On the Receiving End

How we think about help isn’t helping

Helping Hand

image by Dave Cutler

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The story line is familiar. An aging parent receives an offer of help from a solicitous child or caregiver only to reject the assistance proudly. Or there’s that workplace project on which a bit of teamwork would go a long way, except the project manager has everything “under control.”

The result is almost always the same: Those offering help feel snubbed for trying to lend a hand, while those rejecting it feel they’ve been labeled liabilities.

Helping and being helped don’t have to involve delicate negotiations and wounded feelings; we just need to rethink how we think of help. In the March-April 2008 issue of Psycho ­ therapy Networker, psychologist Barry J. Jacobs describes working with a group of amputees who unanimously detested the notion of entering therapy. They didn’t need his “help,” or so they thought. Instead of forcing assistance upon them—as some frustrated help-givers are wont to do—Jacobs asked them to aid him in writing a manual for others who had been similarly injured. More than answering the call, Jacobs’ group conducted discussions that, unburdened by the stigma of accepting help, had exactly the cathartic effect they didn’t think they wanted.

Reimagining help as collaboration rather than a set of one-way transactions (all giving or all receiving) underscores the fact that both parties contribute and benefit in a helping relationship—and it eliminates anyone’s being stuck on the perceived receiving end. For bristling seniors, it might be useful to volunteer with them at social occasions, such as charity functions, church events, or meals-on-wheels.

Activities like these subtract the condescending stage where helpers offer assistance, and they make accepting aid seem normal. Help becomes more about being with other people—talking, socializing, suggesting, and simply doing—than about tracking who gave and who took.

If ushering the help-resistant into community service hews too closely to clinical calculation or conspiracy, Jacobs suggests something more direct, outlining a case for convincing people to accept assistance. Part of it is just showing how everyone benefits. In the case of seniors, they know best the trials of aging and do a service by exemplifying the ways in which younger generations might grow old. And isn’t it generous to allow others to help, to gain experience and demonstrate their skills?

Such an appeal to intelligence argues empathetically for accepting help; when everyone has something to contribute, agreeing to help isn’t taking a handout, it’s just enabling that contribution. You could call that a give-give situation.