Sunday, 19 August 2012

confessions of a helper

Last night I had a discussion with others that made me think about my time as a ‘lay pastor’ (volunteer pastor).  I’ve never exactly spelt this out for people, but my blog-name of ‘Cardinal Cyn’ is also a reference to a time in my life when I studied ministry and did lay pastor-y things.  As a result I have some experience with pastoral care.  

Part of me loved to help others in a sort of pastoral care type of way.

Sounds all warm and fuzzy, but I can tell you it is not.  Among other things, I can remember the awkwardness of visiting someone in hospital after a failed suicide attempt; there seemed to be a plague of depression everywhere I turned; and I once faced a person exhibiting behaviour which was just freaky and weird (screaming, pointing and rocking in church…ffs!) (while sitting on the floor). What would you do?

I kept a journal on pastoral care for a while in order to learn from my own reflections.  Here’s a quote from it:

…There are others however, who don’t seem to grow or who are playing games.  I am concerned with how a person is travelling spiritually and like to encourage them.  But I don’t like being manipulated or played with by people who are excessively needy.  I don’t have a need to be needed, in that sense, and I’m glad about that.

I discovered during this time how much I needed help, myself, from time to time.  It’s hard to hear and see some of the stuff you do, in its raw intensity.  I needed to ‘debrief’ or find a ‘relief valve’, particularly after a tough session.

I found that when in the role of ‘helping’ others  I MUST do stuff in order to look after myself.  Stuff like self-care. Knowing my own limits and boundaries.  Dealing with my own issues so they were not projected inappropriately. It was really important for me to know who I was and be comfortable in my own skin – otherwise I’d get creamed. 

The risk of NOT doing this – of NOT knowing who I am, and NOT dealing with my own stuff - is that all the crap that gets dumped on me from other people goes into me and builds up, to a point of pressure-cooker-meltdown level. If I didn’t have a healthy release valve in place, the crap comes out in unhealthy ways – usually in ways which damage relationships. This is not a long-term recipe for wellness, happiness and health, people. No it is not. Not for me. Not for anyone.

I had to learn how to be well. And not just physically well – but emotionally, mentally, socially, spiritually well.  Prevention is better than cure.  This is what works for me:

  • Practice acceptance.  Breathing in the realisation that I can’t change some things or people, and there are probably elements of a situation that I will need to learn to accept. 
  • Support.  Allow someone else to stand alongside me to provide “psychological splinting”.
  • Time out.  Escape by taking days off, pursuing recreational activities, having a regular diversion, taking part in social activities.  Have some fun.
  • Self development. Learning skills and gaining more understanding.  Always reflecting on my own attitudes and behaviours and what I can learn for next time.
  • Attending to physical factors such as exercise, rest and diet.
  • Plan Strategically.  I always like to have a plan in order to build.

Even so, it takes a special kind of person to survive long-term in such a role. 

Just saying.


  1. It is a perfect analysis of helper topic. I love that statement "I don’t have a need to be needed".
    When you have power as a helper, it means you have responsibility. In such situation, you have capability to make or break a person. As each person has a social net work, any positive or negative influence will affect a social network, even a generation.
    I hope i can transfer my opinion!

    1. Great to hear from you, Firoozeh! I agree with you regarding the level of trust that builds between the helper and helpee which is fragile and precious and must be treated with utmost respect. There is so much more to say on this topic. I don't believe a helper can operate effectively in isolation. They need supervisors who are supportive, and there needs to be guidelines or boundaries in place. Got to make it safe for people.