How to start a women’s circle

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Tonight is my weekly women’s circle, and I’m looking forward to it as I always do. It’s not a perfect space (we are all human and we don’t always know how to hold space for each other), but it is beautifully imperfect. We show up – sometimes 2 women and sometimes 12 – with our scars, our fragility, our fierceness, and our love, and we offer each other the kind of listening we don’t find many other places in our lives. We don’t fix anything or offer advice or platitudes. We just listen and we hold space for each other.

People often ask me to write about how this women’s circle got started, so I’m finally sitting down to offer our birth story as a gift to anyone else who’d like to create something similar.

I had been longing for a women’s circle for several years before I finally got one off the ground. I had a couple of false starts (circles that got started but then faltered and died), so I was a little leery of trying again, but I kept longing for it and believing it was possible, so I made one more attempt.

Before sending out an invitation to those women I thought might be interested, I spent some time considering what my intentions were and what I wanted from the circle. This is an important step because it helps to shape what evolves. Some of the things I wanted were:

1.) A circle that would nourish me as much as the others in the room. Doing this work for a living means that I hold space for a lot of people but don’t always find ways to have space held for me. The creation of this circle was partly selfish in that I really wanted a space where I could be as vulnerable and flawed and held as anyone else who showed up. I wanted to be intentional about inviting people with a level of maturity that they could hold space for me without expecting me to be the “expert” in the room.

2.) A circle that I didn’t have to own by myself. I didn’t want to host it every week and I didn’t want to be the primary leader. Given my travel schedule, I knew that I wouldn’t always be available, and I wanted the circle to have enough strength that it would exist even if I were away for a long stretch of time. I also didn’t want to have to do the emotional labour of keeping everyone informed, managing people’s feelings if they got left out, etc. The only way for it to work was to have shared and/or rotating leadership.

3.) A circle that was accessible to anyone who needed it. I didn’t want it to be a closed, exclusive group, where only those who were members were allowed in. I often get emails from women looking for a circle like this, so I wanted it to remain open to everyone. I also wanted us to welcome diversity and make people feel welcome no matter their race, religion, abilities, etc. (This was a bit challenging, because I also didn’t want to impose my “rules” on the group if I was not going to be the primary leader. I mentioned this desire to the group and we worked through it together to determine whether it could become a shared intention. In the end, it did.)

4.) A circle that had as few barriers for entry as possible. At first I considered having it in a person’s home, but then I wondered whether strangers would feel welcome in the space and whether accessibility would be an issue for people with disabilities, etc.. I found a wheelchair accessible space in a church on a well-traveled street (with buses available) that was available for low rent. (Note: one of the possible barriers that we haven’t fully addressed is that some people may not feel comfortable stepping into a church, but we haven’t found a more neutral space for as low rent.)

5.) A circle that would meet the needs of those who showed up and wasn’t strictly formed by my own agenda. Though I was being intentional about it in advance, I didn’t want to attach too many preconceived notions about what would happen in the circle, how often we’d meet, etc. For it to be collectively owned, I knew it needed to be collectively formed.

6.) A circle that was story-driven rather than agenda-driven. I wanted to create a space for sharing and listening that would adapt to whatever people brought into the circle each week. I didn’t want to create a book club or study group, but rather a place where we could have spaciousness for vulnerability and relationship building. (Again, though, I had to be careful about not imposing too many of my expectations on the group.)

With these intentions held lightly in mind, I arranged for the space to host the first gathering, and I sent out an email to everyone I knew who’d ever shown interest in being in a women’s circle. I invited them to come with their own ideas of what we might create together. I also created an invitation page on my website and, because I wanted to be inclusive, said that “all who identify as women are welcome”.

I arrived at the church early and set up the circle. The intentions about how a space is arranged helps create the tone of the gathering, so I set up a comfortable circle of chairs, with a small, low table in the centre. I covered the table with a tablecloth and placed on it a candle, a bell, some talking pieces, and a box of tissues. (I have yet to attend a women’s circle where tears don’t flow.) I also brought an assortment of teas and had hot water and teacups ready.

