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On help

A discussion elsewhere on-line, to which I will not link because I think it will generate a lot of heat for a very little light, has got me thinking about two things I’ve been mulling over for months. The first is ‘help’, the nature of help, and what people - or at least people who are Michelle - want when we say we want help. (The question evolves from “people say they want help, and then we help, and we get no appreciation or support.“ The blog piece today is an evolution of an answer to that trope.)

The second is the nature of love as an act of endurance; where it comes from, why we do it, and ultimately, why I think it’s a track we need to move off.

I’m going to start with help, but because it is me, there will probably be some crossover and digressions.

I think the desire to help other people is a pretty innate one. I’ve had two toddlers, and before they could speak, they wanted to participate in household activities, to be useful, to be helpful. The help of a toddler is both a joy and … well. It’s a joy. If you have the patience to encourage the impulse - and the time, and our lives are often so cluttered, time is the one thing we don’t have much of - with their help, activities will take three times longer than they otherwise would. I think it’s an important impulse to encourage, because it’s an activity that will still be acceptable when they’re teenagers and adults (as opposed to tearing off all their clothes and running through the sprinkler on a neighbor’s lawn).

There are, of course, two parts to help. One is the desire to help, the other the desire to be helped. It sounds pretty simple up front. I’ve found, over the years, that it is not as simple as that, because the desire to help goes hand in hand with the desire to be appreciated. The desire to be appreciated is, in my opinion, a perfectly natural desire. If we bust our backsides and bend over backwards to help someone, it’s nice to be thanked.

But I think it’s important to separate the desire to be helpful from the desire to be appreciated. They’re different, and they can work at cross purposes.

For instance: say I’ve had a terrible week. I’ve been presented with a number of things that push the envelope of my ability to deal with them in either silence or with grace. Two friends tells me that they’re there for me, and that they’ll be happy to listen if I need to talk.

But I don’t need to talk, because while the friend would, it’s not the way I process setbacks. What I need is to be able to withdraw and think, in the walled-off silence of my own busy brain.

The first friend accepts this. The offer’s been made, I’ve declined, and they understand - and believe - that I need my own space because if I don’t have it, I will turn all HULK SMASH, which never helps anyone and is hard on the furniture. Two weeks later, I’ll phone and rant, because by that point, I’ve built the struts necessary to think and speak like a cogent (if ranting) adult. Do I need to talk? Yes, but later. And I take them up on the offer with a time delay for mental health.

The second friend is hurt. They’re hurt because they’re concerned about me, and they put themselves out, offering to be of assistance, and I’ve rejected them. They want to be there for me, and I won’t let them because for some reason I’m shutting them out.

This is possibly an unfair or exaggerated example, because I think it’s pretty obvious that the second friend is not, in fact, being helpful at all. When I barely have the wherewithal to deal with my own distress, adding guilt and their stress to the mix when all I need is the quiet space to deal with my lack of internal quiet is -- yes! -- not in any way helpful.

My argument is that the second friend is not, in fact, offering help. Is it hard for them to open themselves up to my rejection? Yes. Did it take effort on their part? I will be generous and say yes, yes it did. Are their feelings hurt because I did not take them up on what was offered? Yes. Was the person offering because, if they were in my position, it would be what they require? Absolutely.

But everything in that is about them. It is not about what I need. Life, of course, is not all about what I need. Nor should it be, unless I want to live in a vaccuum. But being helpful to me at that time should not, in the end, be all about them.

That’s my litmus test when I offer to help: is it about me, or is it about the person I want to help? If it’s the former, I need to make clear--to myself--that it is me filling my own need, and I need to be clear - to them - what I require in return. It is an act of emotional barter. There is nothing wrong with this, in my opinion; I think emotional barter is very common, and I think it can be positive and even healthy - but it is not, ultimately, help as I am defining it.

If it (eta: my desire to help) is about them, their response guides my reaction. If they need to talk, we can talk; if they need me to do something, I’ll do it; if they need me to go the hell away, I will do that as well. I don’t require anything in return; I don’t require the acknowledgement; I don’t put my own feelings on the table because - not helpful.

