How To Help Those Suffering Around Us
This is a massive topic, especially in the realm of health and wellness: how can we help those suffering around us? We’re all here to help others, and indeed the “hero’s journey” (in which we take the lessons we have learnt from overcoming our own struggles, and pass them onto others) is one of the threads that connects us humans to our life’s purpose. But at what point do our good intentions cross the line from benevolent servant to a tyrant dictator? How can we help those around us without doing more harm than good? Here’s my take on it.
How To Help Those Suffering Around Us
Everyone is entitled to their own Path
We don’t know what lesson the person we are trying to help is actually learning. The achievement of a greater degree of health is a lesson many people are currently learning, and is being pushed culturally big time. After someone starts to see results from their new diet or training regimen we are quick to turn around and begin to shove dogma down the throats of everyone around us. I’ve definitely been there and guilty of this, and although it came from a place of love- it was still irresponsible and unthoughtful of me. Health is important to me, and the better I felt (after ditching things like tap water, alcohol, caffeine, processed foods, etc) the more I wanted people I love to feel the same. But shoving dogma down the throats of others is disempowering, and fails to truly empower people (more on this later).
Listen First, Speak Second
If your purpose is to help, you better learn to listen. Truly helping another requires taking yourself out of the equation and differentiating between what it is YOU need and what is it that THEY need. Too often we embark on these “salvation” projects because we want to mitigate our own suffering, not actually help the other. Instead of wanting the other person to become healthier for their own sake, quite often we want them to get healthier so that we can feel that they will be around longer (for our own benefit). By imposing our own path on another, we think that we know what’s best, but this is often not actually the case.
You have to realize too that although we have biological ages, everyone’s consciousness develops at their own pace. If you ask a child what the answer to a long division question is, and they reply “APPLE” and laugh, you will laugh right along with them, having no expectations for a child to understand complicated math. We need to start seeing all problems in life with this same lens: just because you have figured something out, doesn’t mean it’s an appropriate solution for someone else’s life, given their current state of consciousness.
A key concept in early childhood development is child-led learning. In reproductive health, for example, there is often a lot of confusion as to what type of information is appropriate for what age (anything related to sex, pregnancy, menstruation, etc). The solution to this problem is incredibly simple: answer their questions honestly, and without too much detail. If they continue to ask for more details, give them more information. Never push information onto a child, more than they ask for naturally.
This same type of curiosity-led learning should be our go-to model when it comes to helping other people, of any age. Did this person ask for help? If so, give them simple, straightforward answers. If they continue to ask for more details, offer them, insofar as you can answer honestly. If the subject ever enters a realm in which you are no longer familiar: be honest! If your child was asking you in depth questions about hormonal fluctuations as the female body cycles throughout the month, and you didn’t know: you would say so, and refer him or her onto someone with more wisdom. Here too, if you are in over your head, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”. But the more important part of this paragraph’s point is: don’t force your opinion onto other people. Let them lead the inquisition.
Ideology is like a penis,
It’s OK to have one,
It’s OK to be proud of it,
But don’t shove it down people’s throat.
The difference between a benevolent servant and a tyrant dictator is the willingness for the “other” to participate in the exchange. Be honest with yourself: to what degree does the other want to change (vs. you wanting them to change).
This concept isn’t new, and is essentially the foundation of Buddhism: transforming your life according to to your own individual insights. I remember hearing a story about someone coming to the Buddha for help, and the Buddha actually turning the man away seven times before giving him the answer he was looking for. When the man asked the Buddha why he wouldn’t just give him the answer the first time around, Buddha replied that he wanted to make sure the man way thirsty for change (I’m definitely paraphrasing). But the concept remains: the struggle is a part of true and sustained transformation. The more time you spend “figuring it out,” the sweeter the reward. If an answer is shoved down your throat, not only does this concept lose its appeal, but it is often rejected all together.
power is everything
To walk the path for another is disempowering them: power is everything. Being empowered does not for one second mean we will always make the best choice, but it is the right choice for us, in that moment. Without our mistakes, we have no context, no map in which to navigate our moral compass.
Living in your power means making decisions for yourself, even if it means taking the scenic route, even if it means having to do a handful of U-turns, even if it means blowing out a few tires along the way. It means being in the driver’s seat of your own life, and although road trips are more fun with friends (in my opinion), some people need to take certain journey’s by themselves. If someone stops and asks for help, that’s their prerogative, but it’s up to them to ask- not up to you or me to flag down a car to tell them where they should be driving. There are so many different destinations in life, and really the biggest gift you can give another person is honouring them as the star of their movie, as the driver of their car, as the self-determining and sovereign being in their own life. You are the lead actor in your own life, but remember: you are but a supporting actor in everyone else’s.
