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.

Head Voice and Heart Voice

“The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.”

from ‘Ars Poetica?‘ Czeslaw Milosz 1.

For those who hear but one voice within themselves I feel a sadness. It’s like finding that your friend’s car radio is stuck on one channel 2. To only hear one voice within myself reduces the number of ‘voices’ which which I can speak.

Two very present voices within me are a Heart Voice and a Head Voice. There is also a Hip Voice, but I will focus on the Heart-Head contrast. To give them titles like this suggests that they are very distinct, but in truth it has taken time to discern them, like different footsteps in the next room. So in some ways I am telling the story backwards, starting with the conclusion.

Intention beyond verbal content. Three faces of “How you doing?”: Head, Heart, or Hips.
Three voices 3.

The head voice sees communication as information. It attends to facts. What is most important is the truth or falsity of the facts. Facts are perceived as being separate from how I feel about them, and facts are real 4. Mathematics, science, engineering, physics, these are the impersonal systems that govern the universe. Emotion is seen as ‘dirt in the system’ 5.

Head Voices in agreement, exchanging factual statements.

My heart voice sees communication as social bonding. It is more interested in the tone of what is said, and what that tone says about the speaker’s attitude to me. Expression and posture are as relevant as words. Language is how we associate. Where monkeys and apes physically groom each other in expressions of social commitment, human speech is “grooming at a distance” 6 7

Heart Voices in agreement, exchanging emotional commitments.

In broad gender terms, men are either predisposed (by nature) or cultured (through nurture) into identifying with a head voice, and women with a heart voice 8. While this is a crude generalisation, it is useful. This difference in perspective is then the basis for miscommunication between the genders, as a man responds to a question with solution information, while a woman responds with social sympathy 9. It points to the confusion of having a ‘heart-to-heart’, which someone who wanted a head-to-head 10.

An argument in the making, “I asked you what time it is!”. “I told you that I missed you!”
Another argument in the making, “Didn’t you miss me?” “I returned at the arranged time”.

These are external arguments, where another person’s voice doesn’t answer my need. Matters are complicated when a person expresses heart-felt desire through their head voice, and is then disappointed to get a head answer. This hurt can confirm their suspicion of the heart voice, and a bitter head voice expressed in cynicism or sarcasm.

Cynicism, a cycle of unrecognised hurt.

Where expressing a heart voice can expose my internal life, the head voice feels safe in only offering the external and factual. However, long term use of this defensive posture can lead to a loss of contact with emotions, and an over-identification with the head voice. This is where I find myself at the moment, experimenting with an increasing identification with the heart voice. I have noticed that head-identification leads me to over-emphasise verbal content when I am listening. The speaker may not be looking for an exposure of factual inconsistencies. Another consequence is that I express heart content through my head, were I am unlikely to get a heart response. I would feel more embarrassed about about this, if it weren’t so common.

The most savage consequence of my head-orientation I have titled, The Ambush. It starts with an unease that could be honestly expressed through the heart voice. It would say something like, “I would like to stop talking now”. I don’t express that voice, and the repression builds an anger inside of myself. I use that anger to listen closely to the other person’s head voice. I am preparing a head response, but not with the intention of providing information. My intention is to fashion a factually unassailable and emotionally crushing response, hiding my anger in facts 11. In effect I wish to punish the other person for putting me in a situation where I have feelings that I can’t express. This is the consequence of not being honest about my own heart voice.

The Ambush: settling the heart through the head.

It isn’t pretty. By contrast, greater identification with the heart voice may increase my awareness of emotional states. Then I can be clearer about my emotional needs. If I can express them via my heart voice, I have a better chance of getting a heart response. And perhaps then I can build relationships on kindness to my own weaknesses, instead of injuring them with shame over my limitations. “You need not burn the house to get out of it” 12.

Love and Unlove

What is the opposite of love? The conventional pairing is love and hate. But is hate what stops me loving? John Welwood suggests that what lies behind “our wounded relationship with love” is “the mood of unlove”, a deep-seated suspicion I harbour within myself that I am not truly lovable as I am 1. This suspicion “undermines our capacity to give and receive love freely”. It acts as a filter which hides evidence of love, while highlighting any note of disinterest or rejection 2.

Possible faces of love and unlove.

My ‘mood of unlove’ announced itself at a party a few years ago, by overplaying its hand. It was a beautiful event, full of engaging people who were happy to see me. A thing happened, a thing too trivial and tedious to reward recounting. And there was no rejection involved. But it was possible for me to interpret rejection. So, why not?: I did. At that point I wanted to run home to my cave, far from the gross injustice of humanity. But somehow I wasn’t convinced with my own interpretation. I stayed, bewildered by the banquet of welcoming signs, baffled by how one small thing could numb me to the feast. The next day the whole incident became a little clearer: I had to develop a talent for seeing welcome, to balance a genius at inventing rejection.

In my new game, I look for signs of welcome. They are endless. I am standing in the crowded U-Bahn 3 , where everyone allowed me to join them. I walk down the street; each person passes without molesting me. The busy morning street opens up for me, to cycle to my destination like a salmon in a dense stream 4 5. Once I stop looking for signs that I am singluarly appreciated, the world is a very welcoming place. Of course, the price of that welcome is to recognise that I am one of many, I am one of us 6. But then, the desire to be seen as different corners me into being especially disliked, if I can’t be especially liked.

“This Happy Dog Thought People Had Thrown A Parade For It” 7

While neologisms can be awkward and unnecessary, ‘unlove’ is precise in its ungainliness 8. What holds me from love is a love-shaped suspicion. Hate is a powerful force, an different animal in its own right, and can exist as a partner to love or its inversion. When hate drives me to feel passionately, that passion may itself flip inside out and become love. Unlove, on the other hand only exists to prove love’s absence. 

The form ‘love/unlove’ has broader applications. My friend’s ex-girlfriend, a constant presence in his conversation, is his ‘ungirlfriend’, because she apparently isn’t ex yet. She still fulfills all the functions of a partner, except for presence. What’s more, an imperfect girlfriend can hardly compete with the perfect ungirlfriend 9. A man yearns for community, because he can’t feel community, but the new community is still haunted by his sense of lack: an ‘uncommunity’. All she knows about a mother is that her mother is everything that a mother shouldn’t be, her ‘unmother’.

Tricky! This image is a representation of unlove. But my use of it is an example of unlove. While writing about love as if I want it’s presence, I am still anamoured by it’s absence.

There is a particular posture to not recognising unlove. I reach for love, but I don’t grasp it. I open the door, but I don’t move. And it is delicious, to keep my cherished problem AND convince myself that I am working to shake it 10. Inactivity is resolved by seeing the obstacle as external; my history, my society, my family, my partner 11. Locating the taste of my own unlove is to admit a deeper reason for my suffering: I don’t trust love.