Fifteen women came to that first gathering. I read a poem to open the circle, and then we did a check-in round (passing a talking piece around the circle, inviting people to share a little about who they were and what brought them to circle) and then we had a conversation about what people might want from circle, how often they’d like to hold it, what our shared values were, etc. Someone suggested “I think we should have it every week and even if you can’t make it every week, at least you always know that it’s available to you.” There was enough interest in this suggestion that we decided to make it a weekly gathering.

For the next five months, since I have the most training in hosting a circle, I served as host. I arrived early each week to set up the room, I gave gentle guidance about the practices of circle, (ie. We speak with intention. We listen with attention. We tend the well-being of the circle.), and I helped the group find its own groove.

There were a few bumps those first few months. There was some resistance to the talking piece round, for example (people wanted to interject with questions, advice, etc.), and some said they wanted us to have more free-flowing conversation. Some lamented the fact that we didn’t have more time for informal conversation over tea. We considered whether we should adapt the format, having a circle time and then having a less formal portion of the evening.

In the end, what emerged for our circle was this simple format:

  1. When people are seated (starting at 7 p.m.), someone rings the bell to call us to pause. Somewhere along the line we adopted three rings as our preferred choice for opening and closing.
  2. If there are new people in the room, someone (usually whoever brought the bag) shares the principles of circle and a little about the flow of the evening.
  3. Whoever has brought a poem or quote to share reads it. This is entirely voluntary and not planned. Sometimes we have a reading and sometimes we don’t.
  4. Then we have our first talking-piece round. Whoever wants to start picks up the talking piece and shares whatever story is on their heart to share. We tend to dive deeply into vulnerable sharing quite quickly. It’s a chance to unload our grief or celebrate our joy – whatever has been going on for us that week. Nobody interrupts and nobody attempts to fix.
  5. The first sharing round usually takes about an hour. Once that is finished, we put down the talking piece, grab tea if we want it, and have about 20 minutes of informal conversation.
  6. Depending on how much time we have left (we try to end not too much later than 9 p.m.), we either do another full round of sharing, or do a shorter round with each of us setting an intention for the week.
  7. When the second talking piece round is complete, we ring the bell again and the circle is over. Usually we’re not in a rush to leave our chairs and we sit for some more informal conversation.

This is the format that works for us and may or may not work for other groups. It allows us to show up without anyone needing to do any advance planning and it frees us up to share without needing to attach our sharing to an agenda or theme.

After about five months of serving as the primary host, I had some travel coming up and knew it was a good time to pass on the leadership. To ease that transition, I created a circle kit that could float from person to person, depending on who was available each week. In a cloth bag, I packed the following items: (Some of which were purchased for the group from our shared funds, which we take a collection for periodically to pay the rent.)

  • the key for the building we meet in (with the security code written on the bag)
  • a bell
  • an assortment of talking pieces
  • a tablecloth
  • an assortment of teas
  • a candle holder and candles
  • a box of tissue
  • an envelope with the group’s funds

Our circle kit now travels from woman to woman. Each week someone volunteers to take it home and show up the next week to unlock the building and set up the space. Those who take responsibility for the bag have also occasionally replenished it with tea, tissue, and candles. This means that there is no onerous responsibility placed on anybody’s shoulders and we all share the ownership.

There’s been an ebb and flow to the circle. Sometimes we’re strong, regularly attracting ten to twelve women, and sometimes we go through a period when only two women show up each week. Sometimes newcomers come for awhile and then don’t come back. Some members will only come every three months or so, when they can get away from family duties.

It’s hard to know right now what the lifespan of the group will be. Before Christmas, when few people were showing up, we wondered whether it was worth it to keep making the effort. But since then, there’s been a bit of a resurgence, so we carry on. There is enough commitment to it that it seems worth it.

