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The Philosophy of Helping

If you were to ask me what I’m most passionate about in the PT arena, it would be person-centered care or simply: helping.

We all have different motivations for getting into the helping field, and many of us have mixed motivations for continuing in the helping field, myself included. But at the end of the day we’re all doing the same thing— helping people. So this article is dedicated to that very thing.

In this article, we’ll discuss:

If this article speaks to you I highly recommend checking out the book entitled, How can I help?

Many of the concepts discussed here are inspired by the wealth of wisdom in that text.

What is Helping?

Helping is Reciprocal

In the true spirit of helping, we get as much (if not more) than we give.

We all know this on some level—that when we approach a helping act from a place of service; when we help with the pure intention of helping, it feels good. It feels good to know that we did our best to help in the best way that we knew how—regardless of the outcome or how it was received. We take solace in the fact that we did our best and our intentions were pure.

But of course, there are many times when we have many layers of intentions or motivations, some conflicting with others:

  • We want to help and we want to be respected

  • We want to help and we want the person to accept it in the way that we want to give it

  • We want to help and we want to make sure we don’t burn out

When we notice discord in our intentions it gives us the opportunity to reflect. We can notice what it feels like to help from a place of internal conflict, from mixed motivations— some of selfless service and others of self-service.

We feel the contraction in our chest, the tightness in our face, the heat in our belly. It’s all feedback,

  • Showing us where we’re holding onto what we think helping should be vs. what the situation is calling for.

  • Teaching us how to help by working with, rather than against.

So who’s helping who?

While I’m offering help to the other person, in exchange, I get to feel the good feelings of helping and I gain a lesson in compassion and acceptance. Helping is reciprocal in this way.

So perhaps I should embrace this reciprocity. Perhaps it’s important for me to fully receive help from the other person in order for them to fully receive help from me. At the very least, it feels better to do it this way. Because the more I acknowledge what I get out of the exchange,

  • The less it feels like work and the more it feels like an exploration

  • The less it feels like wrestling, and the more it feels like dancing

  • The less it feels like doing, and the more it feels like being

Embracing the reciprocity of helping is the antidote to burnout. The more we realize what we get out of helping others, the more we have to give and the less depleted we feel.

Helping is Voluntary

This spirit of helping can’t be forced. It must happen voluntarily. Because we can’t force ourselves or other people to want to do something. We have to experience the benefits for ourselves, and helping for the sake of helping is no exception.

This simply involves paying attention. Paying attention to how it feels when our motivations are concordant vs. discordant with our words and actions:

  • How does it feel when we’re listening intently vs. when we appear to be listening, but really are distracted?

  • How does it feel when we’re speaking from a place of acceptance and compassion vs. when we’re trying to prove a point?

  • How does it feel when we’re paying careful attention to our hands when performing manual therapy vs. thinking about lunch?

As we realize the benefits of helping through paying attention to our experiences, we volunteer more of ourselves to the helping act because we realize that we can’t afford not to.

The more we pay attention, the more we start to see the toll it takes on us to hold back, try and control the situation, or push away what we’re being taught. We realize that the path of least resistance is no resistance.

As we slowly realize this, our desires start to shift:

  • We start to want to help more than we want to be respected

  • We start to want to help more than we want to give help in a particular way

  • We start to want to help more than we fear burning out

Our shifting desires cause a positive reinforcement cycle, where the more we help without strings attached, the more we can help and the better we feel. And the cycle continues in an upward spiral.

Helping is Natural

Sometimes the fear or doubt gets to us. Especially the fear that we won’t be able to help, or that we’re not cut out for helping; that it’s not in our nature.

It’s important to realize that helping another person is something that we all know how to do. It’s innate within us. When we pay attention, we notice others’ distress: the look on their face, their body language. When we pay close attention, we feel others’ distress, as well as our response to their distress.

Noticing and feeling is the first step to helping. It is helping. We’ve all experienced the power of simply being witnessed; being listened to, being heard, being connected with, being related to. This in itself is extremely helpful and healing.

And sometimes there’s a clear action that can be taken to help as well. Sometimes not. Sometimes the only thing we can do is listen, be there, not judge, hold space. But when our mind is quiet enough, the right thing to do (or not do) often becomes obvious. We need only listen to our inner voice.

Noticing, feeling, and listening. These are things we all know how to do. We just need to remember what we already know.

What is required?

Offering help in this manner—as a natural voluntary exchange—requires a few key things.

1. Trust

When we look back on our lives with some level of objectivity, we see that the difficult times usually teach us the most. When we look even more closely, we see that everything we’ve experienced thus far has led us to exactly where we are right now in an unbroken chain of cause and effect.

Looking at it in this way, is there any doubt that we’re in exactly the right place to learn what we need to learn in the curriculum of life?

So when I’m working with someone, I can take solace in the fact that they’re in the right place to learn what they need to learn. To experience what they need to experience to move forward. And of course, I’m a part of that learning because we’re working together.

But what about me? Isn’t this true for me too—that my experiences are teaching me and inevitably moving me forward in an unbroken chain of causality? And of course, this other person is part of that because we’re working together

So who’s teaching who?

Perhaps we’re literally working together, helping each other learn what we each need to learn.

