Thoughts on Helping 3: Like Helps Like

In helping others to grow and change, the message is important but it’s not everything. Imagine that you have a loved one struggling with emotional problems, obesity or excessive drinking. You want to help and so you craft the “perfect” message of practical ideas that, if implemented, could result in great improvement. You deliver it carefully, with no judgment and lots of love, only to see it fall on deaf ears or be actively rejected by your friend or relative. It happens a lot.

Sometimes it’s harder to take suggestions from our loved ones than from outsiders. It’s too threatening. I know this is true for me. Pretty commonly, I’ll be talking with my wife and say something along the lines of, “I was having lunch with _________ today. He told me that I should think about __________ and it sounds like a good idea. I’m gong to look into it.” To which she will respond with something like, “I told you that two years ago, and you blew me off.” Well, I can’t deny it (but I’m getting better).

I don’t think this is just my problem. Often our spouses or close relatives cannot speak the truth into our lives. There is only so much that parents can teach their children. The parents know, but the kids won’t listen – to them anyway. Then later a word from the football coach or music teacher sets a change in motion.

A little bit of separation helps. Doctors, clergy, counselors and coaches may be in a better position to advise others by virtue of their expertise, but also because of their professional distance. Individuals may be more willing to reveal their intimate struggles to, and listen to, helping professionals who are expected to be nonjudgmental and to maintain complete confidentiality.

Because I am a doctor and knowledgeable in the field, plenty of people have asked me for advice on health, wellness, and changing their lifestyles. On the other hand my family typically isn’t asking me the same questions. My expertise, my character, and my message are the same, but the relationships are too close.

Still, being a doctor isn’t a guarantee of success. All helping professionals will have experienced many patients and clients who were unable or unwilling to listen, hear, learn and change. In an ordinary primary care practice, the vast majority of patients with lifestyle illnesses slowly worsen, never making meaningful, healthy changes to their behaviors.

Yet people do change. As I see it, the most powerful therapeutic relationships seem to be those of shared experience. Relationships in 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Overeaters Anonymous are prime examples.   PatientsLikeMe and Weight Watchers are representative of other groups connecting individuals with shared experiences and goals. These programs work.

Nothing helps people to listen and feel accepted like the knowledge that the teacher has been there too. Personal stories shared among the group members are both inspirations and sources of information on what works and what doesn’t. In a setting of love and acceptance, many are able to hear the call to change, act on it, and become well.

I’m terming this phenomenon “Like Helps Like” and thinking about its implications for my ministry. Who is like me, or who am I like? Who is it that I am best able to help by virtue of my own experience? Professionals, especially the driven and ambitious types, come to mind. More specifically, physicians and medical executives might relate well to me and my story. Perhaps I should give up trying to help all-comers.

What should I be doing differently? Do I need a new “target audience” to be effective? I’m not sure. For now, I’m going to keep thinking, keep writing and, keep praying. I trust that God will eventually reveal a purpose and role for me that will be an exact fit. Until then, I’ll just have to be patient.

What about you? What’s your experience? Who are you uniquely suited to help?


Other posts in this series:
Thoughts on Helping 1: What Do People Need?
Thoughts on Helping 2: Who Wants To Be Well?