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How We Help

Last week, a young mother stood outside a gas station and asked me if I would help her. She needed food for the toddler she held in her arms. I returned with a bag of goodies that the little boy babbled for excitedly, she thanked me graciously, and I left. On my way home, I battled with feelings that made me really uncomfortable: sympathy, pity, frustration, sadness, guilt. To understand these emotions, I had to examine why I had chosen to help, how I had helped, and my own assumptions and biases around helping. 

Why we choose to help others is actually an entire field of study. Scientists believe that there are biological and social components that drive what they call “prosocial behavior.” Studies show that helping others can make us happier, give us a sense of purpose, and can improve our life spans with numerous health benefits. One of the reasons that I felt compelled to act in this situation was because I felt compassion, but I also have to acknowledge that giving boosted my own esteem. I had to come to terms with the fact that this isn’t a bad thing! In fact, social psychologist, Elizabeth Dunn, encourages people to think of helping as a source of pleasure and not just as a moral obligation, because it results in more authentic helping. 

We encounter many opportunities in a day for us to give or receive help. We tend to hesitate when we aren’t sure exactly how to provide support. In this case, the woman had told me exactly what she needed, but I still felt unsettled. While helping her was easy, it certainly didn’t feel like I had done enough. However, we should not diminish the good work that we can do as individuals. There is a wonderful quote that reads, “I cannot do all the good the world needs. But the world needs all the good that I can do.” We have to remind ourselves that what we can do is something, and that something can have a positive impact on someone. 

Some of the most challenging dynamics we encounter in helping relationships are role differentiation, dominance, and struggles for power. It can be hard to admit that these dynamics exist, especially when we think that we are doing something good. I had to acknowledge that I had felt pity because I had unintentionally created a relationship where I believed that I had “power.” That power gave me the privilege of being able to help, but it also gave me a false sense of superiority. These toxic beliefs interfere with our ability to provide genuine and empowering help. If we want to be good helpers, we have to be willing to confront our own assumptions and biases.  

This reflection reminded me of a class I took in college called “The Philosophy of Helping.” The course focused on exploring the nature of helping relationships through thought-provoking questions like, “How do we provide help in ways that are empowering and authentic for those being helped?” and “What are the tensions that inevitably arise when we try to formalize the helping relationship?” This recent experience inspired me to revisit my personal “philosophy of helping” that I had developed in that class. These principles act as reminders and guides to foster positive and healthy helping relationships. Here are some of the beliefs that I hope to lead with moving forward: 

  • I believe that helping is doing what you can, when you can. Every single person can contribute great amounts of help. 
  • I believe that helping is what Ram Dass and Paul Gorman call, “Walking each other home”. This means that we are all moving through life on the same journey to the same end. Helping is about mutual respect and understanding that we all are put in positions where we need help. 
  • I believe in treating everyone as ends in themselves. This means that we are people before anything else. Treat people ethically and decently through helping so they might emerge invigorated and empowered. 
  • I believe that helpees know better than helpers what they need. Helpers must be able to ask helpees how they can help. 
  • I believe in taking care of others as well as myself. If I am not well, how can I expect myself to help others? 

I still have a lot to learn when it comes to helping others and being helped myself. But, my wish for 2020 is that it is the year of helping. Let this be the year of taking care of each other, of lifting each other up, and the year of goodness.   

*Leadership Lesson*

Develop your own philosophy of helping using “I believe” statements. Consider all of the different helping relationships you might have in the different roles you play in your life (parent, friend, employee, citizen, etc.). Reflect on these questions to help you get started:

  • What does helping mean to you? 
  • How does helping make you feel? Why? 
  • What qualities or behaviors make a “good” helper? A “bad” helper? 
  • What interferes with helping? What we have to be aware of or careful about? 
  • What are the positive results of helping others? 

*Meet the Author*

Caelan Cooney has worked with Leadership Inspirations since 2015. She got her start in leadership as a high school DECA student and went on to graduate from Chapman University with degrees in Business Management and Integrated Educational Studies. As a regular contributor to From the Balcony, her favorite topics to explore are personality theory, group development, and conflict management. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and listening to podcasts. 

Favorite Quote: “I am still learning” – Michelangelo

Fun Facts: 1) I once bought a goat on Craigslist 2) I am afraid of escalators 3) My life goal is to give a TedTalk