Rethinking "helpless"

A friend of mine has been going through a scary time, preparing for a medical procedure.

I know the "right thing to do" is to call her. To reach out. To be present. To listen. To let her know I love her. This is what I would advise anyone else to do.

And yet earlier this week I found myself resisting those things, because I didn't feel confident in my ability to help. I have had very few medical problems of my own, and really don't know what a person in her situation needs or wants. I don't have any special wisdom or healing technique to offer. I was afraid I'd call her up and feel awkward and not know what to do.

Yeah, best to avoid that discomfort, a voice inside me said. Leave the reaching out to other people who can do a better job than you. There is absolutely nothing you can do to help. You shouldn't even try. 

But helplessness is a great big lie.

Just because some circumstances are out of my control -- i.e., my friend is sick, and I can't heal her -- doesn't mean that everything is out of my control.

Just because I can't help in ways I wish I could help, or think I should be able to help, doesn't mean I am helpless. 

What if I interpreted my feelings of helplessness not as proof that there's nothing I can do, but as a signal that I don't yet know what there is to do?

What if, instead of shutting me down, helplessness prompted me to open up and get curious: Given the limitations that exist, what could I do to be helpful? What would feel good to do? Who or what could help me figure it out?

The truth is, there is always something we can do to help, and when we truly want to know what it is, it doesn't take long to find it.

I did end up calling my friend this week, just like I knew I should. But I didn't do it until after I'd shifted from helpless passivity into a place of hope and empowerment. I was ready to offer her love not because it was the "right thing to do," but because it felt like the best way I could help. I believe that shift made all the difference.

To "be the change," ask for help

I really love the quote from Gandhi, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

To me, this is the ultimate statement of empowerment. Don't wait for someone else to solve the problem for you, or expect other people to do things that you yourself aren't willing to do. Be a leader. Go first. You have everything you need.

Gandhi may have been talking about large-scale social change, but the same principles apply in personal relationships, too:

  • If you want your partner to appreciate you, start noticing what you appreciate about them. 
  • If you want your kids to honor your needs, start getting curious about theirs.
  • If you want your superiors to respect your ideas, make sure you respect them. 
  • If you want people in general to share the best of themselves, then generously offer them the best of you.

When you go first, it makes it easy for other people to reciprocate.

Of course it's hard to conjure up authentic warm feelings when we are feeling unappreciated, ignored, and disrespected ourselves. Which is why, in these situations, it is important to ask for help. Ask a friend, or a counselor, or God, or wherever else you tend to go when you need wise answers and a good sounding board.

How you define the problem is important. If you see the other person's behavior as the problem to solve, you might ask questions like this:

  • "How can I get them to ____?"
  • "How can I help them understand ____?"
  • "Why don't they ___?"

The thinking there is, if they would just change their behavior, then you could start feeling and acting differently toward them. But getting people to change is practically impossible. No one wants to be manipulated or told what to do -- especially if they are also feeling unappreciated, ignored and disrespected by you.

Instead, I suggest seeing the problem as you, and your current inability to treat people the way you want to be treated. This leads to different kinds of questions:

  • "What do I need right now, and how can I get those needs met?"
  • "What might I not understand about this person or situation, that could help me shift my perspective?"
  • "What could I do that would feel like a step in the right direction?"

Questions like that are great because the answers are actionable, and don't require any cooperation from the other person for your situation to start improving. Usually cooperation happens eventually, though. Be the change, and change will happen.

That's been my experience, at least. Does it ring true for you, too? If not, what's missing? I would love to hear, as always.

From self-pity to empowerment

I recently found myself caught in a rut of self-pity, resentment, and frustration. I needed help and I wasn't getting it. I wasn't even asking for much, but no one came through for me the way I wanted them to. 

People are stingy! I started thinking. Don't they get how much of a difference they could make? How dare they sit back and do nothing, assuming that someone else will be the one to step forward?

Have you ever noticed that when you get angry at other people, the words you start using to criticize them could just as easily describe you?

After ranting to myself a while, that's exactly what I realized: It's not "other people" I'm mad at for being stingy with me. I'm mad at myself for being stingy with other people.

I see requests for food and clothing donations, and pretend not to see them. I tell myself things like, "That's just not my thing. I contribute in other ways."

I see people's invitations to events, or opportunities to volunteer my time for a good cause, and immediately look for excuses not to go. I tell myself, "I'm just too busy. I have more important things to do."

I see opportunities all around me to contribute to people: to write them a testimonial, help promote their event, to support their fundraising effort, or even simply to "like" their Facebook page. And yet so often I don't do it. I tell myself, "I'll let someone else do that. I'm sure they'll be fine without me." 

