“No one mentioned until I was in late middle age that – horribly! – my good, helpful ideas for other grown-ups were not helpful. That my help was in fact sometimes toxic. That people needed to defend themselves from my passionate belief that I had good ideas for other people’s lives.
I did not know that help is the sunny side of control.”
This beautiful quote is from the great Anne Lamott’s Facebook page. When I read it, something vital and primal leaped to recognition in my own soul, like a light switch being turned on to illuminate a dark space.
In this life, we have to experience an idea to fully understand it. We must inhabit it by walking it out. Simply thinking through it is not enough to change us. We need to taste it, grapple with it, fight it and then eventually surrender to it.
I did not know that help is the sunny side of control. This tidy phrase encapsulates what I’ve been wrestling with for several years now. I feel like I’m finally ready to accept this bold truth: when help is mostly about me and what I want the other person to do in return, it is not actually help. It’s manipulation, expectation, control.
Learning to face ourselves honestly is a lifelong process. It’s far too horrifying to do all at once. We must take it in tiny stages, lest we be blinded by the outrageous shame of our dysfunction.
If you grew up like I did, help was not free. It was a transaction. For a people pleaser, this meant confusion and anger a lot of the time, because there were no words around this. The system was built on glances, silences, tense body language, raised voices, narrowed eyes and other not-so-subtle clues. You picked your way through this minefield, hoping not to be blown up while trying to earn love and gold stars from others by being so good and helpful that you ached from it.
I learned to control by offering help, while refusing it from others so I wouldn’t owe anyone and they would all owe me. Perhaps not so sunny, but true nonetheless.
Now I practice offering help with no strings attached. It’s new and radical. It’s also hard. I push myself to receive help, support and care from others without feeling that I must repay a silent debt. Unspooling these complex, dysfunctional behaviours is a lengthy job. I must remember that it’s okay to go slow. Many people never even try to face their unvarnished souls – it’s simply too shocking and painful.
Progress towards health is preferable to remaining in denial and darkness. I yearn for light, for beauty, for healing, for restoration. True help is freely given, not bartered for something else or held over another’s head as a ransom demand. That is control. Just because I grew up with that doesn’t mean I can’t change these patterns for my children and for the last half of my life.
I know there is a better way because I’ve seen it in action and felt its warmth on my skin. Love does not demand to be noticed. It is offered with no guarantee it will be returned. I’m going to lean in to this truth, to wear it like a coat and see where it will take me.