Why Helping is Not Appropriate

My definitions and usage of various terms in the following essay (e.g. “waking up,” “leap-frogging,” “The Force”) are found in the initial essays in this blog collection. See the entries posted as Front Matter and Introduction, Waking Up and Leap-Frogging.



Why “Helping” Is Not Appropriate


            There’s an old adage that expresses succinctly the content of this essay: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The first act—giving a fish—is what I mean by “helping.” The second is quite different. It will require more time and effort in the short run, but it will be more beneficial in the long run. Rather than “helping” it might be termed “supporting” or equipping. People who are at the point of choosing the leap-frog option need our support, not our help. To understand this, we need to be quite clear on the difference between “help” and “support.”

The Definition of Help

            Helping is an act that does it for the person we are helping. It takes over and fills the need the person has, without thinking of the wider implications. It has been called “playing God,” because it operates from the conviction that we know what the person needs, or ought to do or be. In certain emergency situations—in the aftermath of earthquakes, fires, floods and other natural or personal disasters—this form of aid is necessary, for those needing aid are so traumatized or overwhelmed that they are in no position to do it for themselves. In other, non-emergency situations, helping should be avoided. Why?

            Because “helping” operates with a whole set of assumptions (most of which are quite unconscious). These include :

·      the belief that the persons we seek to help can’t do it

·      the belief that they aren’t qualified

·      the belief that they can’t learn or that it would take too long and involve too much trouble to teach them

·      the belief that they don’t have what it takes, in terms of resources (like money) or that they can’t afford (in financial or temporal terms) what will be required

·      the belief that they don’t understand

·      the belief that they aren’t reliable, trustworthy, a good “credit risk” etc.

            This list is not exhaustive: there are a lot more such assumptions floating around in the thinking of “helpers,” but this list will give you a feel for the mind-set. This mind-set is closely linked to the historical relationship between the colonial Western powers and non-Western native peoples. In this schema, the “helpers” hold Western values, operate with a Western sense of time, work with Western technologies (many of which are not appropriate to non-Western venues), and lack an appreciation for the essentials of life (like time, space and patience) and for non-Western values.

            “Helpers,” in other words, often mean well and are sincere in their desire to improve the lives of those that seem less fortunate, but they intervene with an unconscious sense of superiority, from a viewpoint that is chauvinistic, imperialistic, racist and sexist (i.e. Western). This stance and its beliefs and assumptions are disempowering. The people to be helped are regarded essentially as powerless. This is not an approach, or a set of beliefs, that we want to support.

            There is another interpretation that can be made about people who are eager to help others. It is well known among the psychologically savvy that those who are compulsively focused on helping others are most of the time projecting their own “stuff,” and are using their supposed charitable impulses as a clever (and totally unconscious) way to avoid doing their inner work, while getting other people to think well of them (for all their philanthropic gestures). A true story will illustrate this form of “do-good ego trip.” A few years ago, in my practice, a complete stranger called and asked to meet with me to get some advice. Apparently he had heard of me from one of my clients, since I never advertise. A few minutes into our meeting, it was clear that the man was not interested in working with me, but rather wanted a set of rules or guidelines that would make him more effective in his work with other people. I was mystified: It was clear that this fellow fancied himself something of a counselor, but he had no training, no personal experience of analysis, and no history of working with his own dreams. He assured me, in fact, that he never remembered his dreams. But he made it clear that he was very much into helping others (i.e. he had quite a lot of ego investment in his role of “helper”), and he described at length all the people in his circle of contacts that he was helping through their marital problems, illnesses, family troubles, etc. As I listened to all this, I grew more and more aware of acute discomfort in my body—a feeling reaction that I had come to recognize, through years of practice, as a sign of something amiss. It was only in the very last minutes of our meeting that it became clear what was going on. As the man put on his coat, he mentioned in passing, in a very casual way, that his son was in jail for drug use, his wife had left him, and he had a brain tumor. Recognizing that this man would probably never hear the truth from any other source, I asked him if it had occurred to him that, rather than focusing his attention out, to “helping” others, it might be more useful to look within, and get his own house in order before tending to other people. I suggested the possibility that he was using others’ problems as a diversion to keep him from facing his own. That is, I was holding up his projections so he could see them. He assured me that everything was fine in his life (at which point I reminded myself inwardly of the old saw that “denial is not a river in Egypt”). Then he quickly left. I knew I would never see him again. He was one example of what I mean by a “helper”—a person who has to do for others out of some unconscious impulse that serves his own need more than being “clean” assistance for another person.