Reframe The Situation
Two common questions drive us to want to help someone who is suffering. By reframing these questions, you are able not only to truly be of service to others, but also fuel your own personal transformation.
Question 1: Helping Others Grow
Instead of thinking: “This person is suffering, here’s what they need to do.”
Try thinking: “This person if suffering, how can I be of service to them?”
So often we project our own wants and needs onto the other person, without addressing what it is this individual is facing, wants, or needs. We think that because we have certain priorities that this person ought to or does have the same priorities. Health is a major ideology that once people start to value it, they begin trying to get everyone else on board. Health is a value, and it is definitely some people’s goal- but it is not the ultimate pinnacle of the human experience, nor is every single person ready to embark on the same journey at the same time.
One major impediment of health goals is trauma. Let’s say you’ve started a new training program or a new diet, and are having lots of success with it. First of all, our needs are so bio-individual that your keto diet might actually cause more harm than good to your friend or spouse; but more than that, they may not be ready to integrate a new health-orientated habit because they are still stuck in self-sabotage mode due to a childhood trauma (for example). You may think you’re helping them by forcing your keto ways down their throat, when in reality what this person needs is to feel safe enough in the world to actually find the drive to want to be healthy. What this person may benefit from if your unconditional acceptance and to love them as they are.
The best thing you can do is remove your own wants from the situation, and actually listen to what it is this person needs. It may be miles away from where you currently stand, but it’s about what they need- not what you need. Take yourself out of the equation.
Another way our needs often end up squashing the other person, is when we come to help with the intention of saving the person not for their own sake, but because we need them in our life. We fail to acknowledge that this person is entitled to their own path because we want them to be safe, healthy, and happy so that WE can feel safe/ healthy, and happy. This is dangerous because we start to give advice not for the person’s sake, but for our own- and we begin projecting our own beliefs onto them, instead of simply being a pillar of support. Are you more concerned helping this person for their own sake, or are you more concerned with stopping their suffering so that YOU can stop your own pain (by seeing them suffer). Remove yourself from the equation, and be of service….less talking, more listening.
If someone doesn’t want your help, it’s not complicated: don’t give it to them. Figuring out if someone wants or needs your help isn’t difficult either. Ideally- they will ask you for help. Some people aren’t used to asking for help in which case you should totally reach out and let someone know you’re willing to be of service to them… but if the help isn’t wanted: back the hell off, and simply find it in your heart to love unconditionally.
Question 2: personal transformation (when someone doesn’t want to change)
Instead of thinking: “I was put here to help this person, how can I help them?”
Try thinking: “This person was put here to help ME grow, how can I learn from this?”
This is a useful perspective when it comes to reframing a situation in which someone who is suffering does not want help, or to grow/ change. Don’t get me wrong, this ain’t easy. Seeing people we love suffer is one of life’s biggest challenges; but in times like this, it’s time to flip the question around and ask yourself how you can grow from this situation.
What this looks like in application varies wildly, and can range from a lesson in cultivating unconditional love and compassion, to a lesson in setting boundaries. If this person is harming you and your health/ happiness, or putting you in danger: this is where your lesson is one in setting boundaries. Sometimes it’s necessary to cut out “toxic” people from your life, so that you can continue on flourishing. If this person isn’t harming you directly: now is the time to cultivate the gift of unconditional love. Many people probably like to think they love their friends, family, parents, children, or partner unconditionally- but in reality the majority of love I see expressed is full of conditions. People ought to behave the way we think they should, otherwise we take a little bit of our love away from them. This expressed itself in many ways, one of which is us trying to “change” people who don’t want to change.
Remember: you don’t know what internal struggle this person is facing, nor why they are facing it. Most of the time it seems they themselves don’t really understand why they are struggling. Honour their path by doing all you can do: accepting what is out of your control (ie. the life of another) and controlling what you can (i.e your own life/ being the best version of yourself you can be).
The Power of Self-Work
When you work on yourself, the benefits ripple into the lives of every single person you come into contact with. This is like some cosmic gift that I can’t even really put into words, but Gandhi knew what was what when he said, “be the change you want to see in the world”. Positive change is magnetic, and by simply elevating your own vibration you will inspire those around you in ways you never thought imaginable.
