Don't Help Anyone!
Sitting in the bedroom of the 1940s cottage nestled in the Santa Cruz mountains, the slightly musty smell tickling my nose, I was filled with despair. I looked out the window, with the canopy of huge redwoods filtering in thin streams of sunlight, opened my mouth and let out an agonized yell. I could sense the vibrations deep in my chest and feel the sound scrape in my throat. As I heavingly took a deep breath to let out another yell, I took in the people sitting around me looking at me with no alarm or distress, but rather a welcoming, encouraging, kind energy. With the next yell I felt lighter, recognizing in my bones that I was not alone, understanding that the redwoods, which had been there for hundreds of years with their arms outstretched, would help me to hold all the pain in the world…
~ ~ ~
How did I end up yelling in the redwoods? It started with hearing: ‘Don’t help anyone this week!’
As soon as Inbal said this to me, back in July 2009, I felt such deep pain come up that it was shockingly visceral.
How would this even be possible? Not help?!? How could I see someone in need and not help? I’ve taken care of people from the time I was quite young. Since I was a child my Ammah (‘mother’ in Tamil) has jokingly referred to me as her ‘grandma’ because I was always looking out for her. Plus, I wasn’t just a casual helper, I was a professional helper. I worked for years overseas as a humanitarian aid worker with populations affected by war and was drawn to do that work from the time I was young. In the early 1980s, I remember seeing images of people on TV at feeding centers during the Ethiopian famines – the time of Band Aid and Live Aid. I said to Ammah then that I thought I wanted to go into this kind of work; I was 13-years-old.
How did Inbal Kashtan come to make such a radical suggestion? Inbal said this to me when I was attending the BayNVC Leadership Program where she was the lead trainer. In that year-long program where participants learned how to teach NVC, we also focused on doing our own healing so we could show up more fully when sharing NVC. I was to see over the course of the year how it seemed to be Inbal’s special gift to intuit exactly what people needed to spur an inquiry that would lead to their growth and healing.
During that year, much despair had been coming up in me – related to my own past work overseas and my childhood, but also just a general sense of despair about the state of the world. Inbal’s sense of me was that my gaze was inward when it came to learning and growth, and outward for nurturing and care.
She suggested that one way to get to the despair was to watch my habitual response of helping, without acting on it, and see what came up. From this experience, she thought I would eventually have fuller access to my own inner resources and, from that, more access to actual choice (as opposed to habitual patterns of reactivity).
The question for me to explore was: What if people’s needs were not met and I did not ‘do something’ about it? And to let myself experience whatever came up from not doing. Even in just sitting and talking with Inbal, the pain that came up imagining doing this was a strong indicator to me that this was a path to explore.
As I took on this challenge for myself, I kept looking at the different thoughts, feelings and needs that came up for me. I tried to stay curious about the needs I was trying to meet in helping others, looking at one of the questions that Inbal posed as a possibility – was ‘helping’ one way of managing the despair, that is, was taking responsibility for others buffering the grief inside?
During the week of that retreat, I made note of every time the impetus to ‘help’ arose in me – whether minor (offering a spare pen to someone who didn’t have one) or more (going to someone who was sobbing) – and on the first day itself I had a list of literally dozens of times! It was so clear to me how reflexively I usually helped without even thinking about it.
As I sat with the pain, without acting on it but just watching it, I was able to see layers arising, layers of Needs[i] I was trying to meet by helping all the time. Layers included the more obvious Needs of care and support (Why should anyone needlessly suffer?), to community and connection (What is community if not people who help one another?), and deeper from trust (Would anyone else step in to help?), into being seen (Who would I be without helping?) and valued (Would I be included, accepted, and cared for if I didn’t demonstrate my worthiness of being so?).
Trying to just be with all of this was… intense.
~ ~ ~
Are you, like I was, a compulsive helper?
So many of us are – all of us care givers… care takers… social service providers… frontline workers… help-aholics all! And we have such a high rate of burn out, at least partly due to our irrational schedules. When I worked overseas, whether based in Croatia or Congo or Guinea, I put in 14-16 hour days. I remember working through pneumonia, working through malaria, as I told myself there was too much to do that was urgent and could not wait. For years I did not know what it was to feel or to be well rested. Many of us don’t!
Now here we are some seven years later and the learning from this exploration suggested by Inbal has been transformative. Do I still ‘help’ people? Absolutely. But not all the time and not at all in the same ways.
A key part of helping in a different way is deep self connection – what sitting with the pain and not acting led me to, ultimately. One aspect of this is heightened awareness of all aspects of ourselves, mind, body and spirit. For example, have you ever internally explored the question, is it possible to help without exhausting ourselves?
At the retreat in 2009, one person said to me, ‘just your presence is a help, you don’t need to doanything.’ This led me to think more about the power of presence and how ‘doing’ can often be unhelpful at a deeper level. Later, as I processed my experience, Inbal said she was glad for this particular learning, as she imagined it would help me develop more capacity for just being so I would not be so drained by giving. If I had not done this experiment and had continued to act without reflection, even on ‘good’ impulses, then I never would have realized how to take action without completely fatiguing myself.