The Key Difference between “Help” and “Support”

            The single most important distinction between “helpers” and “supporters” is the attitude they have about people. “Supporters” believe in the equality of all people, regardless of where they live, what they have, what they know, or who they are. “Helpers” operate from an unconscious impulse or from the sense that they are superior because of their background (Western, “civilized”), their wealth, their education, their “connections” with those in power, etc. “Supporters” recognize that we are all equal, regardless of the outer-life circumstances that might seem to make people different from each other.

            Because of the global dominance Western civilization has had for centuries, there is a deeply ingrained tendency that white, Westernized people have to think of their ways, their systems, their ideals etc. as superior. So, for nearly all white, Westernized people who aspire to assist or aid non-Western peoples, a basic metanoia, or transformation of mind, is necessary, in order to believe sincerely in the fundamental equality of all people. For most of us, this metanoia is not something that comes easily: It entails suffering. It is usually a part of the process of “waking up” and becoming conscious of our “stuff.” The more “awake” we are, the more readily do we recognize the equality of all human beings.

            Thanks to this belief in basic equality, “supporters” are able to be compassionate. That is, they are able to identify with the person in need, and to share his/her suffering, because they have taken up the task of facing and working through their own suffering, and they recognize that “the suffering of injustice unites us all.” With this empathic compassion, they can recognize that what is needed is not a hand out, but a hand up—not “help” but “support.”

The Definition of Support

            When we “support” another, we consciously refrain from doing it for them, because we see them as equal to whatever challenge they face. We respect persons in need as individuals with:

·      innate resourcefulness

·      a unique cluster of talents and interests

·      personal motivations and aspirations

·      a set of opportunities (which mask as “problems”) they have chosen to take on so as to foster their growth and learning

·      an inner timetable that must be respected, as part of respecting their individuality

·      the same amount of power as any other human being.

Those we hope to aid, in other words, have just as much need for independence, control and a sense of their personal power as we have.

            “Supporters” also understand the close tie between empowerment and challenge. Most of us need to be challenged before we move into our power. This is the psychological equivalent of the “strength training” of the athlete on the physical level. We get strong in will and mind and faith only by working our mental, emotional and spiritual “muscles” via the challenges we choose to take up. We grow and develop our courage, daring, gumption, stamina, tenacity and commitment by facing and dealing with the opportunities (especially the difficult ones we see as “problems”) that come our way in life.

            For all of us, there are times when we need encouragement, and this encouragement is what I mean by “support.” It may take the form of words, as in the role of cheerleaders on the sidelines of a big game, or as advice or guidance from one more experienced or knowledgeable. It can also be emotional (i.e. empathy), material (e.g. seed money), mental (an idea, suggestion or insight), a combination of all of these (e.g. as in a training course or some social service program), or something more intangible (e.g. serving as a role model or mentor for another). Whatever the form, this encouragement is rooted in the belief that we’re all together in this endeavor we call “life,” and we all have what it takes to make a go of it.

            “Support” empowers others. It operates from an attitude of equality, unity and love. Because of this attitude, it respects those to whom it offers support. And its net effect is to realize personal potential and to foster the fulfillment of individual promise.

