Facilitative Aspects of Helping
There are a number of ways in which helping can be facilitative. For people in emotional pain, helping can provide support and relief. For example, Jillian and Jesse went to couples counseling because Jillian had been involved in a sexual relationship with a colleague. Both Jillian and Jesse were extremely hurt and felt angry with each other. Positive changes in their relationship came after months of working on communication skills, receiving assistance in exploring feelings, understanding the factors related to the affair, and learning how to work proactively to improve their relationship. After several sessions, Jillian and Jesse were able to communicate their feelings more openly, grieve the loss of trust in their relationship, and move toward rebuilding their lives as a cohesive and caring couple. They felt that their therapist had been supportive, and they felt relief from the problems for which they sought therapy.
Through the process of helping, clients can also gain insight, such that they come to understand themselves in new ways. For example, in her book about serving as a psychologist in Iraq, Kraft (2007) described the process of therapy working with a soldier who could not walk even though the medical doctors found no physiological reason for this inability (a condition called conversion hysteria). After establishing a good relationship with the soldier, Kraft was able to help the soldier talk about losing a friend who died trying to shield him from danger. Once the soldier gained insight into the reason for his symptom, he was able to walk again. It is interesting to note that many of Freud’s first patients similarly had conversion hysteria and were healed through catharsis and insight.
In addition, helping can assist individuals in dealing with existential concerns (i.e., who am I, where am I going, and what do I want out of life?). As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Helping can promote proactive involvement in life when these questions are asked, reflected on, and answered. For example, Max was referred for helping because of failing grades, poor peer relationships, and generalized sadness. After several sessions, Max began to address critical questions regarding how he might live his life, the fears he often confronts within himself, and the salience of his relationships with others. Helping provided him with an opportunity to look within himself, discover what was important, and then make decisions about how to change his unhealthy behaviors.
Moreover, clients can learn skills needed to live more effectively and reach their potential. These skills may include learning how to communicate with others, practicing ways to resolve conflicts, becoming more assertive, identifying decision-making strategies, studying more effectively, learning to relax, or changing unhealthy habits (e.g., rarely exercising; having unprotected, anonymous sex). Often, these skills can alleviate the powerlessness that individuals feel when they are unable to communicate their emotions directly and can assist clients in engaging more fully in their lives.
Helping can also assist individuals in making decisions about the direction of their lives. The most effective helpers have the ability to assist individuals in determining goals that are consistent with their dreams, values, and abilities. For example, Mai Lin came to counseling because she was uncertain about whether she should move far away from her family and end her relationship with her live-in boyfriend. She described her current situation and asked the helper to tell her what the best path for her would be. After dealing with her anger and frustration at the helper for not providing the answers, Mai Lin was able to explore her unwillingness to take responsibility for the direction of her life and her reluctance to address the questions that plagued her. She contemplated her fear of taking action and of making wrong decisions and connected this with feelings of helplessness she had experienced as a child of a battered woman. Further exploration of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors provided her with the desire to make small decisions (with the support and encouragement of her helper). Soon, Mai Lin was able to progress to more challenging decisions (e.g., ending her romantic relationship, moving across the country alone to explore her
independence and to understand herself better). An additional facilitative aspect of helping involves helpers providing
feedback about how clients appear to others, information that others might hesitate to provide. For example, a client who is having difficulty maintaining relationships may be able to hear (from the helper) that he appears dependent and needy in sessions and may want to examine whether these behaviors are present in other relationships. When phrased in a gentle manner, honest feedback can sometimes be extremely helpful in motivating individuals to change.
Helping also can enable a client to experience a healthy, nondamaging, intimate relationship with another person. Sometimes the helping process involves a corrective relational experience (something like reparenting) in that a caring relationship with a helper alleviates some of the hurtful and unhealthy interactions experienced with important figures early in life. For example, Kondja came to helping because she felt depressed and lacked direction in her life. She believed that her mother did not want her as a child, and she cried when she saw mothers and daughters who were connected and loving with one another. Kondja had been in a series of relationships in which she felt ignored, alone, uncared for, and discounted. During the helping process, Kondja experienced the helper as unconditionally accepting, actively listening, and genuinely caring. The development of a supportive relationship with a helper assisted Kondja in healing past wounds, drinking less alcohol to numb her feelings, and developing healthy relationships in which she valued herself enough to ensure that her needs were met.
