Why I Try Not to Help

How important are the words we use? If our intentions are good, does the accuracy of our words truly matter? I used to think so when I was in University and early into my adult life. However, due to some raised eyebrows when I brought it up and possibly sheer laziness on my part, I went back to being a bit more wishy-washy about the whole matter.

I remember a lecture on this topic in one of my Master’s-level Women Studies Classes. The professor waxed poetic about how the repeated use of specific words create and concretize our perception of the world. She spoke of women (bear with me here with the gender “stereotypicalization” but this was over twenty years ago) who thanked their husbands for helping with the dishes or with child-rearing tasks. She explained that it was detrimental for either partner to offer thanks to the other for participating in non-stereotypical tasks. Not only did it reinforce the traditionally-gendered roles for that couple but it also transmitted important information to their children that mom is responsible for certain tasks and is grateful when dad does something he didn’t have to do and vice-versa. It made total sense to me. I’ve even seen articles written about this subject in magazines and in lifestyle newspaper articles more recently.

My husband and I are raising two daughters so I’ve tried to be careful about gender stereotypes, especially when our girls were younger. I want to normalize an equal partnership in our household so they will expect it in theirs when they’re older. I don’t want them to suffer from this Wonder Woman complex and feel like they need to do it all. I’ve come to realize over time though that my husband is much more motivated to accomplish tasks when he gets what we refer to as “hero cookies”. I tried in the past to explain that dishes, cooking, cleaning, whatever it is that needs doing is a joint responsibility and even a team effort now that our girls are old enough to do their part. Sadly, that usually leads to a heated discussion around what my husband and girls feel actually “needs” doing. Their standards and mine, when it comes to housekeeping, are quite different. So, after many failed attempts, I have gone back to what I know works which is to link the kids’ chores to a monthly allowance and to praise my husband when he dries the dishes or vacuums. My hard-core feminist self of the 1990s shudders.

More recently though, I was invited to explore this concept of “helping” again when I started my journey to become a coach. The Integral Coaching method is beautifully crafted in a way that the coach meets the client where they are; with their perceptions of the world; with their challenges; and with their skills and abilities. I’ll readily admit that I didn’t truly understand the distinctions between being a mentor, trainer and coach until I was smack dab in the middle of my training. The method requires the coach to see, listen to and feel the client but also to see, listen to and feel the world through the eyes of the client.

In an article by Joanne Hunt, co-founder of the Integral Coaching method, titled “Coach? Mentor? Leader? Manager?”, Ms. Hunt explores the differences between these roles in terms of relationships, desired outcomes and interventions used. To coach is to focus on building new competencies needed to reach a specific goal so that change can occur and be sustained. Coaching is not about teaching from a place of higher knowledge but to walk alongside the client in capacity building. How can you coach someone; walk alongside them in their journey if you feel like you know better? If you feel like you can “help”? Spoiler alert: you can’t.

Rachel Naomi Remen’s article titled “Helping, Fixing or Serving?” sheds more light on this concept of helping. Ms. Remen states:

Serving is different from helping. Helping is not a relationship between equals. A helper may see others as weaker than they are, needier than they are, and people often feel this inequality. The danger in helping is that we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity or even wholeness.

You might wonder if I’m splitting hairs here. After all, aren’t we encouraged from an early age to help others when we can? If we have skills to share and are well-intentioned rather than feeling high and mighty, isn’t it better to help? Isn’t this just a question of semantics, Julie? Well, yes and no. Mostly no. Definitely not. Sometimes what we provide as “help” is unwanted, not useful and possibly harmful - despite our intentions.

Let me give you another example. One of my all-time favourite books is The Yamas and Niyamas by Deborah Adele’s. I was introduced to it when I began my Yoga Teacher Training. I devoured it - twice - during my training. It’s based on yoga philosophy and provides guidelines for living a meaningful life. It’s one of those jewels of a book that if I had to highlight all the important bits, the thing would glow in the dark. It is completely impossible to read it once, implement everything and carry on. Each time I open it, I have another aha moment.

So, as a Mom wanting to set up her kids to be happy, well-rounded citizens, I decided that I would suggest that my daughters read it. There are so many lessons in that book about self-compassion, courage, balance, confidence, etc. We were in a lockdown after all. It’s not like they were getting together with friends or rushing off to activities. Heck, we could even make it a family project and read one chapter a week and discuss. That sounds like fun, no? Apparently not. Definitely not. My husband agreed (he knows better). My kids though put up such a fuss saying that this “yoga-stuff” was my thing, not theirs and that they didn’t want more homework. In fact, when I mentioned it, my older daughter (somewhat) respectfully disagreed and stomped up to her room. Huh. To say that didn’t go as planned is an understatement.

I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I dragged this out for a couple weeks. I was so adamant that everyone would love this book and would benefit SO MUCH that it became a standing point during our weekly family check-in on Sunday evenings. After all, I would have loved to embody self-compassion, have greater self-esteem and know how to establish boundaries when I was their age. Nevertheless, after a few clashes between my disappointment and my kids’ frustration, I decided to let it go. I decided I would read it all by myself and better myself all by myself. So there!

Lo and behold, by page 32 of the book, I found myself exploring the concept of “helping” - again. The very first Yama is nonviolence and there it was, under a section titled: “violence to others” that Adele states “Thinking we know what is better for others becomes a subtle way we do violence. When we take it upon ourselves to “help” the other we whittle away at their sense of autonomy. Nonviolence asks us to trust the other’s ability to find the answer they are seeking.” Now I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t teach their kids lessons but I realized that perhaps there is merit in waiting for the opportunities to present themselves. I was asking my kids to be open to an experience for which they weren’t ready.

This is a difficult lesson for any parent. How difficult is it to watch your child or someone you care about struggle or not see what you clearly see? The impulse to “help” is strong. When it involves changing a habit or perspective though, one can more easily understand that no amount of telling someone else they are wonderful is going to make them feel it and believe it. That lesson needs to be made real - in a way that the person feels and understands - so that they can embody it for themselves. Adele sums it up beautifully here:

Handling challenges gives each of us a sense of skill, self-esteem, and accomplishment. When we try to fix or save someone else, we are keeping them from getting the learning the situation has for them. …when we try to take someone out of their challenge or suffering, we take them out of the environment that offers them a rich learning experience. We are in a sense, cutting them off from the power of growing stronger, more competent, and more compassionate.”

My university days of critical thinking, my parenting views, my yoga teachings and my learning of the coaching method collided and I have now come to understand where I want to stand in relation to others. I believe we all have skills and abilities to share. We all have past experiences from which we’ve learned that can be shared. However, if the other person is not ready to receive the information; to test it out; to weigh its benefits in their own life; to accept it; and to finally embody it; then the information, regardless of how valuable, will simply go in one ear and out the other. I used to think I wanted to become a coach because I wanted to help people. Now I realize that I want to be a coach so that I may be of service to others.

So, where does that leave me now? I’m grateful. I am grateful that I have daughters who are able to stand up to their mom and express themselves, their wants and their needs. Sure, a bit less stomping might be nice but I now understand that I wasn’t really doing them any favours by pushing my lessons onto them.

I am also back to censoring my use of both the word “help” and my perspective around how I can walk alongside others when our journeys meet. I’m learning to pause and honour silence rather than trying to fill it with unsolicited advice. My journey as a coach is just beginning and I already know it will be one that makes me a better wife, mom, daughter and person.