Helpers Helping Helpers: Communication & Emotion

September 26, 2018


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This article is the second in the series “Helpers Helping Helpers” and will explore the characteristics that are unique to those who find themselves in this role. This concept is one that assumes “helpers” have similar characteristics prior to entering their field (the term helpers used here was defined in the past blog post).

As a helping professional I have worked with “intense” populations – such as survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault; and those suffering from Addiction, Depression, Anxiety and PTSD – I sometimes find myself asking the question “what is wrong with me that I’m pursuing a career that puts me directly in the trenches?!’ Other counselors who help these populations also recall asking themselves the exact same question at one point or another in their careers. After all, we are not blind to the emotional and mental toll that often comes along with this commitment. Yet, there is a compelling pull towards doing this work, for better or worse. After talking to other Helpers about this subject it became clear that we share personality traits that keep us invested in this work. This in part led to the birth of this series which attempts to answer the following questions: What are the characteristics that Helpers seem to have in common? And how do they positively and negatively effect the Helpers ability to practice adequate self-care?

To begin, try this exercise: Think of the “helpers” that you know. The term “helpers” was defined in the last article as those in positions where the majority of their responsibilities include intense work that focuses on repairing the physical, emotional and mental distress of others. These helpers might be friends, family members or people you visit for care. Think of two “Helpers” that you know well. If you had to list some personality traits or characteristics that they seem to have in common what would it be? If you are a “helper” and you’re reading this, what are some similar qualities that you observe in yourself and others you work with? Think about these questions a bit before you continue reading, it’s often a question we rarely get asked.

I researched the personality traits recommended for pursuing employment in the helping professions and collected answers from friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Below is a list of the common answers that emerged. From this small piece of research it seemed that “Helpers” appeared to have:

  1. Good communication skills
  2. Perceived emotional stability 
  3. Perceived empathy 
  4. Compassion 
  5. A Community Minded Mentality 
  6. Great Listening Skills 
  7. Interpersonal skills 
  8. Selflessness 
  9. Patience

This is by no means an exhaustive list, however it does highlight common responses to the questions listed in this article.

There are two things to note here. The first is that what’s considered the most effective way to test personality traits is to use some form of standardized personality test. However, this article does not have access to the tools needed to do this. Furthermore, self-reports at times can be faulty, because let’s face it, sometimes it’s easier for others to see us than it is for us to see ourselves. With that being said, the answers above focus on what we see in others as well as what we see in ourselves.

The second important thing to note is that the purpose of this series is NOT to outline all the weaknesses associated with the above Helper’s characteristics. In fact, it is my belief that this fear tactic, which is intended to steer people away from their weaknesses, can back fire and lead to shame and chronic helplessness (which fuels their weaknesses for future activity). Therefore, this series will explore these characteristics from a neutral perspective; taking into account both the strengths and weaknesses associated with each. I am proposing that a Helper must be proactive in their pursuits to minimize the weaknesses of each listed characteristic and maximize their strengths in order to practice effective self-care. We will explore in the future the specific self-care techniques that can be created to address the weakness of all Helper characteristics.

With that being said, let’s take a closer look at the first two characteristics. The first noticeable thing that most people pointed out that the Helpers in their lives have is good communication skills. The definition of “good communication” was typically vague but centered on the Helper’s ability to obtain information needed to fulfill their duties and help patients.

To help you spot this trait further (or to identify it in yourself) let’s look at what the smaller aspects of good communication are. It often includes good listening skills and nonverbal communication that shows an openness to share and understand another. Good communicators have the ability to be clear and concise when they speak. Think back, we all have come across someone who can summarize in one sentence what we struggled to get out in a clumsy 8-10 sentence rant. That’s great communication! The ability to hear the information, process it, follow the thread of topic and focus on the overall point of the conversation is a skill. This is why as a therapist basic communication skills are the first thing that gets addressed. Skills like “paraphrasing”, “summarizing”, and “active listening” are highly coveted.

So what are the consequences for the Helper with this characteristic? Complications can arise if your communication skills are on over drive in every aspect of your life. In essence, you begin to become responsible for the “health” of communication in all areas of your life and in the lives of others. The “strength” side of this characteristic is that this can lead to great recognitions and advancements in your life including promotions and the establishment of deep connections with friends and partners in your life. The typical “weakness” of this trait is exhaustion; the emotional and mental exhaustion that comes from constantly evaluating the communicative needs of the people around you.

The second Helper characteristic “Perceived emotional stability” speaks about a Helper presenting a calm demeanor to others. In some answers people described this as “they keep their cool and don’t get upset easily even when the situation calls for it”. The word “perceived” is included in this characteristic because it is unclear whether the Helper actually has achieved emotional stability or if they simply appear that way.

To look at this characteristic neutrally I pose the question: What are the social ramifications for being perceived as having emotional stability (even if you aren’t a helper)? Firstly, people might give themselves permission to “unload” on you because they feel you can handle it. People also might seek you out to handle conflict because you remain calm despite all hell breaking loose around you. Your calm demeanor might turn you into the prime candidate for handling stressful situations in social interactions – aka the mediator.

This characteristic has similar strengths and weaknesses to those of being a good communicator. However the strength of this quality cannot be understated! People reap the benefits of this characteristic by being given a sense of calm consideration, strength, and direction at a time when they believe it is beyond them to induce this in themselves. The Helper becomes an anchor in the storm.

This is priceless.

Think of all the firefighters and first responders out there. Think of the rape crisis counselor who sits in the ER with a survivor of sexual assault right after their attack to offer support and guidance. This characteristic is extremely rewarding to not only the recipient but to the Helper as well, because, well, it helps!

However, like any other trait there are weaknesses associated; such as having poor boundaries due to over extending yourself in different areas in your life (e.g. personal, professional). If unchecked this can be detrimental to a Helper’s ability to practice effective self-care. Furthermore, as a helper you may be at greater risk for developing vicarious trauma if you do not process and deal with all of the trauma that you are called to observe and handle.

So far in this series we have discussed the first two characteristics: perceived emotional stability and communication skills. The next article will explore the next two characteristic: perceived empathy and compassion.

The goal of this series is to understand what a Helper is composed of in order to nurture and enhance the strengths of each of these characteristics. To explain this idea further the analogy of a plant comes to mind. In order to understand how to keep a beautiful plant healthy and nourished you MUST understand the plant’s needs, it’s makeup. Certain questions need to be asked and answered. Such as, how much sunlight is ideal for the plant’s growth, whether that’s partial or full sunlight. Does the plant need to be given water daily or several times a day? What climate does the plant flourish in? Is it dry heat or cooler climate that’s ideal?

With the Helper, understanding what is required to flourish as a Helper comes from understanding what we are made out of. The first goal of this series is to help us achieve this understanding.

Feedback about what you personally experienced as a Helper or by observing Helpers is always appreciated.

* I believe knowledge is power, especially the more knowledge we gain about ourselves. So please use this blog as a tool for introspection and developing better self care practices. Please pass on your knowledge to others! Much love!

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