There is a natural lifespan to groups like this, and even if it some day falters and fades away, I will always know that it meant something, that it held an important place in the world and it made a difference for whoever showed up. Many beautiful things have happened in the circle and lives have been changed from being part of it. We’ve opened up in ways we rarely do otherwise. We’ve bonded with each other on an authentic level that’s fairly rare in our culture. We’ve become best friends and it’s not unusual for us to gather for Saturday breakfast, when we want more of each other’s company.

We’ve learned a lot about holding space for each other by showing up week after week without expectation, without agenda, and without advice. We’ve peeled away our masks, shed lots of tears, and weathered many storms together. We’ve gotten better and better at offering each other unconditional love.

If you’re ever in Winnipeg on a Thursday evening, we’d love to have you join us!

If you want to know more about how to start your own circle, here are a few resources:

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Why is it so hard to be real? On authenticity and love.

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I wrote a very personal post recently for The Helpers’ Circle about how much I struggle with The Fear of Letting People Down (and how I’ve learned to talk myself out of it). Here’s a quote from that post…

“My Fear of Letting People Down started at a young age. I became very practiced at being The Good Girl, the one who didn’t show her anger, who took responsibility for her work and did it well, who didn’t rock the boat and who could be depended on at all costs. I needed people to be happy with me – to notice my good work and to not get angry. When people were pleased with me and nobody was angry, my world felt safe.”

After writing it, I was thinking about how many things get in the way of our quest for authenticity – fear, shame, duty, etc.. In almost every conversation I have, whether in coaching sessions or workshops, I hear a deep longing for greater authenticity, and almost always a deep sadness that the path to authenticity seems so treacherous and never-ending. And the fear always keeps us company… the fear of letting people down, the fear of embarrassing ourselves, the fear of rejection, the fear of judgement, the fear of falling flat on our faces, and the fear of being alone.

We want to be real. We want to be true to ourselves. We want to be bold in being who we truly are. And yet… so much gets in the way that sometimes it seems impossible. There are bills to pay, people to please, rules to follow, wounds to protect, and shame to hide.

Why is that the case? Why have we found ourselves in a culture that is so hell-bent on making people live inauthentic lives?

I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to that question. It’s probably a nature+nurture thing. At least some of it can be connected to the materialistic lifestyles we’ve adopted – a function of living in a production-oriented, economy-driven world. Shiny things are the most desirable, and so we make ourselves more shiny.

But there’s also something else, and it’s about love.

Not long after I wrote the piece for The Helpers’ Circle, I interviewed my friend Lianne Raymond (who knows a great deal about psychology and child development) for one of the monthly interviews I’m sharing in the circle and Lianne said something quite profound that cracked open something new for me in this regard.

“Given a choice between authenticity and love, a child will always choose love.”

Wow. She’s right! That’s where it all begins! From the very first time we open our eyes and seek out our mothers’ smiles, our primary quest is for love. Love is the foundation – the ground we learn to walk on. From the moment we slipped out of the womb (and before), we needed it nearly as much as we needed the air we breathed. We did everything we could to get that love, even if it meant gradually giving up pieces of ourselves to please the person whose love we sought.

A world in which we were loved is a world in which we are safe.

Even good parents and guardians can unintentionally attach behaviour to love. I remember my own mother (who did so many things right) used to say things like “if you love me, you’ll wash the dishes”. And though I haven’t used those same words, I know there are moments I unintentionally make it clear to my daughters that it’s easier to love them when I see certain behaviour. We are all flawed in this effort to love each other.

Whether it was to please our parents, our teachers, or our peers, we quickly learned, as children, what behaviour brought us the most love and what behaviour resulted in that love being withheld. We adapted, we conformed, and we sacrificed. Some of us never really got the love we were seeking, and so the world became a very unsafe place. We didn’t know how to behave because nothing we did brought us the love we so badly needed.

Somewhere along the way, we forgot what it meant to be real. We only knew what pleased or displeased the people whose affections we craved. And some of us, raised in volatile or unstable environments, knew how to run for cover or to morph ourselves into whatever shapes would best protect us.