This example, of course, is very individual; it’s about me. And because people are different, my needs can’t be generalized and made into an easily followed rule. The person beside me may well need the help and the interaction offered, and have no easy way to ask for it. They may be silent, and feel isolated because people don’t cross the boundary into their silent space to offer them an ear. They may need someone to listen to them - and no one offers, possibly because they have dealt with insanely cranky Michelle, and they’ve learned that the offer is not welcome. Spending time with Michelle has not prepared the person who wants to be helpful to offer help to other people.

And of course, when dealing with the person beside me, the silence, the distance, is not welcome. It’s not helpful.

This is just one example. There are many, many more. Any example I can come up with of what I need can be juxtaposed with a genuine example of someone - who is a wonderful person - who needs the exact opposite.

And yes, some of the thought processes around this issue have grown because I’ve spent almost two decades trying to think like an Asperger child.

So how do you navigate the sea of being a helpful friend? How, when in your group, there is no one path to follow to be that helpful individual?

There are two parts. The first: examine your own motives. If you are going to be hurt or angry or upset when the help is not celebrated or appreciated, it’s possible that the offer is too tied into what you need. Your own needs need to be owned. They are not horrible and they do not make you a horrible person. But if your needs are the driving force behind your offers of help, many people (myself included) will not, in a crisis, find you helpful. When I can barely deal with myself, dealing with other people’s emotional needs requires an energy and grace I simply do not have at the time.

The second part is both harder and easier. It’s easier for the ASD family in some ways - and I know that will come as a surprise to many - because ASD strips the ability to generalize from many social interactions. The children are missing the ability to create a box that says ‘normal’ into which to fit people around them. Because they don’t easily develop that catch-all that says ‘normal’, they don’t have as many of the automatic responses in social situations.

So while empathy exists, the sense that there is one way to do things for a multitude of people doesn’t. They need to learn the people around them. They need to understand what an individual’s smile, laughter and tears mean to that person.

They need to pay attention to the individual - they need to see the person. They are hindered in some ways because it’s much harder for them to parse the multiple signals that make up any single person - but they’re starting from scratch: they need to learn the person in question.

Is this a lot of work? Yes. And it is not work that you are in any way responsible for. You don’t need to do the work unless it’s important to you. There are many reasons why it could be important: the person is your sibling, your friend, your significant other. You want a place in that person’s life. You want to reciprocate for the help they give you when it’s needed.

But unless you see the other person as objectively and clearly as possible, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of automatically doing for them what you feel you want done for yourself.

This is something I see a lot. It makes perfect sense: if I need certain things when I am stressed out of my mind, I automatically assume that the people around me need the same things. I attempt to do - for them - what I would want done for me. But people, even the people I love, are not me. Doing what I feel I would find helpful can be surprisingly unhelpful in their eyes.

And the tragedy of that is: I have examined my motives, I truly want to help, I work my butt off (often emotionally), and: I am not being helpful. Why? Because I don’t see them, in this equation; I see a shadow of my own needs because those are the ones I know best. I am genuinely trying to offer support - and it is going nowhere. In the worse possible case, my friend is using their husbanded emotional resources to remember that it’s the thought that counts, which is something they don’t need at the time, so we are both working our butts off to maintain and grow a friendship - and we are both wasting the energy and time we probably don’t have enough of to begin with.

Whereas if I look at them and see them, I can work to offer them the things that I absolutely do not need and would not want, because even if it feels unnatural to me, it is what they need. I understand that emotionally, they have bottomed out - and that that feeling is the feeling I get. In that, empathy works. But I need to see that in the context of the other person, that emotional state requires entirely different solutions. Does it feel natural to me? Well, no. Or I would have just done it in the first place, and saved us both effort and ulcers.

One of the things that often makes me enormously sad is when I see this dynamic at play in a couple. I see two people who I like who are both trying their absolute best to be the good spouse. They are working their fingers to the bone. They are doing everything they can. But they are both doing what they themselves would want - and they are not, therefore seeing the other person. Are they trying? Gods yes. Painfully. But they are not giving the other person what that person needs; they are seeing the shadows of their own needs in that person.

And in the end, after years of thankless efforts, they are seething with resentment because they have tried so hard and they’ve done so much; they perceive that the other person has done nothing and has not tried at all. It’s particularly awful when one of those people is Michelle-like and needs to be left alone for large periods, because they then, during times of stress, leave the other person alone, even when they want to talk to them, to have their company. And they shut themselves off, they do housework, they do chores, they continue to give the person space and leave them alone, because clearly, they are not happy yet and obviously need more time.

