In our new weekly Psychological & Spiritual Therapy column, therapist Jack Surguy is offering professional advice to The Mindful Word readers for all those questions and problems you have wanted to discuss with someone qualified and caring.
If you would like Jack to assist you in any areas of your life and relationships, fill out this form. He will respond to your questions through this column, normally published every Tuesday.
Recently, I reconnected through social media with a person who led a personal development workshop I attended 15 years ago. At the time, I got a lot of value out of this weekend workshop. I since found out that she left the organization she worked for several years ago, and that her life has taken a great downturn. I’ve found this difficult to understand, based on my impression of her and the value that I got from the workshop.
I can see that she’s become completely out of touch with everything she taught, or perhaps she never understood what she was doing in the first place. I want to help her. How can I help her? Should I help her? Should I try to help her understand some of the principles I got so much value out of?
Harry, 68, U.S.
Thank you for your question.
I believe your situation is one we’ve all found ourselves in at least one time in our lives. As your question clearly demonstrates, what to do in these situations isn’t always clear.
As a therapist, I do my best to avoid telling someone what they should or need to do. I don’t believe this is helpful. Instead, helping others try to understand the possible motives for their actions tends to reap more therapeutic results. However, in this format, I believe just pointing out some areas for consideration could prove useful in helping you decide the best course of action.
Before venturing into issues of consideration, I first want to express my gratitude to you for having concern for and the desire to help someone who has had a positive impact on your life. I believe that really speaks of your character and your desire to help others. Thank you for that—the world needs more people like this!
A journey and a struggle: The story of Job
Life is both a journey and a struggle. Life isn’t easy. The spiritual teacher Ram Dass has said the following,
“One difficulty most of us have is interpreting our suffering, and our doubts, and our confusion, and our loss of faith as part of the process of awakening. We keep feeling like we fell out of grace—we blew it.”
I believe we have difficulty in interpreting others’ loss of faith and struggles as part of the process of awakening as well.
A story from the Jewish scriptures illustrates not only this type of struggle, but also a way of responding to these struggles. In the story of Job (pronounced with a long “o”), the main character, Job, loses everything as a result of a “bet” between Satan and God. Job loses his children, lands, livestock, many of his servants and his health, all in one day.
Three friends of Job travel to him to comfort him in his time of suffering and loss. The text states that upon their arrival, they’re also overcome with Job’s suffering. The friends sit in the dirt with Job for seven days without saying a word, which proves to be their wisest decision. Unfortunately, at the end of the seven days, when Job finally speaks and expresses his suffering and bitterness, his friends proceed to challenge Job and insist that his suffering and torment somehow stand as evidence that he’s done something wrong.
However, we as readers are given the knowledge, at the beginning of the story, that Job’s suffering and loss have nothing to do with any failures in his conduct or faith. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Job is actually suffering because of how faithful he’s been. This wasn’t an easy teaching for me to accept; it seemed unfair. Thankfully for everyone in existence, I’m not in charge of such matters!
Job is left not only struggling with the losses he’s endured and his loss of faith, but is also forced to defend himself against his friends’ accusations that he’s done something wrong and is being punished. By the end of the story, Job’s friends are divinely reprimanded for their lack of understanding, as well as their insistence that they know more than they actually know.
Discover our own biases
You state in your question that this person’s life has taken a downturn since she left the organization with which she was working when you became acquainted with her. You state that she left the organization, which suggests that she either found a better opportunity and decided to act on it, or she was somehow dissatisfied with the conditions or philosophies within the organization. It was within the following years after this decision that her life evidently took a downturn.
If we were in a session, I’d explore the ways her life took a downturn, at least as far as you’ve heard. I’d explore what circumstances within her life indicate that a downfall has occurred, as well as your thoughts and opinions on those circumstances.
The purpose of a conversation such as this is to try and discover our own biases concerning failure and success. This isn’t to say our biases are bad or incorrect, but we need to be sure that we’re aware of them.
This conversation would also help us consider if there are any competing interpretations or opinions on the events that make up her downfall. Some of these events may be more clear-cut than others. For example, someone struggling with a gambling addiction who has gambled away their life savings and most of their possessions is a pretty clear-cut example of someone experiencing a downfall. However, while a person deciding not to follow certain food or dress guidelines may be seen as experiencing a downfall by others within a certain group, people outside the group may not consider the decision a downfall at all.
These conversations help us all better understand our motives and desired outcomes in these types of situations. Knowing these motives and desired outcomes is extremely important, because they heavily influence our responses during any conversations we have with others. If I’m speaking with someone with the motive of learning their point of view, my responses will likely differ from responses through which my motive is to convince or persuade.
What are my motives?
The next question to ask yourself is what your motives actually are in speaking with this person.
Not knowing her specific circumstances limits my ability to provide a more detailed response, which is OK. I’m unsure if this person is homeless or if she’s fallen out of some sort of community that shared similar beliefs or values. The motivation and response to her being homeless or in some similar circumstance would greatly differ from the motivation and response to her falling away from a community.
Since you asked if you should share some of the principles that greatly helped you, I’ll assume that it’s something similar to the latter. The question then becomes, are you wanting to help this person because her suffering bothers you, and making her suffering go away will make you feel better, or are you wanting to help this person grow in a manner most beneficial to her? This is an extremely important question!
If, after careful consideration, we discover that helping her reassures us that as long as we believe and engage in the “right” actions, we’ll be OK, then speaking with her is more about us meeting our own needs and dealing with our own fears. If seeing her suffer makes us uncomfortable and we want that suffering to go away because that’ll makes us feel better, in a way, then again this is more about us meeting our own needs.
If we can determine that we’re seeking to speak with this person in order to provide them support and assistance in learning whatever life truth they’re in the midst of learning, then our approach will be vastly different than if we’re going in to “fix” the problem.
Sit with her in her suffering
Here are my suggestions if your motive is to assist this person in growing and learning a difficult truth in life.
First and foremost, realize that your role isn’t to tell the person what they need to do or what they need to believe. My guess is that since she taught the workshop you attended, she’s probably very well-versed in the principles of which you spoke.
Perhaps a more helpful approach would lie in asking her what led to the fall. What doubts or issues was she or is she struggling with that perhaps prevent her from applying the principles that were beneficial to you? Seek to understand her situation and her current struggles without trying to think of a way to solve them for her. In other words, be like Job’s friends were the during first week and be willing to sit with her in her suffering.
Through your motive to understand and not solve, you’ll express willingness to bear some of the weight of her suffering. Furthermore, she may feel a freedom to explore her difficulties without any fear of having to answer why she doesn’t do something or believe in a certain thing anymore.
Brain studies show us that when a person is able to verbally articulate all the things with which they’re struggling, the brain actually starts addressing those issues in a different manner. It seems that a person’s ability to verbally describe their struggles is a very important component in learning how to cope and deal with those struggles.
As such, your willingness to set aside your own desires and goals, perhaps face some of your own fears, and simply be a person seeking to understand may in fact be the first step this person needs in moving forward in life. From my own experience with doing this, people have often discovered deeper, more complex issues, buried deep within them, that are still causing them pain and difficulty.
When we approach those who are struggling with the desire to understand, and forego the role of “fixer,” we’re providing an opportunity for each person to be truly known—something they may have, in fact, never really experienced.