So when I encounter a ‘difficult’ patient, if I look closely, I see that this person is only ‘difficult’ because they’re showing me something. They’re showing me a way in which I’m stuck to my models—my preconceptions of how it ‘should be’. This is a very important lesson for me if I’m willing to receive it.

Reciprocally, there will be times when I am difficult for my patients. When I ask them to participate in thought or movement experiments that are challenging for them. These moments are showing them the ways in which they may be stuck to their models of how it is, how it will be, or what they’re capable of.

But—importantly—doing this from the role of the teacher or the educator is very different from doing it from the place of mutual learning and mutual trust. In the former, I’m in a position of power and control (or at least I think I am). In the latter, I’m in a position of partnership and reciprocity.

So while I may be helping the person learn, I’m not the teacher. Or, if you like, I am the teacher, and I’m equally the student. This is what all of us want when working with people.

Do you want to learn from someone who doesn’t want to learn from you? I certainly don’t.

Having trust that the person and I are both in the right place to learn what we need to learn includes accepting the fact that failures will happen. And it includes remembering that a failure is only a failure if nothing was learned.

What does this trust change for me? Not much from the outside perspective. I’m still doing my best to help the person in front of me. The difference is internal. The difference is not getting so caught up in the outcome. Not feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders.

And as it turns out, without this weight, I’m better able to help and I have more fun doing it.

2. Consent.

Just as we cannot be forced into giving help (because helping is voluntary), the other person can’t be forced into receiving help.

Realizing this shows us that:

  • We can only help people in the ways in which they want to be helped

  • We can only help people to the extent that they want to be helped

With this in mind, much of our attention will rightfully be anchored on gaining an understanding of how and to what extent the person wants help. As it turns out, working with people to discover the ways in which they want to be helped tends to be extremely helpful.

When we’re going through something we regard as a problem, especially when we go to see someone to help us with this problem, we might not have much clarity on exactly what it is that we need (that’s part of why we seek the help of another person in the first place).

The process of discovering what it is that we want and need can be empowering, as when we clarify our path forward, the right action steps often become obvious—it just becomes a matter of walking the path.

By continuously gaining consent through being curious about how and to what extent people want help, we empower them to figure out what it is that they want so that we can work together to help them get it.

And of course, in this process, we find that people sometimes aren’t ready to receive help, or are only ready to receive a certain amount of help.

When this happens, we can lean on our trust that they’re in the right place and will become ready to move forward when the time is right, even if that’s not right now with us.

3. Curiosity

If there’s a thread linking all this together, it would be awareness. We need only pay attention to begin the upward spirals of helping discussed thus far.

  • Awareness allows us to notice suffering in others when it is present

  • Awareness allows us to feel what it feels like to help with pure intentions

  • Awareness shows us the reciprocal nature of helping

How do we increase our awareness? By being curious.

Awareness is a byproduct of curiosity. And being curious is something that we all know how to do. Being curious simply means taking the stance that there’s more happening than we realize. When we realize this, we naturally start to pay closer attention, be more present and become more aware. We want to know what we’re missing. It’s human nature.

As these things go, the more curious we are, the more aware we become, and the more we realize how much is happening that we weren’t aware of before.

As our awareness increases, we naturally start to gravitate toward that which feels right, and away from that which doesn’t. This is the foundation of a pure helping act, being curious about everything:

  • Being curious about how & to what extent the person wants help

  • Being curious about what it feels like to help with pure intentions

  • Being curious about what it feels like to help with conflicting intentions

  • Being curious about the right thing to do (or not do)

  • Being curious about the person’s response to the help that we offer in the way that we offer it

  • Being curious about what we can learn from our experience

So if nothing else, simply be curious. The more curious you are, the more aware you will become and the more helping will become being.

What This is Not

1. Helping from this place is not passive.

It’s not doing nothing, shrugging one’s shoulders and saying, “It’ll all work out eventually.” It’s the exact opposite. It’s doing everything in our power to help the person sitting in front of us, while also allowing for the inevitability that we won’t be able to help everyone.

2. Helping from this place is not simply doing whatever the other person wants.

Part of doing my best includes using the discernment that I’ve gained from my training, experience, and continued research; as well as my ethical, legal, and social standards to guide my decision-making so that I can best serve the person in front of me.

So while I’m not doing simply whatever the other person wants, I’m also not just doing what I want or what I think will help. I’m blending what I have to offer the other person with what they have to offer themself. This is Evidence-Based Practice 101.

In Summary

  • Helping is reciprocal

  • In the true spirit of helping, we get as much as we give

  • The more we realize this, the more we will have to give and the less depleted we will feel

  • Helping is voluntary

  • We must experience for ourselves the benefits of helping without strings attached, we can’t force ourselves to want it

  • Helping is natural

  • All we need to do to help is notice, feel, and listen

  • Noticing the suffering of others, feeling our response, and listening for the right action to take (or not) are things we all know how to do

  • Helping requires trust

  • Trust that both the other person and I are in the right place to learn what we need to learn

  • With this trust, we can be free from the burden of trying to heal, fix, or change people, and can start to help them instead

  • Helping requires consent

  • We can only help people in the ways in which they want to be helped