Today’s post comes from my good friend, writer and former large animal veterinarian Christy Corp-Minamiji. (Yes, I’m not the only one with two careers that don’t obviously ‘go together’!) In this post, I think she does a great job of exploring the topic of helping, which is more complex than we often realize. You can find more of Christy’s writing at her personal and professional blogs.
If you have an article or story about relationships you’d like to share, I welcome submissions for guest posts. Just get in touch.
Maybe it’s the capes. Or the spandex? Perhaps the bright, primary colors? Or the theme music…
Costuming alone doesn’t explain our societal fascination with superheroes. And, of course, the concept of a rescuer goes back much further than space-age fabric and graphic novels. The concept of a superhero, a mythic warrior, a knight-in-shining-armor fills two fundamental desires for humans: the fantasy of a savior who will swoop down and rescue us from everything scary and painful, and the more insidious fantasy of the everyman-turned-hero – the fantasy that we can be that savior, that we can fix everything.
The other day, I posed a question on Facebook, “pondering why no one had ever written a superhero who is bad-ass enough to let people save themselves.” That, I said, would be the real superpower.
I have a confession. I’m a fixer. My first career was as a veterinarian – healer. Now, as a writer, I produce mainly non-fiction articles and blog pieces: advice, tips, how-to. I fix things. Those who know me even superficially will tell you that I go out of my way to help, to volunteer, to comfort, to encourage. Great, right?
Oops. Those who know me best will tell you (if you get them drunk enough, or promise them chocolate) that my compulsion to fix and to heal speaks more to my needs than it does to any altruism. In recent years I’ve learned – ok, I’ve been told, repeatedly – that I am deeply uncomfortable with seeing those I love face pain or discomfort.
Empathy is a double-edged sword. Its absence produces sociopaths. However, for those of us who wallow in our identification with others and the special feeling that “helping” someone else gives us, empathy is an anchor, rendering us immobile and sometimes swamping us as we are unable to turn into the waves.
As a veterinarian, I learned to “turn off” empathy in order to act in the best needs of my patients. I knew that my patients might have to experience pain and discomfort and sometimes even fear in order to heal. If I allowed myself to be swamped by emotions associated with their pain, I could not be effective.
With people, it’s harder.
One of the weirdest parts of the human condition is the gap between what our brains know and what we experience as “reality.” It is easy for the intellect to grasp the importance of letting others find their own solutions to problems, to fight their own battles. Emotionally, it’s much more difficult to see ourselves blundering about in the middle of the fight, handicapping the one we want to help. It’s harder to see our “kindness” and “support” as obstacles to growth. Harder still to see those same virtues as disrespectful.
Like many parents, I learn more from my children (I have three) than they probably learn from me. It didn’t take too many years of parenting for me to realize that my kids had to fall in order to learn to walk, that even before that, they had to experience the frustration of squirming futilely on their bellies in order to crawl or even to roll over. I had to let go of my urge to sooth the tears of anger before the lessons were learned.
As they have gotten older and we entered elementary and now middle school, it became obvious that my husband and I couldn’t fix our children’s social and emotional woes. In fact, we’ve noticed that the children whose parents most try to manage their social comfort have the most trouble interacting with other students.
I may remember the pain of being “ditched” by my friends, but trying to fix a similar situation for my daughter – talking to the parents of her friends, lecturing the other girls – would only make her place in the 7th grade pecking order more tenuous. She, and her siblings, have to fight those battles themselves. To try to remove that pain, to try to ‘make it all better’ will only hinder their ability to cope with real rejection as adults, and worse, it negates them.
This is the hardest part of the superhero fallacy to accept, at least for me. After all, wanting to help others is a good thing, right? It’s a sign of a nice person, a good friend…isn’t it?
Like a lot of folks, I have some odd, mildly hypocritical blind spots. I’m big on self-reliance – for me. I don’t like medications much. I don’t want other people to fix things for me; my husband learned years ago to ask before offering solutions: “Do you want me to help, or are you just venting?” is a common question in our house. But, when the tables get turned, I’m shocked.
Some time ago, I was deeply hurt when a friend suddenly (or not so suddenly) turned on me in anger as I was offering “helpful” support. It wasn’t until my friend accused me of being “so unable to just let me feel discomfort” that I realized that my desire to fix things, to shore up self-esteem, to offer evidence disproving self-condemning remarks wasn’t about helping at all. It was about me. I get off on that feeling of being “the one who understands.” I like the shiny cape and the halo that goes with it. And, it wasn’t until I nearly lost a friendship, that I realized it was time to turn in that cape.
Rescuing others doesn’t tell them you love them and understand their pain. It tells them that you don’t believe them capable of fighting their own dragons. It tells them that you believe them so fragile that they would be overwhelmed by their own fears, negative thoughts, and pain without your munificent support. Swooping in to save the day isn’t always heroic. Sometimes it’s just condescending.