Existential Psychology

If You Are Interested In Helping Others You Have To Help Yourself First

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Many people enter the helping professions because they struggled mightily through difficult circumstances and feel like no one was there to help them when they needed it most. For them helping others is a form of redemption, a way to right past wrongs in their own lives. And there’s no question that the plan is noble. Instead of passing on their suffering with destructive words and actions, like so many people who have been made to suffer do, they’re trying to switch things up, to create something positive and productive out of life events that hurt them deeply.

But the frequent reality is that those hoping to help others haven’t really helped themselves yet, they haven’t moved through their traumas or completed their grief in order to feel whole. They’ve got a lot of unfinished business. At the unconscious level they believe they can bypass the difficult, anxiety provoking work on themselves by helping others work on themselves.

So really what we’ve got going on in these cases is an example of projection, the psychological defense mechanism where we place what we can’t or won’t accept in ourselves onto the people or structures around us. A major reason for this type of projection is that helpers with difficult pasts don’t want to feel vulnerable anymore, nor do they want to rely on anybody else, since being vulnerable and relying on others led to bad consequences. Their solution is to fashion themselves as people who have it all together, as enlightened masters, as capable of doling out help not needing it.

But helping others who are struggling is psychologically and emotionally taxing work. It’s got to come out of a place of feeling full not feeling empty, of feeling whole not feeling incomplete. If that difficult material hasn’t been fully worked through then those personal demons can’t be banished they can only be made to slumber, and hearing about the struggles of others on a daily basis wakes them up.

If you are interested in helping others you have to help yourself first. There’s nothing selfish about taking care of yourself, of making your own needs and interests, your own happiness and self-actualization, a priority. In fact the cornerstone of a humanistic existential psychology is that there’s nothing in you that couldn’t also be in me. If you believe human beings are worthy of your care and attention then it means you’re just as worthy of your care and attention since you’re a human being too. Unless you’re in a really good place in your own life, unless your own mental health is in tip top shape, there’s only one way your plan to help others will go. Mental and emotional turmoil, resentment, hostility, exhaustion, and finally burnout. It’s only when your lamp is lit that you can help others light their lamps, and this means taking really good care of yourself, it means putting your needs first, it means having the courage to do the hard and painful work of moving towards completion with your still open traumas and grief.