On being a lifeguard
A couple of conversations over the past few weeks has bought to mind a story that I want to share. A long time ago I trained as a lifeguard at the local swimming pool. One of the key things we were taught was not to put our own lives at risk. We were trained to assess the situation and to use the appropriate tools and resources to help the person to safety (this did not usually include jumping in after them) and under no circumstance to put ourselves in a situation where we too would need saving - or worse.
A few years later I was on holiday with my family in Portugal, and my father unwittingly swam out too far and began to get into trouble. He was tiring and swimming against the current. Realising this, he called after me to help him but, knowing he was much bigger and heavier than me and that I wouldn't be able to tow him back in and, that he could pull me under I swam backwards, and talked him in instead. He was angry that I hadn't done more for him, but we are both here today to tell the tale.
This story acts as a wonderful metaphor, I think, of what happens when we try to help people out of genuine concern, but the impact of their distress begins to affect us, sometimes without realising how badly. The effects of negativity from one person to another impact our own mood, problem solving, feelings about ourselves and functioning - in a nutshell, hanging out with negative people brings us down.
When training as therapists we are also taught not to put ourselves at risk. This is done by the teaching of boundaries and acting within our level of competency, we ourselves go to therapy and also have clinical supervision - all ways of keeping both ourselves and our clients safe. After all, we are no good to our clients if we are drowning too.
The two conversations I have had recently that have inspired this blog were with people who are struggling with what they feel they should be doing for the other person whilst they themselves are drowning.
We all have a set of beliefs, thoughts and feelings handed to us in childhood, shaped and reinforced by our environments and other important adults in our lives as we grow. We are given a set of messages about what to do, who to be, and what not to do and we use these in our everyday lives in order to get our own needs met. So, in our going in to save a person, we are in some way, trying to get our own needs met.
Adrienne Lee's drowning man highlights this beautifully. A person pulled both ways by what he thinks, feels, believes he should be doing, how he should be living, what his life should mean and all the self sacrifices he must make in order to be OK in the world.