Helping others is often considered to be altruistic. Every major religion in the world says that we should do it. Science says that it produces positive feelings. Other people are often moved when they come across someone willing to help others. There are people who seem more prone to do for others, and there are people who seem far less prone who we might even put into the category of selfish or strongly identified with their own ego.
The environment we’ve produced in the west often breeds more and more of the individualistic type simply because of the way we’ve set up our western society. Capitalism provides the foundation for competitive thinking. Often colleges, workplaces and schools are amongst institutions that promote competition. Rather than a collaborative approach which fosters coming up with solutions together, we are prone in our current society to see which individual can come up with the best solution, the best product, or the best idea. We are motivated to continue this line of thinking because of the promise of a comfortable life, monetary wealth and status and power.
Sadly, because this is not the way humans are actually wired, this kind of approach also breeds unhappiness, depression, loneliness, isolation, a lack of meaningful relationships and exhaustion. In addition, it can also produce anxiety because we are trying to keep up with the lifestyle we’ve worked so hard to create.
That being said, despite capitalism and western culture promoting individualism, because of the innate nature of humanity, lots of people aren’t living in isolation and plenty of people do want to help others. Some folks are helping others to the point of burnout. Still others think they’re helping and aren’t actually helping. So if we’re going to “help” what does it mean to do it well? To do it in such a way that we are living our best selves without becoming egotistical about it, while at the same time being careful not to sacrifice ourselves until we are burnt out and exhausted.
That feels like it has been an exploration for me for my whole life. I definitely fall into the camp of “helper” and not so much because it’s an ego boost although at times it is, but mostly because it feels like who I am deep down. I would suggest that’s who we all are deep down but we all begin to understand this at different points in our lives and sadly some of us die without ever discovering this. I figured it out early on in life although I took several detours from it. I have had times where I’ve been extremely selfish and times where I’ve helped others in an egotistical way. I am also guilty of helping to the point where I forget to care for myself. But along my own personal journey of helping, I have learned a few things that I’d like to share.
Life is All About Me
First, for anyone that identifies more with this category of making life “all about me,” I will just say that I hope you can begin to explore the feeling of helping more, and I hope you can begin to realize that the source of you’re own happiness is at stake if life is just all about you. We were all born with a soft spot right in the center of our chests and that soft spot is who all of us are deep down. If we don’t find ways to tap into that, we will be living in a perpetual cycle of what we refer to in Buddhism as samsara, or a continual cycle of suffering. It’s not to say that we’d be in constant torture (although that’s debatable psychology speaking) but we won’t be really living either. Life will just become a constant cycle of trying to get the next thing, and it’s as if we have become a hamster spinning in a wheel trying to get somewhere, thinking we are going to get someplace but everyone else on the outside of our cage can see we’re just spinning endlessly in the same spot. Trying to evade the soft spot, the core of our humanness is like a lion suppressing his natural roaring capability. It’s like a fish who refuses her ability to swim. We won’t be living fully as humans and we won’t be able to find real happiness if we don’t embrace who we really are. It took me a lot of years to figure this out.
Who Are You to Discuss this Subject?
We may be someone who does like to help. Maybe on occasion, or maybe all the time. First, let me share a little bit more about my experience of helping over the last 4-5 years specifically so you understand my background.
For a few years, I was a direct helper where I directly supported individuals from low income neighborhoods in a variety of ways. I joined up with other non profits to do things such as youth conferences, community days, school programming and more. I wound up helping with the creation on an open mic night in our meditation center, which was often filled with young people primarily from Humboldt Park. My husband and I took some youth into our home to live. I got involved with the individual struggles of people. It was not hard – I simply fell in love with some of the people and their struggle hit my own soft spot, my own humanity and then taking action was not hard.
In fact, it was so straightforward to me that I could not rationally understand why everyone else at the Shambhala center, where I was working, wasn’t jumping on board right along with me. It was actually my teacher who said to me “you do understand that maybe only 15% of people, if you’re lucky, will actually want to do this work?” It shocked me actually. I soon uncovered a lot of understanding about what stops people- lack of time, lack of energy, fear, racism, ageism, classism, finances, denial, individualistic thinking, blaming are all some of things that kept people away.
The latter few years, I helped in a very different way. My role was to help Shambhala centers internationally to begin to help in their communities. I spent most of my time finding people who naturally did want to help. In this role I learned that many people who do want to help don’t know how to get started. Or people do things that aren’t necessarily helpful. Or they help so much they burn out.
I’m Not Selfish but: I Think Others Should Help Themselves, I Don’t Have Time, I Help My Kids
Sometimes we don’t step out to help because we think if we did it on our own, everyone else should too and if they’re not making it, it’s their fault. This kind of view is dangerous and may even be worse than just being selfish. We don’t know everyone’s individual and familial circumstances and histories. We can’t base what others needs are based on our own lives no matter how difficult our own lives may have been. It’s not a completion with resources that we have to fight for. People are impacted by many circumstances that we may not have had to endure. Racism, gender identities, sexual orientation, trauma histories, mental illness, poverty – we just don’t know what people are dealing with for sure. It’s hard being human and despite what anyone says, none of us have done life completely alone and persevered. Whether our privilege assisted us or we found help along the way, if we take a much closer look we can see that everything is interconnected and we don’t live in a vaccuum.
