Help that Doesn’t Assume

grandmother washingRecently I chatted with a woman who was distressed by the developing tension with her daughter –in- law. She was devastated that her son’s wife and mother to her 2 young grandchildren had conveyed that she no longer needed her regular visits. I asked about how she had been interacting with her son’s family and she reported that she had made every effort to be as supportive as possible. I heard that when she was on ‘grand parenting duty’ she’d take on a range of jobs to assist her son and daughter in law manage with their full time workloads and the demands of their young family. This included doing vacuuming, washing and other domestic chores. Additionally she would add extra things to the children’s routine that her daughter in law had written out for both grandmothers. Her thought was that an extra trip to the park would surely be helpful and guarantee the children a better night sleep. She was shocked to hear from her son that these acts of service had been interpreted as a negative judgement on her daughter in laws domestic standards and a lack of respect for their parenting practices. How painful for her to find that her well intentioned acts of help were experienced as intrusive!

I can certainly identify with the propensity to assume I know what will be helpful for others and to just dive in and action this. Throughout my growing up years I developed a strong sensitivity to others struggling to cope. My own mother was burdened by the load of caring for her elderly father as well as her 5 children and I discovered that ascertaining ways to help my grandfather, and in turn reduce her stress, was rewarded with a close appreciative response from my mother. Hence I entered my adulthood with a well-honed tendency to mind- read what I think others need without actually finding out what they think.

Having awareness of my priming to assume what will be helpful to others has enabled me to pause before rushing in to other’s space. It may sound incredibly basic but I am practicing asking others what I can do to be helpful – NOT jumping in as if I’m the expert on their emotional state. When one of my family members was recently going through a time of distress I made sure that I did nothing without checking in first, asking what they would like from me. I readily offered a few ideas of what I was able to do to lighten their load but I ensured that I was not invested in doing any of these things. It was entirely the call of the members of the household. This still doesn’t come easily to me as I can impulsively be ‘overly helpful”. I have come to see however that over- helping and assuming I know the perspective of another is actually an invasion of their privacy and personal space.

Dr Bowen observed the tendency of humans to move into either ‘over responsibility’ or ‘under responsibility’ when there is insecurity and stress in a relationship. The ‘over responsible’ one steadies her/himself through feeling useful to the other while the ‘under responsible’ one stabilises her/himself by drawing strength from the attentiveness of the other. The overly helpful person can easily burn her/himself out and neglect addressing their less interpersonal responsibilities such as financial management and administration. The under functioning one becomes gradually more unsure of him/herself and may become vulnerable to symptoms of depression, substance misuse and/or inability to manage life’s tasks. Help that affects a person’s ability to manage their own life responsibilities is actually not help at all. Help that assumes what another needs is also not help but is a contributor to misunderstandings and relationship discord.

Pulling one’s self out of such patterns is a way of addressing one’s own part in a relationship disruption. While misunderstandings in relationships can be deeply discouraging, being able to adjust how we respond to others needs or helping gestures provides a basis for bringing good to another and to our relationship. For the distraught mother in law who had been trying too hard to help her daughter in law, she could find an alternate path of asking her son and daughter what ways they would like her to assist them. This enables people to interact more respectfully without stepping into territory that belongs to others. Of course this woman’s son and daughter- in- law were contributing to the misunderstandings, however the most helpful thing any of us can put our energy towards is averting attention from blaming or mind reading the other to addressing our own part in unhelpful patterns.

Relevant Questions from “Growing Yourself Up” about ‘over – helpfulness’.

“Caretaking is an easy way to cover over unaddressed insecurities in much the same way that leaning on another as a prop can be.” P 89

“If a parent confided in us or leant on us when things were tough…we’re likely to be at easing giving advice but less comfortable accepting it from others.” P 38

“She needed to find a way to be real about how much she cared for [the other] without this compulsion to take care of [them]. Caring about another would come to mean something very different …than taking care of another.” P 59

“I am committed to not taking over and doing for another what they have the capacity to learn to do for themselves. (Not crowding another’s breathing space so they can develop their own capabilities and coping skills)” p 228

This grandmother “could see how much she had assumed her role as grandmother without asking her son what he thought.”  P 204

In Family Therapy & Clinical practice Dr Bowen wrote of the problem of being overly helpful as a counsellor/ health care clinician:

“When the therapist allows him/herself to become a “healer” or “repairman,” the family [client] goes into dysfunction to wait for the therapist to accomplish her/his work,” P 158 FTCP

‘Help that Doesn’t Assume’ – Jenny Brown

Wishful Thinking

Heaven- Is this just wishful thinking?faith

I am fully aware of how easily we can find the evidence to confirm any of our biases. Confirmation bias is everywhere and I can be as vulnerable as anyone in applying this to my own questions

I recall as a 6 or 7 year old asking my mother, “How do you know that there really is a God and a heaven?” The answer stored in my memory is, “Jenny I believe it but even if it turns out not to be true I think it is the best way to live my life”. I was somewhat unsettled by her answer which I guess is why it has stayed with me all these decades. It vaguely made sense to me and quietened my questioning at the time but I was hoping for more assurance about what I was taught at Sunday school.