So what did my yelling in the redwoods have to do with all this? Without self connection, I had been holding in all the despair. So many ‘helpers’ take everything on themselves, thinking that we are the only ones and we, ourselves, must act or the suffering will continue. My yelling in the woods was one way to release some of the despair. In talking about this experience later, Inbal invited me to think about it as: what do my body and my voice want to communicate?
Building on her question, a few years later, at the suggestion of my dear Empathy Buddy Sue, I started learning and am now offering a somatic practice called TRE® (Tension and Trauma Release Exercises[ii]). For me, I find the practices of NVC and TRE together to be greatly complementary. They address different layers of our being – the mental and the physical respectively – and both of these feed into spiritual and emotional wellbeing. For example, through being able to notice subtler sensations of nervous system activation, my TRE practice allows me to choose earlier in a situation what will best serve me next. NVC helps me put words to what this is, and to say it in ways more likely to be received, thus allowing me to stay engaged with those around me.
Knowing the intricate interplay between mind and body, I understand now more deeply that wellness is also about how we frame things. This is not just about trying to be positive or optimistic in some Pollyanna-ish kind of way. Rather, it directly impacts our physiology. To state it simply, negative thoughts and framing give our systems the message that something is wrong, that we are not safe, and our organisms react accordingly, amping up the nervous system to help take care of us in an emergency. Knowing this, we can cultivate ways of thinking and communicating that support our overall wellbeing, ways that help the nervous system to settle and that allow us to connect with others.
For so many of us, the state of our nervous system is something we equate with who we are, thinking we have no choice. Contemplating the interplay of mind and body, I think for example about my own tendency to be a never-ending list maker in my head, to ensure that I don’t miss anything, so that everything will be okay and everyone will be cared for; or about ‘type-A’ personalities with their relentless sense of urgency. And I wonder, when we have such tendencies, is it our personality or is it our physiology? This can be delicate, since constantly helping and constantly doing are so intertwined with how we identify ourselves in the world.
In reading a journal that I wrote shortly after that retreat, Inbal suggested I break it down into steps that I can use to remind myself of what to do when I notice the urge to ‘help’. Here they are, using both her words and mine:
Notice the impulse to “do something” for others and consider doing nothing. What feelings arise? Notice the feelings, let yourself feel them.
Get curious: what comes up when you are not taking action to ‘help others’? Again, notice the feelings. Also notice any thoughts.
Then explore the Needs behind the feelings and thoughts. What is it that I am longing for?
From this place of self connection, explore: is there something you want to do right now? Distinguish this from what you think you ‘should’ do. (As Marshall Rosenberg is said to have said, we should stop ‘shoulding’ all over ourselves!)
Taking the time to connect to what is happening within ourselves is something most of us rarely do. To be sure, self connection is damn hard at first. Then once we cultivate the habit or build the muscle of self connection, it starts to feed us… Or rather, it feels to me like parched earth soaking in the rains… we absorb it and feel it filling us up, soaking into all our cells.
And now that I have cultivated the practice of self connection, I realize, if I do not know what is going on within myself, how on earth can I choose what to do next? Now I can choose to try to support others not from a place of repressed despair, but from a place of clarity in terms of the needs of the situation and my resources in that moment. Both NVC and TRE are practices that can support this.
Accessing choice is the heart of the lessons from Inbal’s guidance and suggestion to me… and for this I am endlessly grateful! How does this exploration influence actual impact? Reactivity needlessly expends so much more energy than being in choice does. As change agents in the world (and we are all to some extent change agents) when we have more energy and are more resourced, we can access curiosity and come together with others in community to discover creative ways to hold everyone’s needs with care.
When I said that for me helping was about alleviating suffering, Inbal said that yes, ‘alleviating suffering, contributing to well being and to life, seems so core in and of itself, no? It’s an expression of our interconnectedness for me. Perhaps framing it differently from “lessening suffering” might bring you some relief. How about contributing to life? Or living in a flow of interdependence, part of a whole fabric?’ As Inbal so beautifully said: ‘Make it poetic so it inspires you toward life!’
~ ~ ~
Inbal was my NVC teacher and mentor and then my dear friend. She died almost two years ago, a little over five years after that July LP-NVC retreat, after more than seven years of battling ovarian cancer.
‘Don’t help any one this week,’ Inbal said, ‘I think it will give you greater access to your own inner resources.’… Yes, dearest Inbal, it truly has. And while the suggestion was only for one week, the ever rippling effects have been deepening all these seven years since. I am still finding layers of resources to tap into, or rather to live from…
Earlier this year, at the Living Peace retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains led by Inbal’s wife Kathy, where I was on the teaching team, I noticed that a participant was not in the room and I went about finding out how he was doing. One of my fellow leadership team members asked me, ‘Have you ever in your life had anyone who tracked you so carefully and thoughtfully?’
And, without hesitation, I replied, ‘Yes. Inbal.’
[i] Needs here are meant in the NVC sense of universal human needs, that is, as the underlying energies that motivate us to do anything that we do in life.
[ii] For general information on TRE, please see the introduction to it on the West Coast Intensive website
Note: This article was written in the lead-up to the West Coast Intensive in Nonviolent Communication retreats (WCI), which I co-led in 2016 and 2017, and is being republished here.