As for not having time or that your primary giving is reserved for your children, that is something only you can determine. But we all need to ask ourselves- do I help enough? Am I pushing myself or am I just comfortable where I am? Can I offer more than what I already do? Am I just selfish and need to overcome that? Or are the circumstances I’m in just mean that right now, I am only able to help my children or myself? And if so, that’s fine too!
Where Do I Start? I Try to Help But My Help Seems Unwelcome.
If getting started is an issue, or you have started but sense your help isn’t welcome, I recommend the first step always be about creating relationships. Nothing can happen until we get to know people and they get to know us. We need to show up at meetings in our local community or get involved with a non-profit. Even if we have no idea who anyone is or what’s going on, we just keep showing our face. Second, listen. Just listen. We never assume we have something to contribute. We don’t assume people want our help. We don’t assume we know anything. Instead we just humble ourselves and listen. When we notice we have the urge to speak, we just listen more. We become very curious about what everyone else is saying – curious about who the people in the room are. Eventually, there might be an opportunity to speak and offer and if that arises, we will know. It will be very clear because it won’t be about what we think we want to offer. It will be more about what is needed. If we go in assuming we know what people want or need, it will become all about our own needs and what we want to offer and helping isn’t about US. It’s about serving and serving is about doing what’s needed in any given moment, whether that’s what we want to be doing or not.
We also might have to accept that we might not be the right people to help in a particular environment, neighborhood or situation. Or we might discover our role is to empower others to help themselves. We might discover we have no role at all and that we might need to walk away. Or maybe we discover we have something in ourselves to work with.
I often see “good white liberal” people thinking they can go into a Black or another POC or indigenous community and offer their good help. They often come with an agenda – I’ll offer food or I’ll offer clothing, or we’ll give away Christmas trees in Englewood. Maybe that is a need but maybe it’s not. Maybe instead we could just listen for a time, we might discover something entirely different. Maybe we’ll discover there’s already ten organizations that donate clothing and food and Christmas trees but what they really need is more help in handing those things out.
Maybe the community we want to help doesn’t want or need what we have to offer.
We don’t need to make helping another ego trip. It isn’t about helping to make ourselves feel better – even if that does happen, that’s shouldn’t be our intention. We don’t need to help to prove our own goodness. Make it about what’s actually needed. We will not know what that is until we go sit and listen to people.
Helping Until It Hurts. The Importance of Self-Love and Boundaries.
Lastly, there’s the people who help non-stop. Who do listen and who are really doing the work. And then with that often comes the tendency to forget about ourselves. We feel the softness of our hearts so deeply that it begins to hurt. We’re overwhelmed by the injustice of the world. We’re constantly doing but it feels endless and it feels painful. This lesson has taken me a long time to figure out and it’s constant work for me but.. we need to have self-love and healthy boundaries. Self-love is not the same as identification with one’s ego. We don’t have to be afraid that we’ll turn into the type of person I initially described – that person who doesn’t care about others. Once we care, we don’t stop caring. But caring for others means caring for ourselves at the same time. We have to constantly come back to checking in with ourselves. How do I feel? What do I need? Where are my limits? Am I taking time for myself? Am I helping myself in the same way that I spend helping others? And then we do those things for ourselves. We care enough about who we are for the very same reasons we care and do for others. Because we humans are worthy, worthwhile and good. That same goodness we see in others is also in ourselves and that is worth honoring too. If we don’t honor ourselves the same way we honor others, we’ll just be hypocrites. Without caring for ourselves, we eventually face burn out, compassion fatigue, and secondary trauma which means we take others’ trauma as though it were our own. We need to work to understand where we begin and end and where the person we are trying to help begins and ends. When someone needs help, sometimes they will take anything we give. They may take all our energy if we are offering that. Rather than offer all our energy so that we no longer have any, we must protect the source of the energy so that we can consistently produce more and more that we can afford to offer to others.
A friend once taught me to close my eyes, root myself into the ground, and picture my aura bubble. This image of having an aura bubble surrounding me has been very helpful because I now understand that people are welcome to come near my aura bubble and I can continue to produce energy and offer but no one is to ever penetrate into my aura bubble. That space is mine and mine alone. That is what allows me to have a continuous source of energy to offer forever. If I gave it all away I would not be able to be helpful to anyone in the long run.
This is what we refer to as good boundaries. When we have good boundaries, we don’t overextend ourselves. We don’t lose ourselves in others and in fact we model for those we’re trying to help how to have good boundaries too. Boundaries might look different for everyone. For some, we might be perfectly fine helping someone by having them in our home. For others, this might be a clear violation in boundaries. And still for others, we may just be too selfish to even allow such a thing. Only you can know what you’re own boundaries are and only you can know if you’re being selfish or you’re just taking good care of yourself.
Who Are We?
The path of being human is ever evolving. There are times in our lives we extend out to others more and times where we need to focus more on ourselves. And there are times where we’re stuck in our own bubble. It’s not consistently any one way. We may ebb and flow out of all of these. There is no doubt that helping others is a natural part of who we are. It’s how we’re built and if we notice we’re not doing it, we may even discover that this is the source of our unhappiness. And yet helping is a practice. We can cultivate good habits when it comes to helping. We may be so used to making life all about ourselves or our families that we may have to retrain ourselves in learning extend ourselves further. For some of us, helping comes naturally, but we forget to help ourselves. By being mindful and taking notice of where we are, we can learn and adjust accordingly, helping selflessly without losing ourselves.