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When Helping Blocks Healing




Most people who become counselors do so because they want to "help people." So this begs a few obvious questions:


  • Help people do what exactly?

  • What does it take to be truly effective at "helping" another human being?

  • Can "helping" people actually stop them from healing? (Answer: yes. Read on.)


The old phrase says, "We go from hurting to healing to helping." The order here is paramount. First, we become aware of our own pain - both the pain inflicted upon us by the hurt people we have encountered in our lives and the pain we have caused and still cause others which in turn causes us pain - and we become willing to face it and feel it. The first step of being a helper is always feeling our own pain. This is the hurting part. And it's unpleasant because it involves suffering. No one likes to hurt. We perceive ourselves as "failing" at life if we admit we're in pain. We must not be doing it right! And for someone like a counselor or minister who wants to "help" people, personal pain is perceived as a mark of weakness and even incompetence. So, many counselors simply don't face their hurt. They don't admit the extent of their own pain much less explore it. Perhaps they are willing to face the pain they endured at the hands of others, but rarely will they face the pain they cause due to their own brokenness. (This is why this field and church ministry attract so many narcissists. More on that later.) They see others' pain and run to help but neglect their own.


The second step is healing. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where we get honest, put it all on the table, and place our hearts, wounds, lies, truths, regrets, hopes, pain, glory, "craziness," fear, and anger into the hands of God and another person. And that might be a counselor, but it's not really important who it is. It just has to be someone who knows what to do with it, someone who has done their own work, because if they've done their own work, they know how to walk with someone who's doing theirs. This is why the order matters. Most of the time, people who are hurting go to people who are "helping" but have never truly been through a healing process, and the hurting person loses hope and faith that healing is possible becuase the helper only knows how to "help," not heal.


Healing depends on honesty, and honesty, I have come to learn, is rare. Most people will face the truth about almost anything but themselves. The ego reigns supreme! The internal idea and image of the False Self, the Idealized Self, the Perfect Self, the Self who cannot be criticized in any way, must be protected. Most of us can face a cancer diagnosis before we'll ever admit how selfish or judgmental we can be. And if we can bear to admit a fault, few people will ever allow themselves to connect to the pain our faults have caused others. And yet it is this honesty, this humbling, that sets us free to be who we truly are. The False Self has to die in order for the True Self to live. Over and over and over again. (I wish I could tell you that this is a "one-and-done" kind of thing, but in my experience it's pretty much daily. I believe this is why Jesus Christ said that to follow Him, you have to pick up your cross daily. It's a daily process of humbling.)


The human being's greatest fear is the Self. The True, raw, fallible, unpredictable, untamable self. And by denying our failings, we deny our brilliance too. (The narcissist is the one who insists on brilliance without admitting or accepting failings. Most people avoid both.) What makes honesty palatable and possible to those on the healing path is that it happens in stages, otherwise we'd be completely overwhelmed. We speak the truth about the layer of ourselves of which we are aware. That's all we can do! And then, what do you know... another layer opens to us. Truth brings freedom, and for those who have "come clean" and faced their demons, the freedom on the other side is worth the humiliation and tidal waves of shame we face by looking in the mirror. As we face truth, shame rears up and slowly dies. And we become free.


Then, and only then, can we move to helping. Why? Because we have gained some valuable assets on the journey thus far, assets we can share with others who need what we have, and here's a hint: they aren't degrees, certifications, and ordinations. Degrees and certifications are useless in helping others heal. They provide knowledge and proof of passage, which stokes the ego and gives a false sense of competency, but they do not allow us to connect with our own pain or the pain in another human being's soul. By contrast, if we've done this much work - hurting and healing - we've gained...


Courage. Folks, only those who have truly done their work will understand these next few sentences, but the greatest courage a human being can muster is the courage to look herself or himself in the mirror honestly. We can face a thousand threats but few find the strength to speak the truth about themselves. Things like our motives, lies we've told, monstrous reactions, dark thoughts, violent urges, secret deeds, bizarre habits, selfish fantasies, death wishes, annihilating intentions, and a thirst for the profane. We all fear... ourselves. And conquering this fear is the essence of courage. We've also learned to face what happened to us. We are no longer running away from or trying to erase memories, the memories we thought would devour and demolish us. We are no longer rationalizing for or protecting people who hurt us. We are telling the truth. And we are feeling the feelings that accompany those memories. First with barely a whisper and a choked voice. But as our voice and our tears strengthen, so does our courage.


Integrity. We've learned the power of speaking the truth. We see the empty and momentary relief of deceit and deception for what it is, and we have learned the value of honesty. We stop cutting corners. We stop choosing the path of least resistance. We lean into what is hard if it is true and pure. We prioritize quality over ease. We don't and can't settle for appearances anymore. They are unsatisfying. Merely a show. We crave authenticity in ourselves and in others. We don't hate or judge others for fakeness and lying - we did it too - but we can't tolerate it easily anymore. Why? Because we've tasted the richness of relationships built on honesty and humility. Nothing else will do.


Humanity. We've let go of the egocentric ideal that we can one day be perfect. We can finally see how shamed-based perfectionism is. We are content to live in a state of grace, desperately needing it and knowing why. We don't view grace as a nebulous safe space of blissful self-ignorance but rather a dynamic and ongoing transformation of the ego. We embrace the need for it. We find our strength in it - to connect with God and with others who can also face their desperate and ongoing need for grace. It is in the shared neediness rather than the shared deception of false goodness where we learn what it means to be human.


You can't learn this in graduate school. Or a seminary.


These lessons and assets are gained through tears, shame, embarassment, making amends, facing ourselves, and finding community with others who insist on something real.


So why isn't this field helping as it should?


Because when you enter a profession to "help" people through pain you've never faced with any courage, integrity, or humanity whatsoever, there is no help to be given. There are "techniques." "Interventions." There is knowledge, but it's ultimately useless. There is even science (although in this field, it's scant). But in our attempt to be "helpful" with our fake diagnoses and silly "interventions," we block healing because we don't create space for honesty. Why? Because we've never created it in ourselves.


I sat in classrooms of up-and-coming counselors, earning the same degree I was, who had never seen a therapist. When I expressed my bewilderment and concern to the head of the counseling program, he simply said it wasn't required.


See... this field creates "therapists." Not healers.


And here's the truth: anyone can be a healer. Read this blog post again. If you've done these things, if you've moved from hurting to healing, you can be helping others. In fact, if you've hurt and healed, you already are.


This Monday, I'm releasing an episode of the podcast which encapsulates everything I believe, everything I've written about here. My guest has done the work to heal, the hardest work I think I've ever heard about, and she will walk us through her process.


It's possible. Healing, that is. But in order to do it, she had to get all of the "helpers" out of the way.

Do you?

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