Looking into the shadows …

Posted: Wednesday 14th July 2021
A while ago a colleague of mine decided to be very honest with me. She acknowledged something quite taboo amongst helping professionals. She said that she sometimes notices a physical discomfort in the presence of others who are in need. It’s important to say that she doesn’t act on this discomfort. She described how she feels ashamed of it, and tries to compensate with overflowing kindness and understanding towards others. Her honesty got us talking about some of the shadow sides of being a professional helper.

Of course, the common narrative about helpers is that we are the salt of the earth. How many times recently have we heard politicians on the radio talk about the ‘superhuman’ ‘heroes’ of the NHS? It is a tempting, comforting narrative. And yet, how does it make sense that so many people become such extraordinary, almost mythical creatures? Perhaps the answer is that helpers are not extraordinary at all. Perhaps helpers are just mortals in particular shapes. If so, what shapes are the most common amongst us? Some shapes that seem to be around include: People who feel guilty about putting themselves first, and aren’t sure that they are worthwhile unless they are helping others. People who struggle to bear uncertainty and can’t seem to settle until problems are solved. People who struggle to stop. People who wish to continually demonstrate to others that they are good.

This isn’t to say that we helpers don’t deeply care, do our absolute best, and do great good in the world, only that we are more than just the one dimensional ‘heroes’ of society’s fantasy. To go along with this would be to miss the treasures unearthed by looking more deeply into our motivations for being helpers. And more seriously, to miss some of the factors which might lead to enacting abuses of care and power with service users.

So back to my colleague. We explored her occasional feelings of discomfort towards the needs and vulnerabilities of others. How might this make sense? She told me that she grew up in a context in which it seemed shameful to have needs and she should cover up her vulnerabilities. Her parents, because of their own difficulties, found her needs and not being able to meet these too hard to bear. Their solution was to implicitly ask her to pretend she didn’t have any needs. Which loving daughter wouldn’t do her parents’ bidding to hide her needs and spare their guilt and shame?

My colleague realised that she had internalised her parents’ discomfort towards needs. She realised that part of her motivations for being a helper was to ‘action’ needs and have them gone. We might say she wanted to be a ‘needs-buster’, resolving needs wherever she went, and feeling great when they were cleared up. Those people with needs she could ‘bust’ she could get on easily with. But those people with needs that wouldn’t to be resolved, she found harder to deal with. Needs that resisted being met were painful for her.

So what did my colleague find if she stayed with others’ as yet unresolvable needs, staying in touch with them beyond her instinct to recoil? After reflecting upon this, she discovered her own fear that other people’s needs were evidence of her not being good enough. She found that busting needs was a way to reassure herself that she was ok.

Ours was a painful discussion, and one that asked for such bare honesty from my colleague. She has come to understand that she can do something to manage herself when she encounters her difficulty relating to people who have needs that won’t yet budge. By doing this work on herself, she can keep the focus on her clients and colleagues, and stay with them even if their problems won’t yet shift. And she reminded me, looking into the shadows of ourselves may be frightening, but is also a fruitful endeavour. By daring to explore whether we are bad, we find that we are good. By working on ourselves, we change the world.

Jen & Jael

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