Finally, effective helping teaches clients to function on their own. Similar to the way children grow up and leave their parents, clients also need to leave their helpers after engaging in the helping process. Perhaps some of you have tried to teach another person to skate: You hold the person up, and she or he hangs on while making a first attempt at skating. In time, the person begins to skate alone. The steps that the learner makes on his or her own are rewarding not only for the learner but also for you as the teacher. The same is true with helping: Providing the initial support and teaching the skills are most effective when individuals internalize the messages and take off on their own.
Problematic Aspects of Helping
Although helping is usually beneficial, there are a few potentially problematic aspects. Sometimes helping can provide just enough relief to enable people to stay in maladaptive situations or relationships. For example, battered women’s shelters provide needed safety and security to abused women and their children. However, some shelter workers have observed that occasionally they provide just enough assistance to enable women to return to the abusive situation. When the workers in one shelter confronted this “enabling” in themselves and discussed these behaviors with the residents, some of the battered women were able to
identify their pattern of seeking shelter during the abusive periods and returning home in the “honeymoon” period. Without this insight, helping could have enabled some of the women to continue in a potentially deadly cycle.
Another potential problem is that helping can create dependency if clients rely too much on their helpers for support and feel unable to explore feelings or make changes in their lives without assistance from the helper. For example, Kathleen might decline a spontaneous invitation to join her new partner’s family on Cape Cod for a week because her helper is on vacation and unavailable for consultation. Helpers sometimes facilitate dependency by providing clients with “the answers” to their problems (e.g., if her helper told Kathleen not to go to Cape Cod). Effective helpers understand that providing the answers does not typically help clients; rather, most clients need to participate actively in a process whereby they uncover new insights and discover which actions feel best for themselves. This strategy works because only clients fully know the situations, experience the associated feelings, and have the best answers to the presenting problems. In addition, advising others may be problematic when the solution does not fit with what they want or think they need. Many of us have made suggestions to family members or friends about how to handle difficult situations, only to find that our advice was not exactly what they wanted to hear. For example, a helper advised a client to stay away from her boyfriend who broke up with her because he was not good enough for her. Although the client was eager at the time to hear about how rotten the boyfriend was, she resented the helper’s critical words about her sweetheart when they later got back together.
In addition, helpers’ personal issues sometimes place them at risk for encouraging dependency in those they assist. For helpers who are lonely and isolated, their clients’ dependency may fulfill personal needs that are not being met elsewhere. Helpers who have not developed a network of social support and personal relationships may be at special risk of encouraging their clients to rely extensively on them.
Another problematic aspect of helping emerges when helpers unduly impose personal or societal values on their clients (McWhirter, 1994). Although all of us have values that shape who we are, the goal of helping is to encourage clients to explore and choose their own values. Examples of undue influence are when a helping professional attempts to alter the sexual orientation of people who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual (Haldeman, 2002); advises parents to raise their children in a certain religion because the helper believes that problems in families result from children not having a strong religious foundation; or states that women should not work outside the home because they take jobs away from qualified men who have families to raise. These examples all involve the helper attempting to force his or her values on the client.
Values can also be imposed at a more subtle level. In an investigation of Carl Rogers providing therapy, Truax (1966) found that in fact Rogers was more reinforcing of some client behaviors than others. For example, Rogers responded with more empathy and warmth when the client expressed insight, but with less
empathy and warmth when the client was ambiguous. In other words, even Rogers, who worked hard to be accepting and empathic, demonstrated that he valued certain client behaviors over others. These results show that it is difficult to leave our biases behind.
It can also be problematic when helpers work outside their areas of competence (e.g., working with someone who has substance abuse but not having knowledge about that area). Similarly, helpers sometimes try to force clients to explore difficult topics, such as sexual abuse, without making sure that clients feel safe and have the necessary emotional regulation skills to explore such topics. Finally, it can be difficult when helpers are paired with clients with whom they do not “click.” As in friendships, one needs to have a certain “clicking” with one’s helper to feel comfortable enough to talk about one’s problems. Without that matching, clients can become discouraged and actually feel more distressed because they might feel that no one can understand and help them.