On the Receiving End

How we think about help isn’t helping

| July-August 2008

  • Helping Hand

    image by Dave Cutler

  • Helping Hand

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?

8/12/2008 7:50:51 PM

It is easy to have lofty opinions when you are whole. Those who live with devastated lives due to trauma -- whether both physical and emotional or simply emotional -- have a different perspective. As to AA, they say in the rooms that you should take what fits and leave the rest. I too abhor the attitude in some meetings that there are us and those others, and never the twain shall meet. It is based on fear and ignorance. However, I have had no trouble finding groups that are inclusive. I simply looked for them and stuck with them. After all, what other people think is none of my business anyway. My business is recovery, and it has worked for nineteen years, despite the human flaws of my fellow travelers -- the better since I learned I wasn't in charge.

8/9/2008 4:45:52 PM

Sudhamani Isn't it necessary to encourage generous impulses by accepting graciously what others want to give? By putting a wall around ourselves saying " I will not accept help, it is demeaning", people deny to others the opportunity to share and to express their love in the form of generosity. That feels to the giver like a rejection and forces the generous impulses to withdraw and causes people to close off into their shells. Receiving is as much a gift to the giver as the gift is to the receiver. Eve4rybody lacks something and everybody has an abundance of something. Without the powerful feeling that comes from giving and without the gratitude that comes from receiving, people are isolated self enclosed, basically cold and hungry beings. Receive with humility in thanks and give with generosity and love, and do BOTH!

Vere Verum
8/8/2008 9:27:37 PM

Actually, in my experience A.A. is selfish and ignorant. The majority of groups I have attended continuously bar people from attending which is in direct violation of it's own 12 Traditions. As far as the Truman quote, have we forgotten his history of Japanese genocide killing hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians? What kind of empowerment is this except of self preservation? My understanding of the article is to encourage participation rather than just giving something away. It in no way describes giving only to save oneself as the aforementioned; "I give to you to save MYSELF". I have been homeless, I am celebrating 2 years sobriety 21-Sept.,2008 and currently have over 500 volunteer hours this year alone and I believe inclusion is the path to success. It is the ancient philosophy of fishing... "give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime." Now the person can tend to their own needs rather than being tended to, and for those who don't know the helpless feeling of being tended to like the helpless sheep, it is an insulting, belittling, depressing and debilitating feeling.Theses feelings arise because it makes one feel like they have nothing to give to life. I have learned more about human feelings from addicts, the homeless and disabled members of our society than from those "higher than thou" genocidal Truman philosophises.

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