Our culture—and perhaps all of human culture—places a premium on a person’s ability to help others. To help oneself is portrayed as selfish and egotistical at the worst, of secondary importance at the best. This becomes a problem, however, when everyone is so busy lending a hand to others that they forget about themselves. As a reaction against this, the popular analogy often used these days is of securing your own oxygen mask before helping others to secure theirs.
Without getting too much into the weeds about what function helping others serves on an individual and societal level, I want to suggest—as someone who helps people for a living—that it is much easier to help another person than it is to help ourselves, and that this ease plays a large part in why we do it.
When we help someone else, we have no skin in the game. If our help fails to change anything, oh well. We tried and we get credit for trying. If our advice goes haywire, what can be done about it? Maybe offer another suggestion. Meanwhile, the person who needed support is still living through the problem, possibly more desperate and isolated than they were before, because the simple fact is that when you try to help someone and it doesn’t go according to plan, a variety of uncomfortable feelings arise.
When dealing with our own problems and our own lives, however, we are playing with real money. We may ask others for support and advice, but the bottom line is that the buck stops with us. We will have to make the decision and live with the consequences—no-one else. This is why all good therapy avoids giving advice or taking too much control. The goal is to provide a space, person, or activity to lean upon when these difficult decisions are being made.
My point in writing this post is twofold. The first is to recognize that an ability to help oneself is a virtue, one that should be better regarded in a society intent on supporting its members. The first step in not over-burdening a society is to ensure its members can, by and large, support themselves, such that in the areas where they cannot, a collective effort can. But a collective effort is only possible if many of the members have extra to give. That begins with an attitude shift of putting on your own oxygen mask first.
Secondly, I want our culture to be more aware of what helping others means. When someone does reach out for help, it is not an admission that they have no resources at their disposal. That is too often the assumption, which leads to a rampant take-over at the controls. We feel justified in doing things for them, giving them advice, and sort of living vicariously through them—without any of the actual consequences. It’s a sort of careless and carefree position we often allow ourselves to assume. Without an understanding of a better way, this often leaves people in a worse position than before.