How helping others can be helpful to you

Jamie D. Aten
Filed on October 17, 2020


Katrina may have taught me what not to say as a helper. But cancer taught me what to do when a helper says something hurtful

As a psychologist I've helped train thousands of professional helpers over the last 15 years across the globe on how to support disaster and mass trauma survivors. Without a doubt the most common question I get asked during these trainings is: "What should I not say?"

I always share in my trainings that though there are some common phrases and clichés we should avoid as helpers (example, "it could be worse"), all of us, no matter how good our intentions, are going to say something wrong. I also remind helpers that their presence while helping can be as important as the words they say to those they are helping. And that when we say something hurtful, it is the helpers' responsibility to take responsibility, apologise, and take the lead in trying to repair the relationship.

I stress the importance of these actions - not just because I've studied and helped after countless disasters - but because I've lived disasters.

Hurricane Katrina struck my community just six days after I moved to South Mississippi. This is how I first got involved doing this work. Then several years later, I went through a different kind of disaster. At the age of 35, I was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. I went through a year-long series of treatments that included radiation, oral chemotherapy, major surgery, and drip chemotherapy. I've now had no evidence of the disease for nearly seven years. I continue to struggle with chronic side effects from my treatments, and had been hospitalised every year since my diagnosis.

Katrina may have taught me what not to say as a helper. But cancer taught me what to do when a helper says something hurtful. After confirming my cancer diagnosis, my oncologist sent me for a PET scan to see if the cancer had potentially spread elsewhere in body. Right before the table I was laying on entered the machine, it hit me that I was going to have to go home and tell my three young daughters that daddy has cancer. I did everything other than what the computerised voice from the PET scan machine had ordered me to do. Instead of holding still and holding my breath, I began to cry and sob. My whole body began to shake uncontrollably.

I was then pulled out of my sorrow after realising the technician had stopped the machine and was now standing next to me with her hand gently placed on my left shoulder. This simple gesture helped remind me that I was alone. But the sense of comfort I felt was fleeting. Just as quickly as she had helped bring a moment of respite, she quickly heaped on more hurt by saying: "Jamie, God only tests the strong." I was in total shock and remember that I couldn't believe she had just said that to me in my moment of vulnerability. If that wasn't bad enough, as I laid there trying to get my head around, she went on to add: "At least you don't have it as bad as I had it when I went through cancer." I became even more dumbfounded by her insensitive comments.

Because I've spent my career helping others in difficult situations, I know that more times than not people mean well, even when they say things that can be hurtful. Of course, this isn't always the case, sometimes people do weaponise comments and questions. But I had been in enough situations to know she was trying to actually help me in her own ineffective and misguided way.

I could have gotten angry in that moment. But for whatever reason the following thought raced across my mind as the shock of what she said started to wear off: "Now I have the perfect example of what not to say when helping others (I thought humorously to myself)."

It's now been years since this interaction, but I still regularly share this example. I decided to take what could have weighed me down with resentment into something to help others, and in doing so, helped myself.

Jamie Aten is founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College. 

- Psychology Today 


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