And their spouse feels trapped, isolated, deserted in place. They need discussion; they need to talk. They need to be heard, and their spouse is all but ignoring them. They don’t see the effort as effort. But it is, and it was.

We love people all the time who are not us. But we need to see them as, well, not us. We need to examine the automatic impulses to help, and we need to suit the impulse, and therefore the action, to the person.

When I say “I want help,” this is what I mean. I want something that will be helpful to me. I don’t actually ask for help all that often (because leave me alone is generally not considered a cry for help), but when I do, I want something tailored to me. Even if every other person outside of my house thinks the person giving the help is a heartless jerk, or they think I’m a total jerk for asking for the things I need.

But I think when people say “I want help” this is also what they mean; it’s just that what’s helpful to them and what’s helpful to me can be diametrically opposed.

The emphasis is not help me, but help me.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
May. 22nd, 2012 10:17 pm (UTC)
Helping is not easy, but it is enormously harder when we refuse to listen to what people say that they need. Most people can say it, though they stop articulating if they end up getting not-what-they-need often enough.
May. 23rd, 2012 01:52 am (UTC)
Michelle, you make me think. (And yes, that's a good thing.)

I suspect that offering the type of help that another person really needs is what sets therapists apart from most normal humans. And it is also important that people understand each other, are cognizant of each other, in order to understand how to help each other.

I think I may have to reevaluate my own thought processes concerning others, as I should make sure of my own reasons and motivations first.
May. 23rd, 2012 02:19 am (UTC)
I suspect that offering the type of help that another person really needs is what sets therapists apart from most normal humans.

I think observation and long-term familiarity can fulfill this function, if we can see and hear clearly outside of our own personal contexts and expectations - which, I admit, is not simple.

But on occasion, when people are upset that others don’t appreciate their help, they get so angry it’s really not about the other person anymore. And it’s not that the person isn’t trying to be helpful or isn’t genuinely offering help - but they’re offering something that is not what the other person needs.

So - it’s a miss, and it’s frustrating on both sides. My husband, when he read this, said something interesting about the ability to genuinely communicate both what is needed and what is helpful, and in part people can be bad at this because they haven’t full assessed and owned the needs they have; they come out as a very specific series of things and not as the overall deeper difficulty.

And it’s partly because a lot of us (I include me strongly in this category) need to make plans, and we want metrics that are clear, accessible and actionable - and that’s not, in interpersonal relationships, always immediately possible.
May. 23rd, 2012 02:58 am (UTC)
And it’s partly because a lot of us (I include me strongly in this category) need to make plans, and we want metrics that are clear, accessible and actionable - and that’s not, in interpersonal relationships, always immediately possible.

Coming from myself, whose entire job revolves around metrics, the temptation to impose that on relationships can be overwhelming. However, I've found that if I pull back from using metrics and simply let things develop organically, I can figure out both what I want and what they (might) want.

Some of the time, anyway. We humans can't all be put neatly into a box, as much as people like to try.
May. 23rd, 2012 10:13 am (UTC)
I was brought up to help: it's more or less hard-wired into me. But, in my head, help has to be about the other person, or it isn't help (if that makes sense). Which is probably a clumsy way of saying that I agree with you, and that this is an excellent article.
May. 24th, 2012 01:36 am (UTC)
But, in my head, help has to be about the other person, or it isn't help (if that makes sense).

It makes perfect sense, to me. It's my take on help, and being helpful, too.
May. 23rd, 2012 06:13 pm (UTC)
*waves* -- somebody pointed me at this post as "awesome", and indeed, it is. more people need to read it.

i've always been a person who needed help in a very different way from everyone i grew up with, so part of this dawned on me very early. i decided that the much-vaunted "golden rule" was totally useless, and for a while i operated under the "reverse golden rule" -- don't do to others what you'd hate having done to yourself. that worked a lot better, and it took a lot more years and experience before i dumped that one too.

your last line works from both ends, and it's even short and pithy. thanks!
May. 23rd, 2012 07:55 pm (UTC)
My husband read this post (he's my external editor, in that he sometimes thinks some posts are not yet ready for public consumption) and he said something interesting about communication, which I'm now thinking about. He said it's not simple to communicate your needs in a way that another person can access. He feels that communication is the key to the ability to be helpful.