Last month I faced a tragic loss in my broader family. The details are not necessary to write about but what has been a growing up challenge for me is a reigniting of questions about life beyond the grave. I was confronted with a fresh challenge to the basis of my Christian belief, in particular of the hope of a better eternity and a renewed heaven and earth. There is nothing like the invasion of unexpected sadness to either turn a person to considering spiritual faith or conversely to challenge the faith foundations of any believer. Can I really trust a God who allows such pain? Is the hope of heaven just wishful thinking to ease the sharp edge of grief?

A number of people have said to me that they know my faith will carry me through this sad time but this doesn’t quite capture the tumult of my spirit when facing pain. Faith in itself isn’t a comfort, it is the object of my faith that I need to be sure of. Hence over the past weeks I have re-examined the basis and object of my faith. I have needed to revisit the historical life and death of Jesus who claimed to be God revealing himself in human flesh (the word became flesh and dwelt among us John 1:14; John 3: 16-17).

Most importantly I have considered as rationally as I can the evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus; the hundreds of eye witness accounts and the dramatic change in life priorities of his followers as a consequence of seeing first-hand the mind-boggling presence of one who came back from the grave. (Acts 1:3; 1 Corinthians 15:6). It would not be sufficient for me to base my hope on just one person’s isolated revelation.

In one of the many recent conversations about my experience of questioning the basis of my faith, I heard another express that she is not looking for any faith that speaks to what happens after death. For her the important thing about any belief system is living a good and ethical life in the present. I get this priority. It reminds me of my mother’s previous ‘back up’ rationale if the heaven promise turns out not to be true – at least its teachings provide a basis for a life lived well now. There are many spiritual, philosophical and religious bodies of wisdom that speak to living better in the present. And yet when tragedy and death confronts us, so often our natural yearnings want more. Social researcher Hugh Mackay reports in his just released book ‘Beyond Belief’, that 68% of Australians claim some kind of belief in God although regular church/ temple/mosque attendance is under 15%. He writes about many reports of how a crisis turns even hardened atheists to praying. Mackay writes, “For some people, calling on God in a crisis is simply a case of ‘nothing to lose.’ For others, it’s a return to a faith they once had….or perhaps a last-ditch test to see if there is a God who might somehow intervene.” (p 19 Sun Herald Sunday Life, May 1 2016) While our society is predominately secular, spiritual questions are prevalent for many, especially in the face of adversity.

With my own spiritual journey I am fully aware of how easily we humans can find the evidence to confirm any of our biases. Confirmation bias is everywhere and I can be as vulnerable as anyone in applying this to my own questions. I am committed to reading widely the reasoning of different positions and making every effort to not just create my own subjective version of belief. Recently I have devoured writing about the varied works of many eminent scientists in the study of the origin of life (i.e. Signature in the Cell, S Meyer). Dr Bowen’s writing about the degree to which emotional and relational process can shape our belief systems has been helpfully provocative for me and challenged me to stay open to information that might not sit comfortably with my inherited or assumed viewpoints. If I am not willing to allow my beliefs to stand up to an examination of contrary thoughtful explanations then it doesn’t say much for the strength of my faith platform. While one reviewer of my book on Good Reads wrote that my discussion of my Christian faith runs the risk of alienating some readers my view is that is the tone of discussion rather than content that unhelpfully alienates people. My effort is to communicating considerately, without emotive dogmatism and to being genuinely interested in differing positions expressed respectfully.

It’s been good to ask questions of the basis of my faith at this time. I am not grateful for the painful circumstances of grief but I am thankful for the opportunities to re- ask my deep and challenging questions of life and of God. I’m in good company with the ancient Israelite King David who often in the psalms directs his troubling questions to God: “Why o Lord, do you stand so far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1)While not all my questions can be simply and fully be answered I have come to a deeper confidence in a supernatural resurrection faith. It’s interesting to look back on my mother’s faith journey as she faced the ramifications of her incurable cancer in her early 50s. As I watched her face death it was clear as she spent much time reading her Bible and praying that her trust in God’s promises of heaven were not just wishful thinking. She had travelled well past her ambivalent answer to my childhood probing’s to a personal and confident relationship with the Good Shepherd of David’s Psalm 23. At this time in my own life I have asked hard questions of the God of my faith and have not been left empty. Even though walking through a dark valley I have not been alone. My experience is that I have been met, not with an apparition or mysterious hallucinatory voice but by a historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, who claimed to be God and backed up this audacious claim with many solid eye witnessed evidences*. I have cherished the gift of a presence of God’s love and sustaining and a renewed confidence that “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”*

* What constitutes reliable historical evidence? I found this discussion drawing from credible academic ancient historians helpful. – More info

Dr Bowen writes about a mark of higher functioning people:

These are principle oriented, goal directed people who have many qualities that have been called “inner directed”. [While] sure of their beliefs and convictions they are not dogmatic or fixed in their thinking. They can hear and evaluate the viewpoints of others and discard old beliefs in favour of new. They are sufficiently secure within themselves that functioning is not affected by either praise or criticism from others. They can respect the self and identity of another without becoming critical or becoming emotionally involved in trying to change the life course of another. FTCP P 164


For any who are interested to explore an evidence perspective on the Christian faith these are books I recommend

  • New Evidence that Demands a Verdict – More info
  • The Christ Files – More info
  • The Reason for God – More info
  • Hugh MacKay’s book referred to: Beyond Belief – More info
  • Another fine Australian journalist and social researcher who has a different conclusion to MacKay is Roy Williams. His book God Actually documents his journey of investigation into the evidence for God – More info


‘Wishful Thinking’ – Jenny Brown