As I was rummaging through some stacks of documents during spring cleaning, I came across an anonymous piece of paper titled “The Non Rescuer Kit.” After fielding two crisis calls in as many days, it felt like a gentle reminder from the universe to examine my reasons (indeed, habits) about rushing to someone’s aid. I am a recovering people-pleaser and over-giver, so I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the concept of “helping.” (See also Differing Worldviews, or Help (Not) Wanted Part 1.)
Although I’m not positive where I got the document, I believe it came from one of my Healing Touch teachers during my one-year mentorship. It lists five yes or no questions. Many quizzes are structured in this way where you count up your number of yeses and nos to discover “the answer” or where you fall on a continuum. However, for this quiz, there is a pre-step. When you ask yourself the question, pay close attention to what your mind/body/emotions are telling you. Do you feel some doubt around your answer? If you don’t feel like it’s a 100 percent yes, then it counts as a no. To paraphrase, “1 doubt = NO” and “More than one NO = I do not intervene.”
Here are the five questions. I’ve added my own description/understanding in italics:
- Has someone asked me anything? (Has someone actually asked me for my help?)
- Do I know what it’s all about? (Do I understand the context of the situation and/or what is really happening?)
- Am I competent? (Do I have the knowledge, skills or ability to offer assistance?)
- Do I feel like it? (Do I truly want to help, without feeling guilty or pressured into doing so, and with no strings attached?)
- Am I respecting my own needs? (Do I have the time and availability to help? Am I maintaining appropriate personal boundaries and/or commitments to myself?)
“Helping” has positive connotations, but if it is more than requested, limited assistance, it can become rescuing. Rescuing or saving someone can have unintended consequences. Being the rescuer makes for dramatic storylines in media and music, but the savior/saved dynamic is problematic. It creates or emphasizes unequal positions within the relationship and is quite disempowering for the person being saved. By “over-helping,” or doing for someone what they can or need to do for themselves, we telegraph the message that they are incapable of handling the situation themselves.
“Fixing” also falls into the “don’t intervene” category. Fixing implies that something (or someone) is broken or wrong. Fixing a broken handle or typo is OK; fixing someone’s problem, issue, or life is not. (See question #1.) Similar to the problems with “helping,” when we “fix” others, we can unknowingly take away their sense of agency, worth, or personal power. When we are responsible for fixing others’ problems, we not only risk overstepping our boundaries and depleting our own energy and resources, but also preventing the other person from learning valuable lessons from their life experience.
Instead of rescuing (aka helping or fixing), Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen suggests focusing on serving:
“Serving makes us aware of our wholeness and its power. The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life. The wholeness in you is the same as the wholeness in me. Service is a relationship between equals: our service strengthens us as well as others. Fixing and helping are draining, and over time we may burn out, but service is renewing. When we serve, our work itself will renew us. In helping we may find a sense of satisfaction; in serving we find a sense of gratitude.”
Being aware of rescuing and the differences between helping, fixing, and serving is vital for anyone working in a caring profession or healing practice. But it is equally valid for all of us, as we often bumble through our lives, certain that we know what’s best for others. “If they would just….” “I don’t know why they don’t….” “What are they thinking?!” (Or maybe I’m just projecting. Ha ha!) Even if – IF – we truly can see a “mistake” coming, we are human – fallible. How many of our biggest life lessons come from learning from our mistakes? I might think I’m easing someone’s path by helping or fixing, but am I really being of service to that person? Or, if I look deep inside with fierce honesty, is there a part of me that is doing it for myself?
To paraphrase Dr. Remen, fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, but service is the work of the soul. Even though it sounds a bit pretentious, maybe I’ll start asking people, “How might I be of service?” Hmm, or maybe I could ask myself that first and see how my intuition answers. If I listen carefully, I have a feeling that it might point me gently back to my own unresolved issues – “Why don’t you focus here for now?”