So I'm mulling that over now.

I think the "golden rule" is a very useful rule (which I'm often incapable of following) for vanilla social settings - large work environments, large gatherings - in which people don't know each other and aren't expected to spend much time together in the future.

But I think it's not a good rule for close relationships, because communication is key. Not all people communicate with words - but sometimes, it's the words on the table that open up avenues of interaction that allow both people to be themselves.
May. 23rd, 2012 10:44 pm (UTC)
I've been thinking a lot about this as last week I wrote a post that was basically one single desperate cry for help because things got *really* bad and I went past the point where I could cope with it.

And I got help, which brings me to the next step - I am speechless with appreciation for the people who *have* reached out to me, and I want to contact them all and tell them how much I appreciate them - but I am also overwhelmed and releasing tremendous stress and still fighting with feeling like a failure for needing help in the first place, so my reactions aren't proportional to the gratitude and appreciation I _feel_.

We're brought up to help and be helpful. We're not brought up to ask for and accept help.
May. 24th, 2012 07:46 pm (UTC)
Michelle, your posts are always so insightful, and this one really hit home.
When two months ago I was diagnosed with terminal cancer we were faced with many of these situations; sometimes within the family, other times with chibi's schoolmate's parents ( he's in first grade.)

I felt horrible the first while, because while people were offering their help it wasn't something that I could process or accept... at least in the way they offered it.

It took a couple of friends who basically reached out and said "Tell me what -you- need"; they were wonderful at providing the support that I needed and understanding that sometimes I just need to shut ourselves out from the world for a bit.

Communication is definitely key, but giving and accepting help is a tricky thing. The last thing -I- needed was to feel guilty over refusing offered help, and the people who understood this were the ones that helped the most.

For me that one question: "Tell me what you need, or how I can help?" meant the world. It was open ended, allowed me to genuinely get help where I felt I needed it most and didn't put societal pressure in refusing what I couldn't handle at the moment.
May. 25th, 2012 05:02 am (UTC)
For me that one question: "Tell me what you need, or how I can help?" meant the world. It was open ended, allowed me to genuinely get help where I felt I needed it most and didn't put societal pressure in refusing what I couldn't handle at the moment.

Yes. This is my experience of what is helpful, of what it means to be helpful. I cannot imagine how difficult the situation must be, otherwise.

When you're facing something like cancer, people often react hugely emotionally - because they are terrified. Sometimes - often - they are terrified for themselves.

When my cousin was diagnosed with terminal cancer, this is what happened to her: she was single, and she was and had been the emotional support of her large network of friends - and they fell apart to a greater and lesser degree, because that was their paradigm.

She ended up spending a lot of time with my youngest brother, who was two decades younger, because she had not fulfilled that role in his life and he was not afraid. If she needed to talk, he'd listen - but they mostly went out for walks by the seawall and did things that were not tinged with the fact of the cancer. She found it comforting.
May. 25th, 2012 02:03 am (UTC)

Jun. 8th, 2012 10:15 pm (UTC)
Thank you for writing this. It is useful, which is the highest praise in the language of the people I'm from.
Jul. 19th, 2012 07:50 pm (UTC)
I've been reading your books for years and have only today discovered your blog. So HI.

Just to comment about this communication and help thing, I have a story from my own experience about helping.

One of my dear friends always used to call me whenever she was feeling down. We'd do a little chit-chat, I'd let her talk herself and rant herself out, and we'd get off the call. I once asked her, just out of curiosity on my part, why I was the one she called when she was in these emotional turmoil states. And she said, "Because you don't coddle me and try to make it better. You just listen and then talk straight with me." It kind of surprised me because there were other people that she was closer friends with and I would have expected her to call them before she called me. But apparently, I instinctively knew how to give her what she needed when she was in those emotional states. I had no idea that that's what I was doing, because it had never occurred to me to do anything else. On the flip side, I have lost friends because I am not good at the coddling.

ETA: As I thought about this a little more, I realize there is something that I do say to friends of mine who are struggling with something in one way or another. I will always say, "If you want to talk, I'm here. If you don't want to talk, I'll still be here."

Edited at 2012-07-19 07:56 pm (UTC)
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