Then one day we grew up and didn’t recognize ourselves anymore. We saw only strangers looking back in the mirror at us. We realized that, instead of being authentic, we had become composites of all of the behaviours that other people expected of us.

To reveal the real work of art, hidden under the collage of other people’s expectations, takes a lot of courageous effort. Every layer we peel away reveals a tenderness, a shame, a wound. Every step we take to recovering our authenticity puts us at risk. We may be shamed for it, we may be rejected, we may not be loved. The little child in us shrieks “YOU CAN’T DO THAT! You’re breaking the rules! You need to be loved! You need to be safe!”

But “safe” begins to feel like “stuck” and we long for more. We long for truth. We long for freedom. We long for ourselves.

Gradually, those of us who finally decide that authenticity is the only way we can truly live, realize that we have no choice but to break the rules. We have no choice but to risk being unloved. We have no choice but to give up the safety we worked so hard to find.

After much agony, fear, and faltering, those of us who find the courage come back to ourselves. Many of us lose people along the way – we lose those people who only know how to love us when we behave in a certain way. But we find other people. We find people who are on similar paths to authenticity and we realize that we can cobble together new families and new communities that hold space for us no matter how we behave.

Finally, we find a new kind of safety – one that is rooted in real love, not conditional love – and in that place of safety, we unfurl into whoever we are meant to be.

It may never be perfect (even now I sometimes find myself hiding parts of myself from those whose love I value most because I don’t want them to reject me), but it feels a little closer to being Real.

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p.s. To see the interview with Lianne or to read the post I mentioned, about The Fear of Letting People Down, you’ll have to become part of The Helpers’ Circle.

Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection and my weekly reflections.



Learning to be alone

solitude

“Last night, someone asked if I liked being alone. ‘It depends,’ I said. ‘Sometimes I’m my best friend. Sometimes I’m my worst enemy. We’ll see who shows up.’”

That’s a quote from the beginning of this article by Parker Palmer, when he’s about to spend a week alone in the winter woods. He goes on to share the pages from his journal during that week and it’s clear from what he shares that the quote is true. (I highly recommend you take the time to read it.)

I’ve become convinced that learning to be alone is one of the most important lessons of any spiritual journey.

If you want to be an exceptional artist or articulate writer, you will benefit from learning to be alone. Even if your work is primarily with other people and you want to be a powerful leader, impactful teacher, or compassionate healer, you will benefit from being alone. In fact, for almost any path you care to take, learning to be alone will be of benefit.

I’m not talking about the kind of alone where you have an empty house for an evening so you pour a drink, pop some popcorn, and curl up on the couch with your favourite movie. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of aloneness (I enjoy it regularly), but what I’m talking about is solitude – the kind of aloneness where you let go of anything that will distract you (especially electronics) and are truly present for yourself.

In solitude, you choose to be present for your own thoughts, whether they’re good or bad. You don’t reach for your smartphone to distract you when the gremlins in your head start reminding you of all of your flaws. You don’t turn on the television when the fear rises up in your belly. You don’t reach for a drink or call a friend or busy yourself with the distractions of household duties when you start to feel the ache of loneliness.

Solitude like that can be scary, especially if you’re new to it. It’s really, really tempting to shut down all of those emotions and thoughts that show up in those moments of stillness. But if you do that, you miss the beauty of solitude. You miss the opportunity to really listen to the whispers of your own heart. You miss the chance to fall in love with your own company. And you miss the beauty you might overlook when the distractions get in the way.

It took me a long time to learn to be alone and to truly enjoy it. In early adulthood, I avoided it, assuming that someone who hangs out with herself must be a loser. In early parenthood, I started to crave it, but told myself it was selfish and I should sacrifice for my kids.

Luckily, I started taking business trips when my kids were young and they afforded me the opportunity to practice being alone. Even there, though, I resisted solitude at first. I told myself I had to make productive use of my paid-for travel, or I told myself I would draw too much unwanted attention and sympathy if I were to eat alone in a restaurant. So I’d order room service and eat my meals in front of the TV in my room and would barely venture out of the hotel.

