In my own mind the whole thing looks like a scene from a Christmas card. It’s snowing outside, nighttime, and the weary traveler sees a warm yellow light calling from the humble cottage ahead. I’m inside, stirring soup in a cauldron that hangs over an open hearth with a big wooden spoon. The traveler is needy, he has come upon hard times, and I can offer some respite. He is hungry, and I give him soup. He is cold and tired, and I let him sleep by the fire.
I feel good for doing these things. I am not a woman who barks coldly from the interior of my cozy home that he should go away. I am a person of merit. I care about my fellow man. I will give him comfort from the storm; he will heal himself, and in turn help others. It is the stuff of eternal hope and compassion.
Two weeks later, when he is still sleeping by my fire, and scraping at the bottom of my now empty soup vessel, I don’t feel quite as virtuous. I feel mean and miserable, and I’m sorry I ever let him in. I wish he would get his act together and get on with his life, and stop leaching off me. At this point I wish I WAS a sorry old woman who sent away people in need. Because, you see, if I had never let him in, I would not have to ask him to leave. And just as I felt wonderful for helping him in the first place, I feel miserable for taking the help away. I want to see myself as the promoter of universal compassion and caring, not the promoter of universal coldness and abandonment.
But what about him? What is going on here that makes him need more than just a fleeting helping hand? It could be any number of things; alcoholism, drug abuse, chronic mental illness, sexual addiction, gambling, anything that stops him from being a contributing member of society. Chances are that you also have tried to be a savior to someone in one of these situations.
One of the things that seems to make this type of person so difficult to deal with is that at some point in his life, instead of learning how to manage daily living, he learned how to be charming and attractive so he could manipulate someone else into managing life for him. When it came right down to it, he made the decision that life was too much to face, and instead of mustering the courage to actually live; he developed the skill necessary to get others to take care of him.
What is the best way to be of help to someone in this situation? Dr. Marlene Maheu suggests several ways to distinguish between helping that is really helpful, and helping that is actually harmful to the helper and the helped.
1. Look for balance. If I’m sharing soup, and the traveler is sharing bread, then the exchange is probably equal, and I’m not keeping her from growing. If however, I’m sharing soup, and she’s sharing charm, or a series of hard luck stories, I may be hurting us both by enabling her to avoid the responsibilities of her own life.
2. Get input from others. Sometimes it is essential to get the outside perspective of a trusted friend, clergy member or a community counselor. What is appropriate helping? Is it common for someone to be sleeping at my hearth for so many weeks? Has the friend ever experienced a similar situation? What did they do to resolve it?
3. Practice saying “no.” Oh please! If it was easy to say “no” none of us would get in this situation in the first place, and yet, this is the path to freedom.
Let me tell you some of the reasons saying “no” is so hard.
FIRST, like I said earlier, instead of learning how to manage his life, the man on the metaphorical floor has learned how to be alluring and deceptive. Expect to confront every manipulation from anger to “woe is me,” delivered by an expert. It takes a great deal of focus to stay on task and not get maneuvered back into the predicament.
SECONDLY, saying “no” goes against the notion of being a “nice person.” It is important to keep reminding ourselves that “nice people” don’t let the people they care about stop growing. It is disrespectful to allow anyone to take advantage of a situation. It gives her the message that we don’t think she is capable of taking care of herself.
FINALLY, there is the possibility that something will be lost if we say “no.” After all, doesn’t the man eating my soup contribute a potato now and then, and isn’t he at least SOMEONE. Having him on my floor may be better than having the floor empty. The truth is, my greatest hope is that he will change and make a productive life for himself. But even if he does decide to leave, I need to know that I can handle it. My “no” may not promote his growth, but it will certainly promote mine, and the same is true for you. Dr. Wayne Dyer sums it up nicely when he suggests;
“If things are not working out, ask yourself, ‘In what way am I creating this? What have I done to teach this person that this behavior is something I am willing to tolerate?’ And then go to work at changing.”