Whether we find ourselves as leaders in our workplaces, families or communities, many of us have experienced the frustration of trying to help someone that may not seem to help themselves. We don’t need to be leaders even, to be familiar with the dynamic of feeling like we are throwing everything we have at a situation, but the loved one (or ones) in the center of tension seems to do nothing, or worse, make the situation harder still by action or non-action.

For example, when Zach was in his teenage years, he threw tantrums. Although not a big guy (80 lbs at age 21) I often think of him as “small but mighty.” These tantrums would sometimes lead to physical injuries, of Zach, of me, of property or aggression against total strangers. I will never forget being in WDC to support a friend in a “Find a Cancer Cure” march, after which Zach from his stroller reached out and literally punched a stranger. I thought that person would really hurt us in retaliation. Mercifully the stranger did not punch back.

Other examples of this dynamic are trying to help someone financially, only for them to end up in more debt than when they started; Supporting loved ones through addiction who eventually succumb to relapse; Helping someone pay tuition only for them to blow off class. In your own experience, recall someone who just didn’t seem to be as dedicated to “helping themselves” as you were to “helping them” and sense the angry narrative that can sometimes result.

What I now know, that would have been valuable to understand in my younger years through some of the judgment I placed on a seeming apathy or failure to do what I thought was best, is that it is not our job to fix others. Taking it a step further, I now even have the perspective to generously assume, all individuals (myself included) do the best with what we have to work with in any given situation.

Not only does a generous assumption take us off the hook for trying to control others to show up the way WE think they should, or as WE think WE would, but it allows us to extend compassion in the larger sense of “Not only is my loved one in crisis, but she has no ability to navigate it.” We detach from our perceived roles in “helping” by “fixing” and move toward “I am here with you, and although I may not be able to make it better, I will not judge you for doing what you know to do.”

Returning to the tantrum example, instead of feeling helpless, defeated and victimized when Zach and I would scuffle, if I’d made this generous assumption “Zach is doing what he knows how to do…” not only might I have opened to the reality that without words and the ability to articulate emotions of his own fear, anger, sadness and frustration, he only had the option of acting it out in physical aggression. I would have also let myself off the hook via acceptance, and brought loving kindness to those moments, instead of exacerbating them by bringing my judgment, anger and feelings of helplessness.

Now when I notice Zach is ramping up toward a potential meltdown, I quickly move to curiosity instead of reaction: “What is in our environment that is making him uncomfortable? What intervention can happen to avoid a full blow out? What am I missing?” These questions are an alternative to the former narrative of “Here we go again, we can’t go anywhere, I am a victim…”

Yes, this can be exhausting. But no less so than trying to exercise control something over which, I have none. Then blaming the person who I am trying to “help” in the first place by scorning their inability to generate the response I deem appropriate.

Assuming everyone is doing their best also obviates the experience of “They can do more, they are withholding ‘better’ choices intentionally.” Again, this de-personalizes the situation and makes room for compassion, presence and love. I now realize Zach wasn’t hitting a stranger to make a “bad” choice and put us all in danger. He was communicating with the only language he had at the time.

Here’s to the generosity we can give to others, and ourselves, by assuming we are already doing our best with what we have to work with.

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