When Helping Doesn’t Help
We’ve all been there. Someone in our family or organization is dealing with a debilitating issue, such as, anxiety, fear of failure, depression, or even a physical problem, such as, addiction or weight issues, and we try to help by giving them advice. Unfortunately, while this advice is often well-intentioned, the result is often resistance or even resentment.
I mean, we are only trying to help, right?
I believe that the explanation of why helping sometimes doesn’t help lies in neuroscience, or understanding how the brain processes information. In my books and seminars I explain this by dividing the brain into three parts: the top, middle, and lower brain. The lower brain is called the brainstem, the middle brain, the limbic system and the top, the neocortex.
Each of these parts of the brain do something different, and the more we learn about their functions and ways to influence the process, the more influence we can have in our lives, and in the lives of others. To understand why helping sometimes doesn’t help, we need to understand the role of the middle brain, or limbic system. For as long as we have been on the planet, this part of the brain has reacted to a perceived threat by engaging the lower brain in either a fight, flight, or freeze reaction.
In other words, the fact that data is first received and processed by the limbic system or middle brain… and, that this part of the brain has historically reacted to perceived negative information with resistance and/or resentment, explains why sometimes helping doesn’t help. Their middle brain is interpreting our advice as criticism, or, at the very least, pointing out some negative aspect of who they are. Of course, this is not our intention, but their unconscious middle brain isn’t capable of understanding or processing our intention…it just reacts.
Another reason for this misunderstanding is that the person who is experiencing some difficulty in their life is probably painfully aware of the problem. In other words, these issues didn’t start yesterday. This means that for quite a while (maybe most of their life) they have felt that there was something wrong with them, and this continual, negative messaging has created negative neural pathways in their brain that make any “advice,” however well-intentioned, come across as just one more reminder of this fear.
So, now that we know why helping sometimes doesn’t help, what can we do?
First, we must avoid coming across as if we have all the answers. This just makes the person we are trying to help feel dumb or inferior (which, once again, triggers the lower, reactive brain). Instead, we need to do our best to empathize with their struggle. I say “do our best” because we can never truly understand what another person is going through, even if we have experienced similar struggles, because everyone experiences life in a different way. We can, however, communicate our empathy for their pain which can help ease their fear that this is some specific failure on their part.
Second, we must recognize that the part of them that is most likely to take action to address their issues is their neocortex, or the upper 80% of their brain. Therefore, after they are clear that we understand their pain and struggle, our speaking to or acknowledging what we admire about them, what they are good at, and/or anytime they have accomplished something can begin to light a spark that could become fuel for change. The key here is for us to communicate our confidence in them versus trying to point out their problems. Remember it is this lack of self-efficacy or self-confidence that is a significant factor, and why they feel so helpless in the first place.
Third, unless they are coming to us for advice and we have specific training in helping others to change, then chances are we are not the best person to support them through the change process. Therefore, speaking to our confidence in their reaching out for help when they feel outside help is warranted will once again plant a seed that could bloom into a process and/or a partnership with a helping professional or twelve-step program.
Fourth, it is important to remember that sometimes people don’t change until it becomes too painful not to (change). Therefore, expressing confidence that, when it becomes bad enough, they will take action, can once again plant a question in their mind around whether it is indeed bad enough or does it need to get worse?
Albert Einstein said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Therefore, if you are one of those well-intentioned individuals who has been trying to help, only to have your advice rebuffed and rejected, I suggest that you take a different tact. Or, we can just keep doing what doesn’t work until it becomes bad enough for us to change? Hmmmmm, maybe we should take our own advice. What do you think?
~ All the best, Dr. Bill