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Empathy: When helping doesn't help

In my training and facilitation work, I’m often supporting groups on how to live within trauma, change and conflict. In other words, how to sit within the mess. I pinched this phrase from a fantastic semi-mentor, semi-pal, who over the years has taught me a lot about a lot. And like most things, she is bang on the money. It is mess.

Whether it’s individual support, social or organisational change, there will be mess. When it comes to wellbeing; at work or at play; we tend to focus so much on good vibes, teamwork, and living our best lives that we don’t always know how to make space for when it’s not so great. As a result, we don’t know how to talk about challenges with ourselves or with others. This creates cultures of tension and resentment, loaded with misunderstanding and unmet needs.

Change processes, whether they are about organisations or people, are transformative, and as with any transformation you have to make space to let in the new. This can be painful. We all come to these processes with our own needs, judgements, and lifelong worldviews, and to go into these times assuming smooth rides and good vibes only, defers uncomfortable feelings or conversations. For survivors dealing with trauma, or for workers at risk of redundancy, good vibes only simply does not cut it. We need to welcome conflict and mess in order to get to the other side.

This graphic from @sitwithit is great as it unpacks quite neatly some of the knee jerk reactions we have when we’re trying to help. One of the most human responses to pain is our attempt to “fix” it. I come across a plethora of well intentioned, but poorly delivered helping behaviours, whether it’s telling school girls not to take selfies, or telling tech abuse victims to come off line. But these illusions of control don’t dig in to the cultures that enable abuse to happen and I don’t think they create environments for empathy. I’m a big fan of the empowerment journey, and a huge part of that is connecting the dots between individual experience and political culture, and coming together to make real change. If we rush to resilience and creating positive vibes only, we miss the steps needed to unpack why certain groups experience certain types of discrimination, or abuse, or oppression. A powerful step for anyone going through rough times is connecting the dots between their experience and the experience of others. For people with poor mental health, workers struggling with zero hours contracts or burnout, mums with overwhelm, or survivors of abuse, it can be a powerful to recognise that what they're experiencing isn’t about one person’s life, but rather often stems from a larger societal issue. Coming together in community to make change is an essential component of wellbeing, and it should always be part of our work in moving on from the mess. Helping then, doesn’t mean fixing, and wellbeing is not about living in peace at all times. It means creating a space where things don’t have to be all great all the time, but that it can get great again.


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