It didn’t take long, though, before I got sick of room service meals and corporate hotels. I wanted to explore the cities I was in, even if I had nobody to do it with. So I started small, going down to the hotel restaurant for a quick meal, arming myself with a magazine to keep me from looking foolish just staring around the room. It didn’t take long, though, and I was branching out, going for long walks in the evenings and finding more and more interesting restaurants where I’d order a glass of wine and savour my time with myself, not caring about whether people were noticing and feeling sorry for me. I also started staying in bed and breakfasts where solitude feels more like a comforting blanket than it does in a corporate hotel.

Once I learned to be alone on my business trips, I started looking for more and more opportunities for solitude. I added an extra day onto a business trip when I could afford the time, or I booked an overnight for a silent retreat in a local monastery. It became not only a guilty pleasure but a necessity. I realized I was a better leader, a more compassionate mother, and a more creative writer when I found regular opportunities for solitude.

As much as I enjoy my friends and family and like to surround myself with community, regular solitude is no longer optional for me, it’s essential.

Here’s what I learned about the benefits of learning to be alone:

  • When you learn to enjoy your own company, loneliness no longer feels threatening.
  • You have more spaciousness to work through your own emotions, so you don’t take them out on those around you as often.
  • You don’t feel the need to do everything it takes to surround yourself with other people, so you don’t end up in or stay in bad relationships. You realize it’s better to be alone than to be with someone who’s not healthy for you.
  • You have more opportunities for adventure because you don’t have to wait for someone else to join you.
  • The spaciousness in your life and in your mind allows for more creative ideas to show up. Your muse takes delight in an undistracted mind.
  • You notice more of the beauty around you and can pause in reverence and reflection when there is nobody placing expectations on you or rushing you along.
  • You have more confidence going to conferences and parties because you don’t have as much fear of what people will think if you’re sitting in the corner alone. (Ironically, this confidence is attractive and you’ll draw interesting people to you.)
  • You practice taking greater risks because you discover that the only person you need to please is yourself.
  • You get better and better at hearing the whispers of your own heart and you begin to live a more authentic and fulfilled life.
  • You will find yourself in greater ownership of your own life, not swaying to the whims of others, not as easily influenced by what everyone else thinks is right.

If you’re afraid of solitude and have a tendency to fill your life with distractions and noise, try it just for a little while. Go for a walk in the woods without your smartphone. Stop in at the local coffee shop and sit for fifteen minutes with a good cup of coffee. Turn off the TV and pick up your journal instead.

Be present for yourself and listen to what your heart is whispering.

“Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people – it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.” – Parker Palmer

Sometimes truth-telling takes a long, long time

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Every week, I have the privilege of talking to coaching clients who are learning to tell the truth. They sit in front of me, on Skype or sometimes in person, and they speak the most tender words about what they really believe, what they really want to spend their time doing, or what they are longing to walk away from. Often, I have the honour of being the first person to hear these tender new truths.

I applaud every one of these truth-tellers. They are courageous in their desire to be authentic and in their willingness to be witnessed by at least one person.

It doesn’t matter to me how long it’s taken them to get to this place, or how long it will take them to speak it to an audience larger than one – I only care that they are here now and that they are saying it out loud, that they are daring to whisper what their hearts have been nudging them to speak. Always, they have walked through fear and sometimes through fire before coming to this place.

We hold those tender truths in front of us while we talk. We admire them, like tiny green shoots emerging after the Spring thaw. We caress them and encourage them and wish them heaps of blessings as they begin to make their way in the world.

Sometimes my clients are launching new businesses, sometimes they’re learning to share their stories with the world, sometimes they’re finding the courage to teach what has long been growing in their hearts, and sometimes they’re stepping onto new spiritual journeys unlike what they’ve embraced in the past. There are differences in what they share with me, what they want me to help them with, and what they’re transitioning into, but there are also many similarities.

The similarities are these: they are trying to find the courage to live more authentically, they are seeking a witness who will hold space for them and help them see more clearly, they are admitting that something about their old way of walking in the world no longer fits what is emerging in them, and they are facing resistance (whether external, internal, or both) that tells them they should stay safe.

