Helping and Stress Management

Stress is any pressure, demand, or threat placed on an organism (say, a human being) that causes a need to re-establish balance or “equilibrium”. The Oxford Dictionary online adds that stress is “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.”

In this article, we look at stress management from the perspective of a helper: that is, anyone who is currently providing emotional or psychological support to a friend, client or loved one. Hence, the concepts outlined apply to therapists as well as people without any specific counselling or mental health training.

Three critical components of a stress management program


The prime factor in responsible self-care – and thus effective stress management – is self-awareness. For helpers, being self-aware is one of the factors significantly associated with effectiveness of the helping (Strupp, 1996). It is a pre-requisite to being able to regulate ourselves. Acting with self-awareness involves observing our own physical and mental/emotional experience without distorting or denying it. Only when we can do that can we become aware of our deeper needs, limitations, and concerns, and thus evaluate appropriate actions (self-regulation) in order to return to a state of balance.

If we cannot face ourselves in this way, we run the risk of acting from emotions and drives that we have locked out of awareness. Without awareness, we run a serious risk of harming our care recipients. It can happen through either neglect or exploitation of them as we attempt to meet needs for belonging, esteem, intimacy, or power and status through our interactions with them. It is not always easy to allow into awareness the internal conflicts and tensions that exist within ourselves as we try to meet various demands. The content that has not been worked through is sometimes raw and primitive-feeling, and it is often threatening to our sense of self. In part 2 of this series we will detail numerous stress management strategies that have increased self-awareness as their goal.


The second critical element to managing ourselves and our stress is the ability to self-regulate. We manage our bodily and emotional drives, impulses, and emotions both consciously and unconsciously. When we are stressed, activities such as rest, physical exercise, and leisure activities serve to restore our balance, thus regulating us. Being able to self-regulate is not easy as we attempt to manage our emotion, our energy, and the amount of stimulation we receive: too much stimulation and we feel overwhelmed and in the “groan zone”: too little and we are in the “drone zone”.

In order to regulate mood and emotion, we must be able to defuse emotionally charged experiences (such as those found at times when helping), and come to a balance. Managing stimulation, both internally and in our external life (including how we relate to food, drink, people, and work), is crucial in order to keep ourselves on course. The goal with stress management is to learn what we need to do to bring ourselves into equilibrium: a balance achieved by self-regulation, which was made possible by self-awareness. In part 2 we will name some stress management strategies for self-regulation.


The world’s religions, most scientific literature (Treadway, 1998), and most cultures’ traditions of common sense and wisdom agree: as human beings, we need balance. That is, we most capably give ourselves an antidote to the stresses of life if we have nurturing connections with ourselves, between ourselves and significant others, and between ourselves and a higher power (however we conceive it: “the universe,” “God,” “the transcendent,” or our “higher self”). Balance is essential for tending to our core needs and concerns, on all the levels of body, mind, and spirit. It is not a static thing.

Balance requires constant adaptation to achieve the state of “dynamic equilibrium” (an ever-shifting balance) wherein our needs are most well catered for. It may not be easy, especially for helpers. We are constantly pulled to ignore the needs of ourselves in order to care for others. Yet the rewards of going for this third component of self-management are big; we gain a sense of self-esteem, of mastery, and a deep trust that indeed we are capable of being the captain of our own ship. Balanced, we can navigate effectively through even the stormy waters of life (adapted from Baker, 2003).

Sources of stress

Stress as a perceived demand or threat can come to us from multiple sources, and usually many are occurring at once. Personal stressors refer to perceptions, events, or occurrences that are personal to us, such as problems in relationships, self-doubt, fears, and questions about our own worthiness. Rigid or unrealistic attitudes belong to this category, as when we are perfectionistic, place unrealistic expectations on ourselves or others, or decide that we cannot possibly be happy if we do not attain ______. General environmental stressors refer to external factors such as having insufficient money, substandard housing, or a poor physical environment (say, one which is polluted, too hot or cold, or dangerous). Special environment stressors include those areas of perceived pressure or threat to do with particular aspects of our environment, such as work and family events.

An example of how all three sources could contribute at once can be found in the example of the woman who, for instance, has an argument with her partner in the morning (personal). She is upset because the apartment they are living in is expensive, but still cold and humid (general environmental). The woman goes to work feeling stressed already, but upon arriving, gets a dressing-down from the project manager over something that has gone wrong in the new multi-million dollar computer system that is being trialled (special environment).

