Accompanying is a sign of generosity, but drowning in the pain of others is lack of perspective. Helping others solve their problems is a sign of compassion, but carrying their problems on our shoulders is unproductive. Experiencing the emotions of others is a sign of empathy, letting these overflow us is useless.
There is a very subtle limit between useful help and excessive involvement that ends up being harmful to everyone. Knowing that limit – and not crossing it – will allow us to help more and better, because we will preserve our mental balance and the emotional one while giving the other person the opportunity to grow and learn from the experience.
When to help does not help
“Give a man a fish and you will give him food for one day, teach him to fish and you will feed him for the rest of his life”, says a Chinese proverb. Giving a fish, in the metaphorical sense, implies solving a specific problem, but thus we do not contribute to eradicate the circumstances and/or errors that caused that problem.
If the person does not work on the attitudes, beliefs or ways of thinking that contributed to the problem, it is likely that it will reappear, with more force. This creates a vicious circle in which the one who solves the problems is “forced” to carry more and more weight and the one who generates them releases more and more of their responsibilities.
When we become “problem solvers” and take charge others’ responsabilities, it is likely that sooner or later we will end up crushed under their weight. If we are not able to develop an empathic concern, which implies the ability to understand and experience the emotional states of the others, show genuine concern and be able to help them without compromising our mental balance, we will end up suffering from Hyper Empathy Syndrome.
That means that we will be infected by the emotions of the person we intend to help, plunging into his own frustration, anger or sadness. In turn, we will carry with us his same concerns, which will generate us a great distress. In that state nobody wins. Because our lack of perspective to look beyond the current consequences of the problem, to get out of the situation and seek assertive solutions, condemns both to a state of misery and joint suffering in which the “savior” ends up needing to be saved.
Helping is not “solving” but “accompanying”
Too often we forget that helping is not synonymous with solving, but rather accompanying and supporting. It is not a mere pun. The meaning you attribute to the word help will determine your attitude and influence the results you get.
There is no doubt that it is difficult to see a close person struggling to solve a problem or even making “bad” decisions. It is natural that we want to help him. We want to make his life easier. We want to solve his problems and save his suffering. All that seems like a good idea. Except when it isn’t.
Because helping does not imply solving. It is not carrying the problems of others on our shoulders. Nor take away their responsibilities. Or save them the path they must travel to grow as people.
To help is to accompany them along that path to support them when necessary. It is to support them in their decisions, even if we do not share them. It is to help them broaden their perspective when they don’t find a solution. It is listening to them without criticizing. It is working with them to develop their own coping tools. And sometimes, helping is also stand aside.