Over and over, I choose not to give, and then tell myself it doesn't matter. They don't matter. I don't matter.

It's a tricky situation, because of course, if I automatically said yes to every opportunity to give and serve, I would quickly become overwhelmed.

But automatically saying no has its own repercussions, too. It makes me feel small and selfish. It reinforces my fears of not having, doing, or being enough. And it makes me feel like I live in a world where people don't support each other -- which I know because *I* don't support them! 

What's interesting is that when I look back over the past several weeks more objectively, I see that I've actually been offered a ton of love, encouragement and opportunities. I was just so focused on what was missing that I barely even noticed. 

It can be hard to reach out to other people when I'm feeling empty, but I don't want to love people only when it's easy. I want to practice loving them when it's hard, too. I want to be proud of the way I treat people, not just when I feel like it, but every single day. It is one of the best self-help techniques I know.

To help me get back into this practice, I'm committing to doing -- and sharing -- one small thing that I feel good about every day throughout the month of December. Would you like to participate too? If so, come join me in the Gift of Happiness Facebook group, where all of the sharing will be happening. I hope to see you there!

When NOT to send a thank you card

As a general rule, I'm a big fan of gratitude. Not just making lists of things I'm grateful for, but sharing that gratitude with others, and letting people know when something they've done has made a positive difference for me.

There is tons of research on how gratitude enhances our happiness and well-being, but I also want to offer a caveat: It is important not to fake it. If you do, it will backfire.

Or at least that's been my experience.

There have been many times in my life when people have done wonderful, amazing things for me, and honestly, I didn't feel grateful. Instead, I felt resentful.

I was resentful to be in a situation where I needed help in the first place. Resentful that other people could do things that I couldn't. Resentful that what I had to offer in return felt so inadequate. Resentful that my problems didn't go away, even after receiving help. And resentful that I felt so resentful!

But at the time, I couldn't even acknowledge the resentment, because my mind was telling me I should feel grateful. It created a huge bind.

At times like those, I would argue that gratitude is not the most helpful thing to express. Instead, if you want to reach out, find people who are struggling and send cards to them. 

You don't have to fake anything with people going through hard times. You don't even have to know them. Even if you've never met, you already understand something about their experience. Just put in writing some words that you might like to hear, and trust that they will be perfect.

Not sure where to find people in need of love? Take a few minutes to scroll your favorite social media feed. Despite the conventional wisdom that people only publicly share the shiny happy parts of their lives, I haven't found that to be true at all. People share about loss and illness and disappointment, too. And when they do, you can send them real cards.

Or if it would be easier to send a card to someone you don't know personally, check out the website for The World Needs More Love Letters. This organization collects stories of individuals around the world who could use some extra love, and invites strangers to write to them. On the list right now are a housebound centenarian, a sophomore in college, and people of all ages struggling with their mental health. You could also nominate someone to receive their own bundle of love letters.

You might not know what impact your words will have on the other person, but it almost doesn't matter. Reaching out to someone with love when you've been feeling like the needy one is a powerful and important statement, in and of itself. And it can be the thing that helps you turn the corner and head back toward the light.

Then, once you've started experiencing that light again and actually feel grateful, go ahead and send thank you cards to anyone and everyone you can think of! No matter how much time has passed, the people who love you will be overjoyed to celebrate with you. 

Your comments and stories are welcome as always. I look forward to hearing your perspective.

My newest obsession: Human libraries

On my very first day offering free listening this spring, someone told me about a library he'd heard about, where instead of checking out books, you could check out people. People with unique life experiences who are willing to talk about what it's like to be them.

Then last week I learned that there's a whole organization dedicated to helping people create these "human libraries" all across the world, with a huge variety of human books: People with unusual bodies and minds. People with nontraditional jobs and lifestyles. People of different ages, races, and sexual orientations. People who have had uncommon experiences of all sorts -- or common experiences that don't get talked about much.

The idea began in Denmark in response to an act of violence, with the explicit intention of breaking down stereotypes and building more cohesive communities. When I heard about it, I had the same response as I did when I learned about the Urban Confessional's free listening project: I have to do this. 

I love it because it solves the problem of wanting to get to know different kinds of people, but not having an obvious or socially acceptable way to do it. It solves the problem, too, of wanting to share one's own story, but not knowing who would be interested. And it seems way more efficient and immediately gratifying than writing or reading a traditional book.

What do you think?

If you were a human book, what parts of your life might people benefit from knowing about?

If you were to check out a human book, what kinds of experiences would interest you most? 

Would you be interested in helping organize a human library event in your area? If so, please get in touch with me. I would love to talk to you!