Helping Someone Help Themself

Let’s just get this out of the way – the world would be a much better place if everyone took my advice. Trust me on this.

Okay, perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration, but seriously, I give pretty good advice. When people ask for it and they follow it, things tend to work out well. When they ask for it and do the exact opposite, not so much. I realize I am very, very lucky in a number of different ways– my husband and I have awesome communication and therefore a truly happy union, I get along freakishly well with my family and avoid the members that I have issues with, and I have a steady, good paying job with people I like. This means that I often can’t put myself in the shoes of someone who is having serious problems in these areas, but I try to be as empathetic as possible and impart any wisdom I have gleaned from my previous (fucking awful) relationships that may help with theirs. When people ask for advice, my, and I think most people’s, instinct is to give it. We all want to protect the people we care about from hurt, pain, wasted time, or inevitable heartbreak. We want them to be able to learn from our mistakes. Unfortunately, almost 100% of the time, they can’t. So what is one to do?

black and white vintage photo of a woman with shorter, curled hair with her fingers in her ears and her faces scrunched up with her mouth open
Not listening!! Not LISTENING!!!

I have mentioned that I recently completed a rigorous training course to become an advocate for sexual assault and domestic violence victims. This training was intense, horrifying, and at times, almost too much to bear. I find myself looking more closely at people on the street, knowing that there are people walking among me that are inflicting violence on those closest to them in unimaginable ways. The training did much more than increase my suspicion, though. It forced me to take a hard look at myself, my preconceived ideas of problem solving, and my supposedly enlightened and privilege-acknowledging self. Most importantly, I had to unlearn how to give advice, or rather, to not give advice at all.

“What?” you may be asking yourself. Why go through the training on how to deal with these situations if not to help the people going through them? That’s the thing– the advice I would give doesn’t matter. What I would do in their situation doesn’t matter, because I am not in their situation. No amount of explanation can ever actually put me in the head space that an individual in crisis is in, so at the end of the day, my opinion doesn’t matter. So what do I do for our clients? What is my purpose, if not to help them? Ahhhh, there it is. I am there to help them, by providing the resources available and helping them come to their own decisions. I’m meeting them where they are and going forward from there.

This is the main focus of our advocacy –  meeting people where they are. Not physically, although we do that as well, but emotionally. Wherever they are, whether they are trying to leave their abuser for the first time or the tenth. We are there to help them navigate the emotional turmoil, the mountains of paperwork, and the consuming stress they are under by meeting them where they are and taking that journey with them. Holding their hands, but never pulling them in any one direction. Their decisions are not my decisions to make. They are theirs. They will never have ownership of their choices if they go from one person controlling all their decisions to an advocate making new ones for them. Even if it seems like they would like advice, even if they ask for advice, it is not my place to give it, because then it is my decision, not theirs.

This is incredibly difficult, I’m not going to lie. It is counter-intuitive to not provide advice when you are asked for it directly. On the other hand, how many times have you been frustrated when someone has asked you for advice, you provided well thought out arguments and steps to remedy their problem, and they ignored you and did what they wanted and everything went to shit? My husband was on the phone with a friend who is going through some pretty gnarly business right now, and I heard pieces of his side of the conversation over the course of their call. When he hung up, he asked me if I thought the advice he had provided sounded good. I asked him if he had ever asked his friend what he wanted to do. He admitted that he had not, but that his friend had asked for advice, so he gave it. I asked him if he thought the friend would follow through with any advice before he was actually ready to do so. He admitted that he didn’t think so.

This idea clearly extends far beyond advocacy. It has made me rethink so many discussions I have had over the years, and my complete lack of meeting the person where they were, as opposed to where I thought they should be or where I could get them to with the sheer force of my will and my words. It has helped me to understand why people have so often ignored exceptionally good advice. It has helped me increase my empathy towards others because it forces me to look beyond my own bullshit and focus on their situation. It has shown me that the only way to help someone else, truly, and in a lasting way, is to listen, offer resources, and just be there as they figure out and own their own choices. To meet them wherever they are.

4 thoughts on “Helping Someone Help Themself”

  1. So interesting- it is easier to tell someone what to do, isn’t it? But you’re right, it’s harder to meet someone where they are, harder to walk in their shoes, harder to look at a situation for what it is rather than what you want to see.

    I think just realizing this, and saying it (writing) it out loud is only going to make you a better advocate for those who need it most!

  2. It seems to be very rare that people ask for advice because they want it; most of the time they’re looking for validation/reassurance for whatever they want to do. I think that one of the key things to remember in advice is that the ‘where they are’ point for a lot of people is in (subconscious) self-sabotage. A lot of people are stuck in a phase of ‘hope’ where they do things based on what they hope the outcome will be, while ignoring facts (aka denial). There’s also the ‘know’ phase, where someone’s actions/inactions are based off of their ‘knowing’ that the outcome of trying something will be bad/fine/whatever, versus having an open mind to all of the variable outcomes. People always have anecdata as to why such approaches are okay; ‘but [someone else] just went with their gut/followed their dream/ignored the naysayers, so therefore that’ll work for me too in this situation.’ Faulty logic. Some people are so afraid of failing that they would rather do anything to not legitimately try, thus having an excuse for the failure. I do still give advice to some people when they ask for it, but there are more situations where I won’t – not because I don’t care, but, like you’ve pointed out, because they’re not at a place mentally where it could be beneficial. It seems to me to be more helpful to try and get them past that phase first and foremost.

  3. Such an important skill, and I am certain that your clients will be so fortunate to have YOU meeting them and helping them navigate the myriad of speed bumps and obstacles on their road from being an abused person to a self-nurturing person. And my advice? Remember to take care of yourself, this work is so important and so intense!!!! Find ways to replenish your reservoir!

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