One of the most distressing observations I have made among my social work colleagues, is the overwhelming proclivity on the part of many of us so-called helpers, to lack understanding and sensitivity to the position helpees are in when they agree to accept intervention.
Many of us take "professionalism" out of context and become more of a burden to families than a helping resource. All to often, we believe we are "experts" (a term used rather loosely these days), and therefore know more about what is best for those we are attempting to help, which as far as I am concerned is utterly ridiculous. We want to take individuals out of their dysfunctional world, bring them into our less than perfect world and then drop them like a hot potato. We judge their world as inadequate and we must therefore make it more adequate by imposing our "expertise." We enter helping relationships with the desire to "fix it" not understanding that we do not have the power to fix; only the helpee has that power.
I believe the best way to help individuals is to positively influence their decision for change; to assist them in getting comfortable with the idea of change and the benefits it may have for their lives. If people buy into the need for change, and we provide the support and tools needed for them to change, change will happen. But, before that can occur, we professionals must become sensitized to what it means for individuals to receive help. It is not a pretty picture.
Let's take a brief look at what is required for individuals (including us professionals by the way) to accept help.
1) It Is Not Easy To Receive Help - Most people who need help experience mixed feelings. They want help and at the same time are terrified of it. And in many cases, the fear of it is greater than the desire for it. We can understand this better if we look at what demands are placed on the person who needs help:
- There is a recognition that something is wrong with him/her or lacking in their situation which they apparently cannot manage sufficiently themselves. The consequence of this recognition is the lowering of self-esteem.
- They must be willing to tell someone else about their problem.
- They must accord to the Helper at least limited rights to personal information.
- They must be open to change in some way.
2) Commitment to Change is Not Easy - Change means giving up whatever adjustment has been made to their current situation; adjustments that have cost a great deal to make and have become a part of their world and lifestyle. They have developed a comfort zone that they are not readily willing to move out of. Most of us tend to cling to the status quo out of fear. As professionals, we must realize that it is hard for individuals to say good-bye to old ways of thinking and doing things. Keep in mind that to commit to change means committing to the unknown. Their comfort world is where they are accustomed. From our perspective it may be a miserable comfort, but in the helpees world, misery is oftentimes preferred to the unknown.
3) It Is Difficult to Submit to the Influence of a Helper - Many helpees have had bad experiences with helpers. For many people, trying to live more productive lives with the assistance of helpers has only resulted in greater defeat. While a willingness to help is important, it is not enough within itself. Helpers must be prepared to offer the kind of help helpees need.
4) It Is Not Easy to Trust Strangers Enough to be Open With Them -Many people have been deeply hurt by so called helpers: confidence betrayed, taken advantage of, verbally abused, mistreated, dehumanized, humiliated, belittled. I do not care how insufficient an individual may appear, they do not want to be made to "feel" inadequate.
5. It Is Not Easy To See One's Problem Clearly - Many helpees live complicated lives. There are so many issues they are contending with that often they are unable to pinpoint what their problem is that they desire help with. In social work, what helpees tell us initially is what we call the "presenting problem" We recognize the presenting problem as the surface layer and it is rarely the problem that needs addressing.
6. Sometimes Problems Seem too Overwhelming, or Shameful to Share Easily. Helpees do not want to be perceived in a negative light by the helper and may experience great difficulty in relating areas of their lives in which they feel ashamed and believe they will be judged.
It is not an easy thing to accept help. Yet, for the most part, this tremendous demand made on the person to be helped has gone unrecognized. People who refuse help are still thought of as ungrateful when all they really are is afraid. They are very much afraid of what it will cost them to accept help or to make changes.
Rev. Saundra L. Washington, D.D., is an ordained clergywoman, veteran social worker, and Founder of AMEN Ministries. She is also the author of two coffee table books: Room Beneath the Snow: Poems that Preach and Negative Disturbances: Homilies that Teach which can be reviewed on her site. Her new book, Out of Deep Waters: My Grief Management Workbook, is expected to be available in July.
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