Here is what is interesting about stress management, however. The woman will respond to all of these events according to her mental/emotional makeup, level of coping skills, and even, how well she feels physically on the day. Someone else may respond totally differently, or she herself may respond differently on another day. Thus, it is crucial to note that stress is at least partly a function of our reaction to perceived threat, pressure, or demand.

That said, texts to train helpers in helping work are uniformly clear: helping work is inherently stressful, both from environmental factors (such as helping in a difficult environment, like a disaster zone or an agency where there is unrealistic expectation about how much work can be done) and also factors internal to ourselves, like the self-doubts and frustrations that arise from being in relationship with helpees who may not progress, or who may not appreciate what we are doing for them.

Studies have shown that, for helpers, the most single stressful behaviour on the part of helpees is that of suicidal behaviour (Deutsch, 1984; Farber, 1983). Additional sources of stress for the helper may be more common among mental health supporters. One of the studies showed that the following were most common:

  • Being unable to help distressed helpees feel better
  • Seeing more than the usual number of helpees
  • Not liking helpees
  • Having self-doubts about the value of helping
  • Having conflicts with colleagues
  • Feeling isolated from other helpers
  • Over-identifying with helpees and failing to balance compassion with appropriate work actions
  • Being unable to leave helpee concerns behind when away from work
  • Feeling sexual attraction to a helpee
  • Not receiving expressions of gratitude from helpees (Deutsch, 1984).

The point here is that the stressors are many, and the sources varied. The helper is particularly vulnerable to stress from such factors due to the personal nature of the work and the high hopes for “being cured” from the helpee.

Symptoms of stress

The following list shows what symptoms we might see at moderate to severe levels of stress:


  • Poor eating
  • Poor Digestion
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Broken Sleep
  • Excessive dreams
  • Rapid breathing
  • Racing heart
  • Aching muscles


  • Undue anxiety
  • Undue fear
  • Undue concerns
  • Low self-esteem
  • Mood swings
  • Sudden anger
  • Feeling alone
  • Feeling lost
  • Feeling guilty
  • Wanting to hide
  • Easily upset


  • Confused thinking
  • Poor decisions
  • Poor attention
  • Disorientation
  • Slowed thinking
  • Reduced scrutiny
  • Memory lapses
  • Forgetfulness
  • Abnormal ‘after the event’ thoughts
  • Undue dreaming

The presence of only one or two of these symptoms could be from other sources, but when several are present, the chances are good that stress is causing them. If you are experiencing the symptoms, you may know your own body/mind well enough to know whether the symptoms are probably “just” stress or they indicate something else. If you are supporting someone who is undergoing a challenging period, strongly urge them to see a doctor and get the symptoms checked out. If the stress becomes chronic, serious health consequences follow. Diseases such as the following have been identified as stress-linked:

  • High blood pressure
  • Angina (chest pain due to inadequate oxygen to the heart)
  • Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
  • Thrombosis (blood clot problems)
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Migraine
  • Back problems
  • Ulcer
  • Asthma and allergies (Clarke, 1998)

Strategies for managing stress

Given the numerous sources and symptoms of stress, the wise stress manager develops a full arsenal of stress-busting weapons. Below is an inventory of some of the more well-known stress management strategies. As you read through it, ask yourself honestly how many of these you already employ. Note also whether they tend to be more physically-based, such as exercise, mental/emotionally-based, such as changing your thought patterns, or spiritually-based strategies, such as regular meditation practice.

Strategies to tend to body


How much of this do you do? Many experts recommend at least 30 minutes a day, most days of the week. More importantly, how much do you like what you do? Jogging may be a great exercise for those who enjoy it, but if you just feel tired and stressed with joint pain afterwards, you may be a better candidate for cycling, swimming, or low-impact aerobics or “aquarobics”.

The exercise guru Joe Weider used to say that we need a balanced triangle of aerobic/cardio-development, resistance/strength-training (such as with weight-lifting), and stretching exercise (such as with yoga, Pilates, or tai chi) in order to fully serve the physical needs of our body for exercise. You may wish to consider engaging exercises that can be done indoors on a winter night (e.g., stationery cycling or dumbbell weight-lifting at home) with activities to get you outdoors and/or with friends, such as tennis or team sports, cycling, tramping, or exercise classes such as Zumba. Varying what you do is a great idea, because you not only work different muscles and different systems (e.g., musculo-skeletal for strength training and cardiovascular for aerobic), but also you keep the interest alive. Your ability to self-regulate will help you to manage getting enough appropriate exercise. Your ability to balance can help you to vary the type of benefits you are receiving.