But these are not people who are comfortable with staying safe, or they wouldn’t have hired me. The very act of reaching out for someone to witness them and help them find clarity was an act of courage. These are people who know they can no longer live with the status quo.

For most of these people, though, it takes a long, long time to get to the place where they are ready to hire a coach and do the hard work of articulating and growing whatever beautiful, tender green shoot they’re holding. Some clients are in their sixties, seventies, or even eighties, and though they sometimes worry that it’s too late to embrace a new way of living, they know they can’t be satisfied with the old comforts anymore.

And that, dear reader, brings me to what I want to say to you…

It doesn’t matter how long it takes. It only matters that you don’t ignore whatever is whispering in your heart.

Give it as much space as you can right now and forgive yourself for what you just can’t do yet. This is not a race.

Sometimes it takes a long time because you’re afraid a change in you will hurt the people near and dear to you. Sometimes it’s because you are busy raising children and you are too exhausted to do anything else. Sometimes the whispering is frighteningly counter-cultural and you know the risk of trusting it is just too overwhelming right now. Sometimes you first need to extricate yourself from a bad relationship before you can dedicate time to your own growth. Or sometimes you find yourself in the kind of financial or emotional distress that just doesn’t leave any energy for truth-telling.

It’s not hard to find coaches or teachers who would give you “easy” answers for all of those things that get in the way, but none of that is truly easy and nobody else can know the challenge of your reality. Only you know what is holding you back and only you know when you are ready for the next step. Only you know the depth of your own fear or trauma or old baggage.

Good things take time to grow. Some bamboo plants grow roots for four years before anything begins to emerge above ground. You don’t need to rush it and you don’t need to take on anyone else’s story of what you should be capable of right now.

Just take the baby steps you can take right now. 

In the early days of my own emergence, when I was employed in a government job and raising small children and thought it was taking far too long to find the path I knew was searching for, I wrote many tender thoughts and ideas in my journal. For years, that was the only place those ideas found a home. I dared not speak what I didn’t fully understand yet and what didn’t fit with what was expected of me. It took several years before I started to find like-minded people to whom I could tentatively speak of that which I longed for. At first, there were only a few trusted people, and gradually, as I felt more and more safe, the circles grew. With each growth of the circles, I had to work through a new level of fear and practice stepping into a new level of courage.

These things don’t happen overnight. There is a lot of learning to do along the way and a lot of tiny acts of courage that take more energy than we expect. This is even more true if the growth includes healing from past trauma and/or grief, as it does for many of us.

Give yourself time. Take the step you are ready to take, and then when the time is right, you’ll take the one after that.

When is helping the wrong thing to do?

“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

“Sometimes helping is an act of violence.” That was one of many thought-provoking things Peter Block said in a talk I heard him give a few years ago.

Really?! Helping as an act of violence? How could that be possible?

The part of me that places a high value in my ability to help others didn’t want to believe it. Surely I hadn’t been conducting acts of violence in my efforts to help people. I’m a good person – how could I have inadvertently been guilty of violence?

But the more I’ve thought about it in the years since I heard it, the more I’ve realized that there is truth to it, and I have been guilty of it.

Sometimes helping is the wrong thing to do. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, helping is destructive rather than constructive.

I witnessed the truth of this when I used to travel in my non-profit work. In some of the poorest communities in the world, good-hearted foreigners have tried to help and have instead done damage. In Kenya, for example, I tried to find some colourful African fabric to bring home and discovered that the market for locally made fabric has been nearly wiped out by well-meaning people who have glutted the market with used clothing from North America and Europe. Thinking they were helping by sending their hand-me-downs, they have instead killed local businesses, put people out of work, and taken away the dignity of people who want to dress in their local attire rather than adopting Western wear.

The same can be said for churches and governments that thought they were serving First Nations children by giving them access to their version of a “good education”. Out of their good intentions, residential schools emerged. Children were ripped out of their homes and harshly disciplined while educators tried to “kill the Indian in the child”. Who can argue that their version of “helping” was the wrong thing to do?