We are so quick to point the finger at another who should be “better,” but all things in life either contribute to order or chaos, and so next time you’re inclined to tell someone else off- take a good hard look in the mirror… because nobody is perfect. An extreme example but is exactly my point, is the example of debt. It’s so easy to say that banks are evil, and that the way loans (especially student and subprime mortgage and car loans in the U.S.) are structured are destroying the lives… but what about all the emotional debts (grudges) we hold on people? When we set expectations for people and they fail to live up to our standards, we often hold a grudge. This is a form of emotional debt we hold over people (who owe us an apology, etc), and this conceptually is no different than the broken debt-system in the United States. As above, so below: we need to address our own inner demons before we can ever point the finger at anyone else (people or systems) for their failures or inadequacies.
Your expectations water the seeds of reality
People often rise up to meet the expectations you set for them in your mind. As your mind becomes rigid, and your expectation of the “other” becomes solidified, you actually perpetuate the problem. Examples of this are the beliefs we set like “he is an alcoholic” or “her room is always messy” or “ he is always late” or “she doesn’t care about me” or “he is addicted to smoking” or “she will never get a job” (and the list goes on, and on, and on). As soon as you have decided in your subconscious that this person is one with their problem, you actually fuel this reality. This has been demonstrated in studies where the simple belief that a teacher held that their students GPAs would raise, meant that it did.
I cannot for the life of me find the details of the study I’m about to tell you about, but I believe I heard it discussed on Duncan Trussell’s podcast. Anyways the study can be replicated by you at home, so listen to the story and then experience it for yourself…
A psychologist decided to put this self-fulfilling prophecy theory to the test with his own wife, and decided to think negative thoughts about her anytime she came up in his mind throughout his day while at work. For example, he would dwell on the annoying aspects of her character, and think “she’s useless”. The very same day and for every consequent day he continued the negative thought experiment, he would arrive home in the evening to a frustrated wife, who was either in a bad mood, already angry at him for something, etc. Although he came home in good spirits, always greeting her with kindness, he found without fail that had he spent the day thinking of her negatively, she was there every evening greeting him with animosity.
He then did a 180 and thought positively about her all day for one week; thinking of all her beauty and positive attributes anytime she came to mind. He sent her love in his mind’s eye throughout the day, and when he arrived home at night from work he was greeted at the door in adoration, dinner was cooked, she was in a wonderful mood. He was dumbfounded by the power that thought alone could have in influencing the behaviour of a another so drastically.
To apply this to your own life: What predetermined thoughts do you hold about the abilities and fate of the other person who may be suffering? How can you shift your thoughts to support them, and shift the narrative in which they currently find themselves? Try spending one week, one month, or better yet: the rest of your life, sending nothing but positive energy and encouragement, endless support and unconditional love to the person you love who is suffering. You don’t even need to tell them you’re doing this, and you don’t even need to be around them. Just know that they are capable of thriving, of transcending their pain. This is a great tool also if you have had to cut ties with someone toxic who is causing you harm; you can genuinely help them from afar.
We think that our thoughts don’t matter so long as they don’t manifest into words, or action- but this is totally false. We emit an energy when we have faith in someone, this energy touches the lives of people in ways the human brain might never be able to comprehend. Whether you are seeing this person every day, or you have had to set boundaries and no longer see them: have faith in their ability to transcend their current hardships. This seed is planted in the other, and is watered every time you decide to love them unconditionally.
Unconditional love means accepting what is, and ironically this is often the catalyst for inner growth/ change. You have to genuinely accept and love unconditionally, as a gateway to allow the other to feel safe enough to begin their journey of transformation.
Sometimes, unconditional love cannot be expressed face-to-face. If someone’s own self-destructive ways are harming you (mind or body), the ability to love someone unconditionally can happen from afar. You should learn to set boundaries with people that are interfering with your happiness, but know that you can love them from a distance, and that that faith will penetrate them to the core. Part of this can be expressed directly to the person, but even if not- your ability to love another and forgive them (ie. not hold grudges/ anger) is a powerful way to help someone without not harming yourself.
Understand that unconditional love means acceptance of a person no matter what. And anytime you force your opinion onto someone else (or suggest that their current behaviour ought to be different), you are also telling them that they are not enough, or hinting that your love may in fact be conditional.