How is your relationship with food? Unlike other substances to which we develop strong preferences or addictions, we cannot just abstain completely from this one in the interest of managing stress! We therefore need to find a plan for building and maintaining a good relationship with food. You need five to seven servings of fruit and vegetable in a day; we all know that. The question is: how can you make that an interesting proposition, so that you are motivated to habitually grab (for example) the carrot instead of the cookie at morning tea, the grilled fish instead of the fried fish at the restaurant, and the high-fibre carbohydrates that ensure a well-functioning digestive system?

How willing are you to honestly examine when you are “comfort eating”, instead of doing so because your body needs nourishment? How aware are you of any food allergies or intolerances which might be causing stress to your system? Many people who need to be lactose or gluten free do not even realise it until circumstances force them to temporarily go off one of those categories of food and they start to feel better. How consistent are you able to be in your eating habits, finding a food regime which works to keep you and your weight stable (unless you are trying to lose or gain), while providing all the essential nutrients? The yo-yo dieting system does not work in the long run, and only leaves your body more stressed and depleted.

In terms of both stress management and general health, the idea is to find an eating plan which works for you most of the time (allowing, of course, for occasional indulgences). How you manage food involves all three of the critical skills: self-awareness (of what you actually eat), self-regulation (so that you do not eat too little or too much), and balance (so that you eat a proper balance of nutrients, and – for interest’s sake – a variety of cuisines/types of food).


How are you with potentially addictive substances, such as nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol? Overuse or abuse of these is rife in modern life, and yet sometimes a bit of them can be helpful. An administrator at a nursing home once remarked that his healthiest patients were not the teetotallers, but the folk who had one glass of wine with their dinner. Green tea has been shown to have numerous benefits with all the anti-oxidants, but if you are having so much of it that you cannot sleep at night, you are off-balance, and creating problems in other systems of your body-mind. Again, we come to: awareness, regulation, and balance. The key seems to be moderation, and genuinely being able to pull away when enough is enough.


We have only to look at the chronically sleep-deprived young mum, or the overworking-not-sleeping executive to be reminded of how important this component is for our overall vitality. The negative effects of sleep deprivation on both physical and mental functioning are well documented, with claims that half of us mismanage our sleep to the point of negative consequences for our health and safety (Dement, 1999). Those attempting to lose weight are sometimes surprised to hear the research finding that insufficient sleep can even cause us to gain weight. Here’s the bottom line: your body needs sufficient, high-quality rest. It needs it every night, and also in the form of “down-time” (we consider that separately) during the day. Six to eight hours nightly is generally recommended, and you probably know about how much you personally need. How well are you doing on getting it? And if you regularly are depriving yourself of this vital component of your wellness program, how willing are you to ask yourself why you matter so little in your life?


How is your sex life? The issues surrounding the expressing and gratifying of sexual needs are as complex as for the other issues involving the physical self. Crucially, we must understand the relationship between our sexuality and our emotional well-being. What differentiates us from animals is that we can do more than merely copulate. We can make love and engage in mutually satisfying rituals with an emotionally engaged partner. Through sex, we can promote love, intimacy, and romance. Though no single sexuality routine is advocated for all people, what is clear is that the more we are able to develop emotionally, sexually, and spiritually fulfilling relationships – sustained over the long haul – the more we attain high levels of health (Ryff and Singer, 1998).

If you are not partnered, what can you do for yourself to experience legitimate, benevolent touch? Some examples might be getting a relaxing massage, taking a ballroom (or other partnered) dance class, or taking a class on therapeutic massage.

Medical care: Does your stress management regime include routine consultations with medical people such as general practitioners, dentists, and whichever allied healthcare professionals you may need to see? Again, that issue of helpers not tending to themselves rears its ugly head in the form of procrastination around medical check-ups, annual dental cleaning times, and missed appointments with the chiropractor. How faithfully do you maintain your health? How congruent are you with your helpees if you are urging them to get medical care and you are not doing it?

