When Helpers Need Help

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It makes a lot of sense to me that people who have lived experience with mental health issues, either personally or by way of their loved ones, are drawn to helping professions: teachers, social workers, public service workers, therapists, nurses, counselors, probation officers – the list goes on. Our experience has shaped our lives and the impact persists, and we either want to begin to give back in some way, or we want to be a support for someone that we ourselves did not have when we needed it.

Helping professions are not designed to make someone financially wealthy, and that is not why we pursue them. There is a richness to a career devoted to helping others and we are compensated through our sense of purpose and those tiny moments of clarity where we realize we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

We can find so many common skills and qualities that we use every day in our helping professions: patience, listening, empathy, tough love, respectful communication. We are expected to be strong and sturdy in the process of helping others up, and we pride ourselves on having answers and passing along that knowledge to others. We want to be a stable and reliable presence in others’ lives.

But what happens during the times we cannot be those things? What happens when being strong is not possible, or we don’t have the answer or when we need to lean on someone.

I think it can be especially difficult for those in helping professions to admit or acknowledge when they need help of their own because of the very nature of our profession. I think there is a small part of us that believes that in order to help others, we need to have things figured out. Our sharp edges must be all smoothed down and we must be completely transcendent of all human affliction.

This expectation is unrealistic.

I understand the reasons behind our reluctance to admit we need help, and it’s mostly optics. We are in positions of trust and we are looked to as role models, so it makes sense that we strive to present the best version of ourselves for impressionable people to learn from, but much of the time, this presentation does not leave a lot of room for authenticity.

Is it fair for me to expect that if I am to work with individuals with mental health issues, or relationship problems, or learning challenges, or what have you – that I must be free of all life’s difficulties myself?

I’m not convinced.

I believe there is value in struggle and that there is something to be gained from confronting something difficult, not because it “makes us stronger” but because we can appreciate the difference between where we were and where we are when we finally come out the other side – with a sense of gratitude for knowing the difference between hardship and well-being.

We can help our clients, patients, students, by teaching them that challenges are to be expected and they can be fought. We can offer real empathy because we have been there and we know how absolutely punishing that place can be. We can teach self-awareness in knowing when we need to step back and heal ourselves in order to continue on. We can be a reminder that real courage can be found in asking for help.

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