Peter Block is right – sometimes helping is an act of violence. Sometimes it does more harm than good.

“But…” you might be thinking, “I’m not destroying anyone’s culture or violating their dignity. I’m just trying to help a friend who’s in trouble. What can be wrong with that? We all need help now and then.”

Yes, it’s true – we all need help sometimes, and often it’s absolutely the right thing to do. When my Dad was killed in a farm accident, for example, my whole family was grateful beyond words for all of the help we received. It didn’t take long for the neighbours to rally round us, bring us food, look after Dad’s animals, and care for our children. I am so grateful that those people didn’t stop to ask “how can we help” but instead found a gap and stepped in to fill it.

That’s what community does and it’s a beautiful thing to witness. I wish that we could all have access to that kind of support in our darkest times.

But… that kind of unconditional help in times of need doesn’t alter the truth that helping isn’t always the right thing to do.

Imagine you’re in a conversation with a friend and she tells you that her marriage is in trouble. Because you care for this friend and her partner, your immediate response is to try to help, so you interrupt her with what you think is a great solution. “All you need is some time alone with your partner. You should plan a surprise getaway this weekend. I’ll look after the kids and you can go away – just the two of you. It will all be fine by the time you get home on Sunday night. Trust me. I did it last year and we’re more in love than ever.”

How might your friend feel in that instance? She may not know how to articulate it to you, but she will probably feel diminished and even dismissed. Instead of taking the time to really witness her pain, you have brushed it aside as insignificant and easily fixed. She’ll probably assume that you’re better than she is at knowing how to make a marriage work, and so she will question herself and her choices. While you walk away feeling good about yourself because you’re able to help, there’s a very good chance she walks away feeling shame because she’s failing at her marriage and now feels judged by you.

In that instance, what your friend really needs is not your idea of a solution, but your willingness to listen without judgement. It’s possible that she’d also appreciate a childless weekend away, but that should only be offered AFTER there has been unconditional listening, and the offer should be extended as a gift of love rather than as your idea of a solution.

As good-hearted as it may have been, your idea of a solution may very well invalidate her struggle and diminish her sense of self-worth.

What can you do the next time you have the impulse to help and don’t know for sure if it’s the right thing to do? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Did I listen deeply FIRST and let my friend know that I am holding space for her without judgement?
  2. Does my offer to help come out of my own arrogance and assumption that I know better than the person I’m helping?
  3. Will my help in any way diminish the other person’s dignity, power, or self-worth?
  4. Is this the kind of help the other person wants or is it the kind of help I think that person needs?
  5. Do we have a reciprocal relationship and would I be willing to receive the same kind of help from this person?
  6. Am I offering help in humility or judgement/pity/condescension?
  7. Am I making this about me or do I have the best interests of the other person at heart?
  8. Is my advice or offer of help a defense against my own vulnerability? (From the work of Brene Brown)
  9. Am I willing to “look at suffering without turning away” (a quote from my friend Doug Koop, a hospital spiritual health specialist), or is my need to help a way of fixing so that I don’t need to feel uncomfortable?
  10. Am I expecting something in return, or is this an unconditional gift?

If you can answer these questions and know that your help is coming out of a place of humility and unconditional love, then there’s a very good chance it will be well received and will not be an act of violence. If, on the other hand, it creates a power imbalance between you and the person receiving the help, then it may not be the right thing to do.

This is far from an exact science, and each situation will have to be evaluated independently, based on your relationship with that person and your own motives for helping. Sometimes, when there is a crisis, for example, and the person is overwhelmed or incapacitated, you’ll need to make choices that will feel like violation but are still the right thing to do.

We won’t get it right every time. Sometimes we’ll offend people and sometimes our fear of offending will mean that we’ll withhold the kind of help that is really needed and wanted. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show up and keep trying.

When we are genuine in our humility and authentic in our love, we’ll get it right more often than not.

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