Strategies to tend to mind/emotions

Identifying and replacing stress-inducing attitudes

For many modern stress managers, this is a really the big one! How willing are you to acknowledge unhelpful attitudes and beliefs that you may have? Some of these may be unexamined ways of thinking about yourself and your life that were given to you by parents and other early caregivers. They may not really be your attitudes and values, but they were put there so early on, it is hard to tell that they do not belong with you. You can recognise them because they are often distorted, exaggerated, self-critical, or self-defeating “tapes” that re-play over and over again in your head, causing personal anxiety, self-doubt, and depression. In this category belong attitudes such as:

  • Rigidity
  • Compulsion to overwork
  • Feelings of incompetence
  • Non-acceptance of self
  • Unprocessed regret
  • Distorted sense of control
  • Placing conditions on happiness
  • Perfectionism
  • Messages of unworthiness
  • Phobias
  • Non-acceptance of others
  • Sense that the world ‘should’ be a certain way
  • Lack of perspective
  • Intolerance for self and others
  • Obsession with envy
  • Fear of committing
  • Bitterness
  • Lack of gratitude

As with all of these unfortunate mental “glitches” in our wiring, the antidote, for both the sake of our own peace of mind and our ultimate effectiveness with helpees, is to strongly challenge each one of these as they come up. We do this by making a disputing statement which gives a kinder, more realistic evaluation of ourselves or our situation. The disputation helps us to solve problems where the original statement, a “cognitive distortion”, would tend to keep us stuck.

For example, if we are stressing ourselves by obsessing over what Jamie has that we do not (let’s say, great professional standing), we can remind ourselves of what we do have (possibly a loving family, excellent health, or a loyal set of friends). If the problem is, say, a feeling of incompetence, we can remind ourselves that, as a developing human being, we are allowed to have “growing edges”, and that even if we are only moderately skilled at, say, knowing how to respond to a helpee’s grief, we are quite effective at, say, helping them to derive meaningful goals.

Working on this stress management strategy can be a lifetime effort, but it is a most worthwhile one. Self-awareness is key. Which attitudes or beliefs do you identify for yourself as problematic? How do you currently deal with these distortions? How else might you handle them?

Practicing unconditional self-acceptance and compassion

One attitude/belief that deserves special mention is the art of accepting ourselves on an “as is, where is” basis. For us to be peacefully in relationship with our own humanness – our own combination of strengths, growing edges and unique quirks – means to have less stress from the source of our own critical voice. You know the voice: the one that yells at us that we are not _____ (fill in the blank: “slender”, “clever”, “good at business”, etc), or that we have not achieved enough. The more we can truly live from a genuine sense of “I am ok”, the more that we can be in compassionate, accepting relationship with helpees and others.

The more we manage to fund a deep sense of esteem from our own internal resources, the more we develop the autonomy and inner authority that prevents us crumpling from criticism, or needing acceptance and approval from others. It is not a short-term strategy, but there are few efforts that yield greater happiness and hardiness. The skills of self-awareness and self-regulation can work wonders here. Our increasing awareness of when we fail to accept ourselves can lead to increased ability to regulate our minds towards compassion.

On a scale of 1 – 100, how accepting of yourself are you? Which specific areas of yourself do you identify as really hard to accept? This could include anything from physical characteristics (e.g., “I hate my nose”) to mental skills (“I am a terrible salesperson”) to global put-downs (“I’m a loser; I haven’t done anything with my life”). How willing are you to choose one of these areas and re-write the negative self-talk you are giving yourself?

Developing and maintaining meaningful human connections

This one is a long-term strategy that pays dividends until the day we die. Research identifies the crucial importance of perceived social support. People who sense that they have satisfying, supportive connections with friends, family, and colleagues are shown over and over again in social support studies to have higher levels of wellbeing, happiness, and resilience than those who do not (Bokhorst, Sumter and Westenberg, 2010; Carbonatto, 2009). Such connections provide a robust antidote to overwork and burnout.

Being connected does not mean that you need to become an extrovert or “party animal” if you are not that way inclined. It does mean that you can count on at least a few special people being available for you when you need them. Of course, to have a friend one must be a friend, and you are called upon at some stage to return the favour. Developing availability, while arguably a stress management tool in its own right, is a topic we take up shortly under the heading of emotional integrity. Suffice it to say here that meaningful relationships are a powerful stress-buster. The balance element comes in when we are deciding how much time to be “in relationship”, and how much to take for ourselves, alone.

Taking “down time” and time to replenish

A woman said recently that she had had several hours of doing nothing on the weekend. The others at the lunch table remarked that that must have been nice. She replied that it wasn’t, really, as she didn’t know what to “do” with herself! A huge stressor in modern life is the relentless time and task demands. Helpers feel these keenly, as there is always more that could be done, more people that could be helped. We have already addressed over-functioning and the resultant emotional depletion as conditions for which we in the helping fields are at higher risk. The antidote is to have unscheduled time: time when nothing is expected of you, time to play and renew.

