Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Help When You Can: Notes for a Happy Life

Help when you can.
Be there when you can.
Encourage when you can.
A truly happy life comes
from giving more than you take
.

That anonymous quotation came up in my social media feed the other day. On the surface, it’s a straightforward encouragement to help people because it’s good for us to do so. There are three separate elements to it, though, each of which deserves exploring.

  • Offer what people need
  • Offer when you can
  • Enjoy the rewards

Let’s take a look at them in a little more detail.

Offer What People Need

The quotation doesn’t simply say help people, it suggests offering practical help, offering our presence, and offering encouragement. The point is there are different ways to support people, and it’s important to match what we offer with what will help them best. I’m reminded of a maxim of Fran’s that I find really helpful:

Give people what they need. Not what you need to give them.

It’s easy to skip the first part and leap in with whatever assistance we think is best for them or feel most comfortable giving. Unless you’ve been asked specifically, don’t assume you know what the person needs, even if you know each other well and you’ve helped them before. Listen more than talk, and if you’re unsure, ask. “How can I help you best right now?” is good. Be prepared for “I don’t know” or “Nothing, thanks” in reply.

It hurts when we see our friends or loved ones struggling and we’re unable to offer what they need, or they don’t want our help. Remind yourself that it’s not about you. The impulse to help is noble, but our need to do so is not the most important consideration. Sometimes, the most caring thing we can do is respect our loved one’s request for space.

Offer When You Can

When we are invited to help, the dilemma — in so far as there is one — is to balance supporting our friend or loved one with our own needs, boundaries, and responsibilities. That’s what the “when you can” part of the quotation means. Actually, it means two things: don’t over-commit yourself or do more than you're able, but also don’t do less. It’s easy to find excuses or be talked out of helping when it’s perfectly possible for you to do so.

“When you can” also reminds us there’s often a timeliness aspect to helping others. Sometimes the time simply isn’t right, and we serve ourselves and our friends best by respecting that. A friend of mine wanted to help someone she’s close to, but they declined the offer. My friend knew not to keep pushing and trusted her friend would come round when she was able to. That might never have happened, but it did. My friend’s help was all the more effective because she’d waited until the time was right.

Enjoy the Rewards

There’s no denying that it feels good to help someone, especially when it’s someone we know and care about. One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received was when a friend told me I was someone they could rely on in an emergency, or at any other time.

It’s particularly comforting when you can offer and receive help without ego getting in the way. Fran and I are like that with each other, but it’s like that with other friends too. It means a lot that my friend Aimee can accept my presence and support simply, without either of us needing to make a fuss about it. She knows she can ask me if she needs help, and I'll be there if I can. Likewise, I know I can offer to help, and Aimee will accept it if she feels it is appropriate and meets her needs.

All that said, there are some potentially unhealthy things to watch out for. It’s easy to slip into feeling guilty if we’re unable to meet our friends’ needs for support. If we are always setting our own needs and boundaries aside in order to respond to other people’s requests, we can end up feeling burnt out, resentful, or overwhelmed. Codependency is another risk. This is where two people become dependent on the support they are able to offer each other (usually this is primarily from one person in the relationship to the other).

Doing too much, too often, or inappropriately invites the other person to become dependent on us. This is disempowering, and if left unchecked can develop into an unhealthy codependency. No matter how selfless we imagine ourselves to be — and selflessness is neither healthy nor sustainable — being a supportive friend or caregiver can play to our needs as much as to the other person’s. It can feel wonderful to be needed, and if our friend’s illness is chronic we have set ourselves up with a supporting role for the long term.

The best antidote to codependency is talking honestly with your friend or loved one about what is going on for you, including the need for each of you to maintain healthy boundaries.

I must disagree with the author’s claim that “a truly happy life comes from giving more than you take.” It sounds noble, but in my experience the rewards are greatest when support and caring are mutual, rather than one-sided. The balance needn’t always be 50:50, of course, and it will shift from time to time, but recognising that each of you can be there for the other is important. Aimee has been there for me many times when I’ve struggled or needed someone to talk to, but she still sometimes worries I might feel our friendship is a bit one-sided. I reminded her the other day that, as with me and Fran, the friendship we enjoy is definitely mutual. Another close friend thanked me recently for helping her. I replied with the certainty of previous experience, “You’d do the same for me.”

I’ll close with another excerpt from High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder:

Someone wrote to us recently, “Your journey as friends reminds us that mental illness doesn’t change what friendship is all about: being there for those we love.” That meant a lot because the reciprocal nature of our relationship is not always recognised. Fran is there for me as much as I am there for her.

Fundamentally, that’s what it’s all about. Or, as a friend of mine put it, “The more you give the more you receive in unexpected ways.”

 

Photo by TK Hammonds on Unsplash

 

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