The Recovering Achiever: The Two-Way Street of Helping Others

Lena Orlova // Columnist 

I learned that there comes a point in personal growth where the next step is to extend to others. We are taught that you receive what you give. You help yourself by helping someone else. The whole “Acts of Kindness” movement is based on this theory. 

Preachy, I know. But there is evidence to back it up. Surveys of people who do stuff for free (i.e. volunteers) show a lowered risk of depression, gained sense of purpose, physical and mental fitness, reduced stress and enhanced social networks.   

Despite all these benefits, I wasn’t about to go out and do anything for anyone two years ago. 

Before I started counselling school, I wasn’t interested in becoming a counsellor. I hated counsellors. And let me be clear — I mean any sort of counsellor. I mistrusted doctors, teachers, psychologists, gurus, coaches, and all those very helpful people who ran around looking for places to dump their guidance. Hearing other people give me the solutions to my problems didn’t work. It left me feeling behind, like I didn’t get the Book of Life everybody else seemed to have. 

When I walked into the lecture room of my then-future school, I knew it was the right place for me. Their philosophy was: don’t believe this, try it. Don’t talk about it, experience it. Experiential learning spoke to my perpetual dilemma. I was supposedly smart and objective. Yet, I couldn’t for the life of me understand the difference between knowing something and feeling it to be true. As my teachers say, I lived my life from my head. 

Seeing as the first year of the program was going to be completely self-oriented and based on personal growth rather than on actual counselling technique, I decided to give the experiential thing a try.  

I found out that underneath my bitter judgements, I had deeply wounded self-esteem. I felt inadequate. I believed I could only be helpful to others if I did things right, if I was right, and if I could solve other people’s problems. How would anyone benefit from anything less? What would be the point? 

I completely missed the most essential dimension of human relationships— one which is not based on words and logic. It’s said that only 20 per cent of our communication with one another is content-based. The other 80 per cent is composed of non-verbal cues: feeling, emotionality, body positioning, facial expression and energy vibes. 

We are biologically predisposed towards connection. We wouldn’t be here if our species didn’t learn to cooperate and live in communities for thousands of years. On our own, we aren’t a very impressive bunch. We don’t have hawk-like vision, we don’t run particularly quickly, we are not the biggest or the smallest of creatures, we don’t have good teeth, we don’t know how to climb trees or swim very well and most of us live with our parents until we are at least 19.  

Whereas our natural instinct draws us closer together, we live in an increasingly isolated society. We are taught that we can face our struggles alone or that someone, some book, some faceless figure, has the answers to our problems. We think that if we do something, do enough, think enough, we will change.  

If this mentality worked, health and wellness wouldn’t be a billion-dollar industry. The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that 1 in 5 individuals will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime—that’s equal to 7.52 million people in Canada. Imagine the size of Vancouver tripled.  I believe— rom personal experience, research and education—change doesn’t come from marketized fixes. Change is complex and takes time; it looks different for every person. 

My most change-evoking experience was taking the therapist’s seat. Every time I meet with a client at my practicum, I have to remind myself of a new definition of help. Help isn’t providing an answer or being right. It’s not boxing up a person’s struggles and putting pretty bows on top. Help is a manifestation of the inner drive to connect, our primal instinct to be together.  

Clients struggle with all types of issues like depression, isolation, relationship dysfunctions, work stress, child raising, toxic family dynamics and more.  

Do I have the answer to their dilemmas? No. Can I listen? Yes. Can I empathize? Yes. Can I connect? Yes. 

The weird thing is, you do get what you give. Connection is one thing that works both ways. The more you connect, the more connection you get and the better you feel—no matter which chair you’re sitting in.   

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