Non-work endeavours such as hobbies and leisure-time activities are integral to the full expression of ourselves as human beings. As helpers, we need to proactively schedule in time and energy for creative and self-expressive pursuits, play activities, and growth hobbies. Gardening, arts and crafts, music-making, and taking in concerts and museum exhibitions are all self-renewing ventures when we engage them voluntarily. Play can be something as simple as laughing with a friend or chasing a beloved pet around the garden. Walking in nature, drumming, and dancing can all bring us to another level of awareness, which short-circuits the stress response. The goal is to recreate rather than to “numb out”, to let go of burden and responsibility rather than to demonstrate more competence or status to the world. What we choose will ultimately be a function of factors such as our stage of life, what is available in our environment to do (including cost-wise), and what our personality preferences (including introversion and extraversion) dictate that we should choose. The point is to simply enjoy ourselves, thereby refilling the emotional tanks left empty by our helping work.

“R and R” periods such as holidays serve a similar purpose. The absence of phone calls, actual helping sessions, and freedom to not engage the helping response all give helpers the opportunity to gain a fresh perspective, and to better assess their needs and options. Unbelievably, some observers claim that this is harder for helpers to do than the actual work (Baker, 2003). As helpers, we may best serve ourselves and thus our helpees early on through “cultivating relaxation habits with the same energy and commitment that you apply to your work” (Ziegler and Kanas, 1986, p 180).

Self-care rituals: Not really confined to any one category, self-care rituals span the spectrum of body-mind-spirit strategies for managing stress. They may be something that we physically perform, such as an elaborate relaxing bath, or something that we take mental/emotional space in order to do, such as a daily visualisation program. But they are organised with the idea of calming and centring ourselves to compensate for the chaotic, hurley-burley of life. In this, they gently bring us to another perspective. Scan your mind for such activities in your life. Which rituals might you have? Have any of them been started in order to support you as a helper? Would you like more rituals? If so, of what type?

Strategies to tend to spirit

Spirituality means different things to different people. For some it is a humanistic sense of how we can collectively care for our environment, make better lives for the less fortunate, and generally connect better on a human-to-human level. For others, spirituality has to do with formal and organised religion and the rituals that are related to that. While both of those aspects are important, the sense in which we mean “spiritual” here is that of overarching “whole of life” questions. These are concerns about the meaning and purpose of our life, the values that we live by, and the consequent desire to draw towards the “something more than”. Connecting with spirit or spiritual experiences helps us to counter the physical and mental symptoms of the stress response (Benson, 1996).

Studies and objective observations of healing progress from medical procedures support the idea that engaging stillness activities such as contemplation, meditation, and prayer accelerates healing, generates higher levels of functioning and ushers in a sense of wellbeing, hopefulness, and optimism (Miller, 1999). Which stress management strategies do you have in this category?

  1. Do you have a spiritual holding? A particular way of connecting with the divine or your higher self that brings you peace, joy, higher insight, and other stress-reducing qualities?
  2. What spiritual practices do you currently observe? This could include daily prayer/ contemplation/meditation periods, spiritually-oriented exercise, or other aspects of mindfulness and deep breathing. How regular are you in observing these practices?
  3. How often, if ever, do you allow yourself to have retreat space for several days? Retreats vary widely in their orientation, from the 10-days-in-silence retreats to facilitated group events where there is much sharing of experience in addition to periods of reflection.
  4. What sorts of activities, such as journal writing, biofeedback, or visualisation might you do to supplement your regular program?
  5. As you reflect on this slice of your life, especially in regard to its stress management capacity, how satisfied are you with your overall spiritual practice?

Stress management techniques, strategies, and approaches seem unlimited. Hopefully by now you have identified strategies at which you are already proficient, and equally, some which you might like to try in order to mitigate the ever-present drain on your personal resources through stress. The good news is that you can start small: one new technique or strategy, done consistently, can work wonders to improve your self-care, and thus ability to care for your helpees.

Emotional integrity

There is another angle to the importance of self-care that goes beyond the ability to manage stress. It is the ability to be with someone in emotional integrity. Imagine this scene. You have gone to see someone you never met before about a problem in your workplace. The person asks you how they can help you, and you begin to explain your situation. Before you get very far, you hear a tapping noise. Looking down, you see that the person’s foot is tapping the floor. As you continue, you observe that their eyes frequently move to their left. What are they looking at, you wonder: the clock? Are they staring out the window? Their impassive face reveals nothing. They say “um-hum” occasionally, but do not ask any questions or reflect anything back to you, so you are uncertain if they are getting what you are saying.

