I used to be a preacher.
I would take any and every opportunity to lecture people on what they should and should not do. And then, I would become frustrated at them for not following my directions.
Yes, one of those people.
This approach to “helping” was, needless to say, ineffective. I, however, did not think it was me. It was them who refused to listen.
The first inkling I got that this behaviour pattern might not be the best route was when I heard a family member complaining about how people “don’t know what’s good for them” and how helping people is “a journey of disappointment.” Listening to this person talk, I couldn’t help but remember all the times I’d been subjected to their lectures. I remember thinking that other people weren’t really the problem.
At the time, I couldn’t make the connection to my own behaviour. So, I continued to preach and preach, becoming disillusioned at my failed attempts and blaming it on the recipients.
My pseudo-heroism came to a sudden halt when, in my early twenties, I had a mental breakdown. Quite suddenly, I had to stop thinking about helping others. I had to turn my attention back on myself, suffering and suffocating under my own self-imposed limits. Suddenly, helping people became secondary to helping myself.
I spent close to a year healing, hiding out by myself watching TED talks, reading books, crying, eating Nutella, and discovering myself.
I tried to tell some people around me what I was learning, but they weren’t the ones who decided to change—I was. They were still intent on doing all the things I was trying to stop doing. Inevitably, I sounded like a preacher. So, I stopped sharing. I went deeper into my cocoon. I worked on myself.
On the other side of getting my head above water, I decided to come out of hiding. I wanted to help the world and I was ready to take the pain if I wasn’t able to.
To my surprise, as I told my story, people became inspired. They told me I helped them. Suddenly, the fire returned. I could help people?
I felt a familiar magnetism draw me like a moth to a flame. Yes, I could help people! I was overjoyed. I thought I had finally cracked the puzzle.
So, I rubbed my palms together excitedly, feeling like the master guru of people-helping. Yes, I thought, I will help.
I created this framework in my head. I thought it was the greatest framework ever made. It was: “You can’t help people, you just have to tell your story. Then, they’ll be inspired and they’ll take action.”
That sounded good. It sounded like it was straight out of a personal development manual.
And for a while, it actually worked! Well, it worked in my head. Then, I started trying to do it in the real world, and it failed horribly.
Telling my story made people feel very happy for me and, sometimes, it made them inspired, but time and time again, they’d ask me, “But how do I do it?” And I had no answer.
Mind you, that doesn’t mean I didn’t try to answer.
I cringe now, remembering all the people I lectured. I became a full-scale preacher, spouting all my best advice all over people’s eager questions. Thinking back, I feel really bad for the first few clients I worked with and I feel really bad for my past self, so confused about what was expected of her and yet so eager to help.
My confidence began to falter. I was suffering and I endured that suffering in silence. After all, I was supposed to be the guru, right? I couldn’t help people with self-confidence while suffering from low self-confidence!
So, once again, I had fallen into the same trap. I had become a guru, a preacher, a sage on the stage. I could rev people up, but I couldn’t help them channel that energy into changing their lives. I couldn’t help people.
I was disappointed, deflated, and lost.
I had to take a break. I put everything aside. I seriously contemplated never going out into public again.
So many questions circled in my head. Why couldn’t I help people? What was wrong with me? Did people really not want help? Was I just really bad at helping? How could I help myself and not be able help others? What if I can’t help myself? What if I’m a fraud? What if I have no idea what I’m doing and I never will?
I tried to dig through old emails, reviews, internet articles, blog posts—every bit of information I’d amassed in my brief people-helping journey. I kept asking myself: “How can I help people? What helps people?” I was looking for answers. I was looking for a magic formula.
The more I looked, the less I saw.
The more I searched for something concrete, the more it would turn to water in my hands.
I tried to write down what I was doing in my head each time that I would cope with a disappointment or a failure. I tried to capture what I was doing in my mind. I’d rejoice that I’d figured something out. But then, a week later, my tactic would change.
My frustration grew as I realized: I didn’t have a formula. I didn’t have a concrete answer.
In the depths of that heart-wrenching realization, I suddenly remembered that experience as a kid, listening to my family member talk about being frustrated with helping people and thinking, “Well, yes, that’s because you lecture them.”
I saw a glimmer of truth.
What if I didn’t need a formula? What if I didn’t need a concrete answer?
Lights went off. I felt warm, like something was guiding me into the arms of this realization and saying “Yes, yes!”
What if helping people isn’t about giving people the answers? What if people already had the answers? What if we didn’t need to be lectured or preached at, but rather turned towards those answers we already hold within?
What if I was bad at being a guru because I didn’t want to be a guru? What if I just wanted to be a friend?
My heart raced as the epiphany enveloped my whole body.
It was so simple.
And it changed my life.
When I emerged out of my solitude with this realization, I felt light. I didn’t feel like a guru anymore. I didn’t feel like I needed to give anyone answers, and thank goodness. What pressure. What unimaginable pressure to have answers.
I didn’t have any answers, except my own. And I never will. I do, however, have the ability to draw others’ answers out of them by seeing the best in them, believing in them, and encouraging them to find their own way.
When I started applying those principles to the way I related to people, in and out of my work, I watched them blossom, like flowers that had spent too long without water. And I, myself, blossomed, finally free of my own self-induced pressure to be someone I never wanted to be.
What amazes me, looking back, is that it was so simple all along.
It’s almost as if my mind wasn’t willing to take something so simple for an answer. But, maybe, it was something more. Maybe what I really learned to do wasn’t to help people, but to trust people, to trust that they could do it on their own.
I couldn’t help anyone until I realized that I didn’t need to put myself in a “helper” position, while subordinating other people to “helped”.
I just had to learn to see people eye-to-eye, to be a mirror for their highest potential, to love the parts of them that they were ashamed of, and to believe in them when they didn’t believe in themselves. It’s something I learn about more and more each day. Mind you, I screw it up all the time, and I don’t think I’ll ever be perfect. It’s not always easy, but at least it’s true.
To help people, love them. Then, they help themselves.
(Photo by Hartwig HKD)