Against Helping.

“If you desired to change the world, where would you start? With yourself or others?”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn 1.

My blood runs cold, and I fancy I hear a churchbell mourn, whenever I hear someone wanting to help. It’s usually magically whispered in full confidence by an innocent who believes that they already know what is needed. If that sounds unduely harsh, allow me first to unpack the Drama Triangle.

Karpman’s Drama Triangle (1968)

There are many excellent descriptions of the Drama Triangle online 2. I am only going to focus on the role of the Rescuer. The rescuer enters a new situation with their own need, the need to find someone to rescue. They are drawn to someone they can see as a victim. They try to rescue the victim from their persecutor, and they may succeed. That is only the first act, and a committed rescuer sees that as their job completed.

However, it is too sweet to stop. And as the relationship continues, the victim starts to realise that the rescuer sees them only as someone who needs to be rescued. Understandably, the victim resents this role and in a delightful twist starts to see the rescuer as a persecutor, “Ah, you loved me as a loser, but now you’re worried that I just might win” 3. The victim now needs to find a new rescuer to complain about their new persecutor.

The Victim’s new perspective: persecuted by the Rescuer.

At this point the rescuer, who sees only their own good intentions, starts to resent their victim’s ingratitude, “I was only trying to help”. Resentment turns to victimisation on receiving the victim’s complaints; the rescuer is now the victim of the persecutor who was the victim. The rescuer who is now a victim turns to someone who will listen to the injustice, and be their rescuer.

The Rescuer’s new perspective as Victim.

If the original rescuer (now victim) complains long enough to their rescuer, then the dance can take one more turn. This new rescuer now feels victimised by the complaints, and the original rescuer role as victim begins to persecute the current rescuer. The persecuted rescuer starts to feel victimised, needs to find a new rescuer…. and on and on it goes.

The next round of the merry Drama Triangle waltz.

The worm at the center of this is the rescuer’s desire to help. It is the rescuer who is looking for help, because helping is what they want to do, whether it is needed or no. This desire to prove myself useful takes many forms. It can fill a sense of meaninglessness in my own life. It can be part of my training. What seems more powerful for me is that, as long as I am treating the other person’s needs, my own needs are hidden. This is an issue in any of the helping professions. The blindness to my own needs accelerates burnout. In coaching the question a client can keep in mind is, “Do you need to coach me? Or do you respond to my needs?” This brings us onto an alternative to the Drama Triangle, the helpful but atrociously titled Winner’s Triangle 4.

The Winner’s Triangle, Acey Choy (1990).

The main difference between the Winner’s Triangle and the Drama Triangle, is that in the Winner’s Triangle everyone sees everyone else as whole and complete. Where the rescuer assumed that the victim needed help, the coach asks the creator if help is needed. It is as simple as that. In asking the question and accepting the answer, the coach simultaneously recognises the creator’s agency and their own need to help.

So, I’m not saying DON’T HELP. I’m saying that if you NEED to help, then YOU need help. Unfortunately our language doesn’t make a distinction here 5. While the distinction I attempt seems fine, it has attracted the attention of connoisseurs of goodness. A Christian escape from identification as the Good is seeing all help as coming from God 6. The Bhagavad Gita suggests that good acts be performed without attachment to the results, or the role of the good-doer 7. This is an interesting challenge; what is the nature of helping, when I am not the helper? Even more sublime is the challenge to see no separation between people. “Who thinks of himself as separate from the world, let him help the world… In truth you do not help others, because there are no others” 8.

Such fine distinctions may seem out of place when I am paying a lot of money for help. Eric Berne says that as a psychoanalyst, it’s no good to say to a “real” person, “I can’t help you, you’ve go to help yourself”. He says that’s “sheer baloney”, an evasion of professional responsibilities 9. But he doesn’t say that you can say, “I can help you”. Later, as a “head mechanic”, he says he’ll say, “Okay, we’ll try to fix your head…” But that ‘we’ and that ‘try’ are a bit slippery. It still implies that the client has to help, and that the outcome is not certain. The real ‘head mechanics’ are the surgeons and psychopharmacologists. They are the one who don’t need your assistance.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes”.

Mick Cooper studied factors which lead to therapeutic success. He reckons that only 15% of success is based on the type of therapeutic model used. This is know as the ‘Dodo bird verdict’, from the bird’s judgment in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ that “everyone has won so all must have prizes” 10. One interpretation is that finding someone to talk with is more important than their particular training. 30% of success is due to the ‘therapeutic relationship’, that is, how I get on with the therapist. But he finds that 40% of success is client factors such as motivation. In other words, the client is the biggest factor in the client’s success 11.

This cruel paradox is confirmed in my own experience in coaching. The people who respond most are the ones who are already there, the ones who need it least. As a client, the better I am feeling, the more responsive I am to ideas, and the less concerned I am by my uncertainty. My sense of resilience allows me to be vulnerable, and careless of consequence. Conversely, when I feel bad, asking for help is much harder, as I feel rejection will kill me 12. As a client, the more I need help, the harder to help I am. Then I need a coach who won’t become frustrated with me in my inability to respond, a coach not so identified as helper.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ‘The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind’ (1568) 13.

Why then, if I have so many misgivings about helping, did I get involved in life coaching? My interest is in finding out how you and I behave. How we are is fascinating. And there is great power in being able to finally see what is going on. But this is a different motivation than wanting to change what is going on. I believe that seeing the truth more clearly has a transformative effect, but transformation is the result of facing myself, not the intention. If transformation was the intention, I would change myself into someone even more deluded. Isn’t that what I was doing all along?

I distrust talk of ‘becoming the best version of myself’, ‘finding my authentic self’, and ‘living out my dream’, because it seems too close to a consumer culture founded on making me feel uncomfortable about how I am. A lot of the marketing around coaching is the a same as the marketing about any other product; (1) tickle their insecurity, (2) offer them a solution, (3) collect their money. Coaches have to make a buck, and you don’t make money telling people that they are fine. But you are fine. You are finer than you know.

“Don’t go changing to try and please me…

I want you just the way you are.” 14.

  1. quoted in ‘Hitch-22: A Memoir’, Christopher Hitchens (2010)
  2. Properly known as Karpman’s Drama Triangle (1968)
  3. Leonard Cohen, ‘First We Take Manhatten’ (1987)
  4. If “the winner’s triangle is a win/win for everyone involved, shouldn’t it be the winners’ triangle?
  5. Initail reports of the German überhelfen (to over help) were misleading. It seems to imply helping someone over a river, rather than overhelping yourself with the candy.
  6. “For the godly trust not to their own righteousness. They look unto Christ their reconciler, who gave his life for their sins.”

    Martin Luther, ‘Commentary on Galatians’, quoted in William James, ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’, p.121.

  7. The interpretation is from Ram Dass.

    “Therefore, O Arjuna, do your duty efficiently
    as a service or Seva to Me,
    free from attachment to the fruits of work.”

    Bhagavad Gita 3.9,

  8. ‘I Am That: Dialogues of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj’ p.88 & 234
  9. It’s from a very ‘hip’ straight-talkin’ no nonsense lecture. ‘Away from a Theory of the Impact of Interpersonal Interaction on Non-Verbal Participation’, in ‘Beyond Games and Scripts’, Eric Berne (1971), p.13
  11. Cooper, M (2010), Essential Research Findings in Counselling and Psychotherapy: The facts are friendly. London, Sage publications LTD.
  12. When it comes to good mood, the rich in spirit get richer. “Der Teufel scheißt immer auf den größten Haufen” The devil shits on the biggest pile.

    What Jesus meant here, I have no idea, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

  14. Billy Joel (1977)

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