to achieve these goals of independence, understanding the give and take of life, and having a sense of interconnectedness are common experiences.
In a field built on helping others, we owe it to ourselves and those we serve to consider how that help takes form. Think about your experiences and times that you needed support. Were you looking for someone to save you or were you in need of the type of help that put you back into control of your own experience?