Distinguishing Supporting from Helping

            There are several questions you can pose to yourself to get clear within about whether your intentions and actions are “helping” or “supporting.” These questions center around honoring the divinity of the other person, and honoring your own divinity.[1] For the former, ask yourself if your actions will serve to give the other person more independence. Will what you do assist the other person to recognize his/her own talents, capabilities and power? Would your action provide only temporary improvement, put you in a position of authority over the other person, or promote dependency in any way? If you can answer the first two questions with a “yes” and the last with a “no,” your intended action is supportive rather than “helpful” (as I am defining “helping”).

            With regard to the latter concern—honoring your own divinity—ask yourself if your actions will serve to benefit all concerned, for the highest good of all. Will your activity support your own life mission and serve your own divine purpose? If not–if what you propose will in some way sacrifice your own welfare, or pose blocks to your own growth and development—it is not “support,” but another form of ego trip designed to keep you in your own “stuff” (as the earlier example of the man who came to me illustrates).

            Notice, in this dual concern for honoring the divinity of self and other, the distinction between selflessness and selfishness. Selfishness comes out of ego, and can show up as either neglect of others, or neglect of one’s own true purpose. It is not only just thinking about oneself. Western culture is very confused about this. True selflessness operates from your divine core (what the Jungians call the “Self”) and manifests as spirit-based motives, thoughts and actions. Giving to others without regard for your own needs and individuality is a form of abuse and selfishness. Selflessness will not betray the divinity in either you or another person.

Waking Up in the Context of Supporting

            If you are interested in fostering your “wake up” process in the context of supporting, reflect on questions like the following in your meditations:

Can I recall times or instances when I sought to help others? Did I try to give them a hand up, or a hand out?

Do I often try to help others? Is it a prominent feature of my life? Is there something about it that has a driven quality, like it’s something I have to do?

What is my own life like: does it work? Do I have lots of areas of life that are full of problems (e.g. marriage, connections to family and friends, trouble with children, difficulties with my job)?  Are these problems trying to tell me something about myself?

Is there any pattern to my interactions with others? Do I feel (unconsciously) that I have to earn the right to exist, by constantly helping others in one way or another? Am I equally comfortable receiving support from others as I am in giving it?

Do I attract to me people that have lots of problems in their lives? Do I have people in my life that I trust enough to share problems and needs with them?

Do I equate being supported by others with weakness? When I give assistance to others, do I feel superior in some way?

How might I take the insights from these questions to a deeper level?


For Further Reading

Fox, Matthew (1988), The Coming of the Cosmic Christ. New York: Harper & Row.

Gaskin, Stephen (1987), “International Aid,” People and Planet, ed. Tom Woodhouse. Bideford UK: Green Books.

Harman, Willis & Maya Porter eds. (1997), The New Business of Business: Sharing Responsibility for a Positive Global Future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Kohr, Leopold (1987), “Over Development,” People and Planet, ed. Tom Woodhouse. Bideford UK: Green Books.

Kothari, Rajni (1987), “Grassroots Development,” People and Planet, ed. Tom Woodhouse. Bideford UK: Green Books.

Max-Neef, Manfred (1987), “Barefoot Economics,” People and Planet,  ed. Tom Woodhouse. Bideford UK: Green Books.

McArthur, Bruce (1993), Your Life: Why It Is the Way It Is and What You Can Do About It. Virginia Beach: A.R.E. Press.

McLaughlin, Corinne & Gordon Davidson (1994), Spiritual Politics: Changing the World From the Inside Out. New York: Ballantine Books.

Sandholt, Leif (1987), “Western Affluence and Third World Poverty,” People and Planet, ed. Tom Woodhouse.  Bideford UK: Green Books.

Schumacher, E.F. (1973), Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. New York: Harper & Row.

Sunray, Paula (1999), Life Skills for the New Millennium. Jackson TN: Petals of Life.

Welter, Paul (1978), How to Help a Friend. Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers.


[1] McArthur (1993) draws on Edgar Cayce’s teachings to clarify the whole issue of honoring your own and others’ divinity in the context of “helping;” see especially pp. 151-154.