Thought Catalogue – How to Actually Help
This Article gives insight into the kind of support vulnerable women really need from the Church. A special thank you to the women who have bravely shared their stories with us.
In March earlier this year, we took up the invitation to hold a seminar at the annual Hope Into Action conference in Peterborough. We had been asked to speak about our experiences of befriending and trauma; something that was quite relevant to our work when we produced a book together about thirteen women’s life stories including street prostitution in Hull; and we felt honoured to have been asked. (If you’d like, you can read our book online here).
After the event, which we really enjoyed (including the great atmosphere and the line up for hugs afterwards!) we were asked to write down what we’d spoken about so that it could be shared more widely than the hour or so we’d spent in the room together. I’m sorry that it has taken so long to produce this – but finally, here is a summary of the content of the seminar. If you find the sight of the several paragraphs below too overwhelming: you can get the gist of them from the single word ‘mutuality’ to sum up what’s most important to us (not to be confused with similarity or equality).
In the seminar, as a way of introduction, we wanted to put words to our appreciation of the work of Hope Into Action. We knew only too well the need for a stable life, for anyone experiencing or with experience of, trauma. And this takes more than just a shelter. It takes a well-functioning community, and we wanted to honour the wisdom and efforts of HIA to enable just that. Our facilitator (Emma)’s experience working as a Clinical Psychologist has only confirmed to her the limitations of a professional relationship alone when trying to help traumatised people, and so we wanted to big up the crucial role of the non-professional befriender, especially when part of a mutually supportive network, to reach people where it really counts in a time of crisis.
We had grouped our main points together as a series of issues, which were based on our own particular learning cycles of pain, misunderstanding, despair – and then of repair, healing and (eventual) growth in mutual understanding. One of us spoke to represent the voice of each side of the learning in the experience, in each case – as listed below.
- ‘Millie’ kicked off by explaining why having someone say ‘I know how you feel’, or making the assumption of knowing how you ‘must be’ feeling – can be invalidating, and exasperating. She illustrated this by describing once having a professional compare her heroin addiction to their addiction to sugar.
- We considered that from our experience of befriending, the temptation to over-empathise out of the desire to come alongside someone, to genuinely help and feel relevant to them, is often huge. But ultimately this can often be serving our own need to remain unaware of what can be an embarrassing inequality in the quality of life experience and to avoid wider ethical challenges in other aspects of our lives that this awareness might bring us as individuals.
- In a similar vein, Millie went on to speak about how misunderstood and isolated she was left feeling by other attempts by helpers to console her about her life prospects such as the imposition of the belief that after hitting rock bottom ‘the only way is up’. In Millie’s experience, it’s after this that the really hard work begins. After having had children removed by social services, Millie has also experienced (including in our own group) people telling her that ‘it was not her fault’. Taking responsibility for what happened was, in fact, crucial to Millie’s recovery and she feels that she alone has the right to decide whether to forgive herself or not.
- Anna explained from her own experience that it can be very easy to end up ‘battering people’ with hope, through the sheer wishful goodwill. She wanted to emphasise the need to be aware and hold a tension between having a positive and unrelenting vision for a person’s future and being able to fully ‘be’ with a person in the reality of their present moment.
- Millie talked about one of the experiences which for her, created an ugly ‘them and us’ divide between herself and the people trying to support her. She had been guaranteed confidentiality about an issue which posed no risk, but later found that her confidant had listened to, and acted on contradictory information supplied by someone else’s opinion about how she was doing. Millie described feeling betrayed by this, the trust in the relationship lost and an authoritarian dynamic developing from this point – which hindered her recovery.
- Emma responded by empathising with the people who did this – knowing the pressure that can be felt by an inappropriate sense of responsibility for another adult human being, which can cross a boundary from care to infantilization. This might happen if the person trying to support feels subconscious that they may become liable for the adverse welfare of the other person, leading to a loss of reputation of a sense of personal failure, or it might be that it can lead to a sense of achievement (without knowing that this is a deeper motivation to making an intervention) to feel like you’re ‘doing something’ in a situation that might otherwise make you feel quite helpless. To mitigate the potential of this kind of dynamic developing, mutuality is hugely important to level the playing field of power and to help you grow through the process too.
- Millie gave one more example of one of the unintended consequences that can occur through ‘helping’ systems, which backfire on the process of opening up about our past experiences. Having to repeat over and over the most traumatic points of one’s life story to several people in different contexts, who do not seem motivated to share the information rather than to put the person through such an ordeal so arbitrarily, can make you take a step back, and ‘shut off’ from such questions. After this, you can be labelled as ‘not engaging’, and punished by further withdrawal of support.
- It can become easy to forget what it feels like – or to forget to imagine what it might feel like to have had to offer your most vulnerable side of yourself to strangers who must input your life story to their systems as information, reduced to units of data which then become like a currency determining what kind of support is available to you. Letting someone talk in their own time, and their own way is not as easy as it sounds. We have to shut off our own need to want to hear it if we are going to provide a truly safe space for a person to unburden their deepest selves.
- Emma also confessed to at times having found herself, without realising she was doing so – supporting people in a manner which they might have been fully expecting through past experience of other kinds of support. This meant becoming a little less concerned with the consistency of meeting times or places, sometimes being late or rescheduling at the last minute. She realised how damaging this, in fact, could be, even though no complaints were ever made, because it was not just another let down as part of a consistent string of disappointments, but it might, in fact, become the most potent and confirming, crushing signal to a person that they can, in fact, trust no one. Especially if they had believed you to be different; perhaps the final test of reaching out to ask for help?
- ‘Gemma’ knows the importance of having the support that goes at her own pace and doesn’t pre-judge what success or recovery in any context might look like. Her advice, in a nutshell, was not to ‘jump the gun’ because progress is a personal journey which only the individual can determine for themselves.
- Anna added to this from her experience, that there can be a danger of reaching for reassurance for the person’s wellbeing by (very naturally) wanting to bring them on to familiar territory to you – and what you personally have known of a healing or growth experience. Inadvertently putting pressure on somebody by turning their ‘success’ story into a trophy and giving them a new identity which they then feel they have to live up to can be very damaging. But it is also a very subtle thing that can occur if we are not vigilant; especially if the person being supported has survived in the past by adapting to what others want from them, rather than having the freedom to be themselves. They may end up wanting to please you so much that they end up in an impossible corner.
- Millie ended with a positive general experience: that the little things and small acts of kindness really can make a big difference, especially when those little things are what you have been lacking in your life experience.