As you get to a crucial revelation, their phone rings and – to your surprise – they answer it. When they come off the phone, they can’t remember what you were talking about. After you have explained the situation as you see it, they say how much treatment will cost. There is nary a summarising wrap-up statement from them, and no indication whatsoever about how they view you or your predicament. You certainly do not feel welcomed. It is possible that the person you went to see did not have emotional integrity. They did not know how to be genuinely with you such that they were there for you.

Perhaps the single most significant gift we can give our helpees is to be with them in a way that demonstrates emotional integrity. A state of unified being, of completeness, emotional integrity occurs when heart, mind, and will are aligned (van Warmerdam, 2008). It is characterised by a quality in someone that goes beyond helping techniques. In the book Emotional Intelligence, Goleman (1995) popularised the notion that being able to deal positively with emotions – both our own and others – is as important as cognitive (mind) intelligence for personal and professional success. While Goleman has drawn criticism for his ideas being difficult to measure scientifically (Locke, 2005), many supporters find the general idea a useful one for explaining how helpers can be more in tune with our helpees. Goleman outlined four aspects of understanding about ourselves in relation to emotions.

These are considered the pillars supporting emotional integrity:

  • Self-awareness: the ability to read one’s emotions and recognise their impact while using gut feelings to guide decisions.
  • Self-management: being able to control one’s emotions and impulses and adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Social awareness: the ability to sense, understand, and react to others’ emotions while comprehending social networks.
  • Relationship management: the ability to inspire, influence, and develop others while managing conflict (Goleman, 1995).

Communicating with emotional integrity

If you would like to hold a discussion from a place of emotional integrity, how would you need to communicate with others? Here is a list of suggestions:

  1. Be open to receiving input from your helpee. You have to be willing to test and be tested. You don’t have to say everything you’re thinking, but everything you do say has to be accurate. If your helpee asks you if you’re upset, and you are, you have to be willing to say, “Yes.”
  2. Reflect content and feelings. After receiving input from your helpee, verify that what you are hearing is what the other person is actually saying. You can say, “What I hear from you content-wise is…” Then, to make sure you understand what he/she is feeling, you can say something like, “The feeling I’m getting from you is resentment/ anger/hurt, etc.”
  3. Accept feedback and respond. If you are the person who is giving the input, you have to clarify things if your helpee isn’t hearing what you are honestly trying to say. If you are the person receiving the input, you can respond once you know what you are responding to. Once you are clear on what the other person is really saying, you can accept the feedback.
  4. Stay in the moment. Stay with the issues at hand (McGraw, 2009).
  5. Keep to the time boundaries of the session. That way, both of you know the maximum time the conversation will last. If the discussion occurs as part of a regularly scheduled session, keep to the time boundaries of the session.

Working through personal issues

There is an area of stress management strategy, focused at the mental/emotional level, which we have not included directly yet: the question of how (or even whether) you are working through your own personal issues related to providing support.

Helpers have the huge challenge of working with people in pain and not being blocked in their work by the triggering of their own same pain. You may discover that working with individuals or families throws up themes in your life. Some of these will have been outside your awareness. Your unawareness of your own family of origin issues may cause you to avoid dealing with these same potentially painful areas in helpees. As helpees begin to confront events that trigger their pain, memories of your own pain may be stimulated.

For example, let’s say you are volunteering your time on a telephone counselling line, or perhaps at a university recruitment centre. You receive a call from a man who is conflicted around returning to university at night to complete his degree. It would significantly advance his career to have the degree, but as he has a young family, he hesitates. If he were to attend classes at night for the next five years while working fulltime during the day, it would mean that he almost never saw his young children. You hear his story and reflect on how your own father did just that. You rarely saw him as a youngster, and have wrestled with feelings of rejection, low self-esteem, and unworthiness for most of your life as a result of the lack of any real attention from him.

Now, you find yourself drawn to advising the man that his family obligations are supremely important. On some level, you might be protecting his children from the same fate that you endured, yet you may not even realise the extent to which your advice to the man is influenced by your own pain. It is crucial to recognise that your ability to facilitate the healing forces in others results from your willingness to experience your own wounds, and do what is needed to bring about healing for yourself.


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