What Really Happens When We Reach Out


One of the great privileges in the field of Employment Counselling is being in a position to help out others. Perhaps in your role, you too have this honour and responsibility. How often do you then really think consciously about what is really going on when you reach out or reach down to help others? Or should you be on the other end of that help, do you think much about the help you may have received?

Well first imagine coming across someone who has been knocked down on the ground. In order to help that person to their feet, you may reach out with one hand to assist but before you do that, you’ll find you instinctively did a few things first. For starters you made a decision to help. Secondly, you gauged whether or not you alone had the ability to help them up, and perhaps most important of all, you probably assumed a position with your feet that anchored yourself against the forthcoming pull in the other direction. As you extend your arm and hand downward, you both grasp hold of each other and while you are pulling up, you’ll either lift up dead weight, or you might even feel the strain as the person pulls their body off the ground and up toward you.

Now in your daily work, you probably come across all kinds of people who you identify as being down and selectively have to choose who you are in a position to help up. Sometimes you may go about extending that help alone, and often you’ll recognize that the help the person really needs isn’t something you have the strength or power to do on your own; hence you’ll bring in specialists who have skills in areas you don’t to help out, like an Addictions or Mental Health Counsellor.

Anchoring against that forthcoming strain is best done by tapping into our past experience, education and energy reserves. That help you are about to provide may take more out of you than you realize, which is why those in the helping professions are in danger of mental exhaustion, and if there isn’t a way or time to replenish that energy, there’s a danger of compassion fatigue; giving and giving and still more giving without taking the time to refuel and reposition against the strain. It’s like coming across 6 people on a cliff dangling within reach of your hand. You’ve got enough energy to help out the first 2, but there’s 4 more, and the muscle strain may not allow you to help those remaining as easily as you’d like, but their desperation is what you may have taken on as your responsibility to save. You cannot physically save them all but will remember those you leave dangling rather than those you helped lift out of danger.

Now imagine this scene. You walk into a large room; say a gymnasium. As you look around you see many other people on the floor. Some are trying to get to their feet and make it on their own. Others are trying to stand up but their legs aren’t strong enough to support them and they keep stumbling down. Oddly enough, others are just sitting there, some kicking up a ruckus crying for help but not doing anything apparently to help themselves. Isn’t it true that seeing people in this situation, there are people who would just say, “Get up if you want to on your own!” Some can and don’t, and some have tried and feel they can’t anymore.

Now if you yourself are one of those people on the floor in that gymnasium who needs or wants a helping hand, do you have a responsibility to reach up and accept the offer of help being extended? And if you do reach back up, wouldn’t it be easier on you both if you used your free hand and your legs to help yourself and reduce the energy needed by the helper to stand up? The mechanics say you’ll get up faster if you help yourself, and when you work together to do what you may have found difficult or impossible on your own.

In the real world, we may find that the people we help up today are back on the floor tomorrow. That’s going to be frustrating because once up, we hope they have the ability to move forward on their own without going back to the ground. It is often the case that day after day we enter that gymnasium and find the same people on the floor needing our help. To our credit, and I hope I may count you among us, we extend ourselves day in and day out to extend those offers of help without reservation. Oh sure we get our expectations up only to get disappointed but isn’t it better to believe that this may be the time they stand on their own? If you are burned-out, you might not extend any arm and hand to help because your expectation is failure so why bother? Ouch.

Here’s a beautiful thing; some of those people with abundant energy who are going around from person-to-person pulling people up to their feet were only a short time ago on the ground themselves reaching up to grasp the hand and accept the help of someone who extend down their hand to help. And like a hamburger from Harvey’s, it’s a beautiful thing.

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