When we see a person we love in the middle of a mess they’ve made, many of us have the overwhelming urge to jump in and fix it—especially if the person is desperately crying out for help.
If we’re not clear on what “help” actually looks like for someone with a mess, however, we risk either throwing our pearls before swine, or getting embroiled in a codependent situation where we’re working harder on the person’s mess than they are. We have keep our fix-it urges in check and discipline ourselves to walk through a wise process that ensures our “help” is really help, and is received well.
Here are 5 crucial steps to offering help that is actually going to be helpful:
1. CALL THE PERSON TO BE RESPONSIBLE.
Generally, people who make big personal and relational messes fall into two camps. There are the overly independent types who don’t know how to ask for help and are terrified of showing weakness, and the victim types who send up SOS signals, but have no intention of cleaning up anything. Sometimes these people are married to one another, and I’ve seen them in my office because they’re on the brink of divorce. The husband is the first type—he’s been dragged to counseling with an ultimatum. The wife is the second type—she wants me to step in and fix him.
Both types make messes by being relationally irresponsible. Neither is showing up, telling the truth about what is going on inside them, asking for what they need, or taking ownership of the effects their choices are having on those around them. Thus, any help you and I offer must invite and require the person to start being responsible and doing these things. With the first type, we might say, “Hey, I’m going to need you to talk to me and tell me how you ended up here.” With the second, we might say, “I’m going to need you to stop talking about this other person and start talking about what’s going on with you.”
2. FIND THE HEART PROBLEM THAT LED TO THE MESS.
One of the first questions I ask people when they come to me with a mess is, “What is the problem?” I want to invite them into a conversation where they discover the broken place inside that led to the mess-making behavior. Growing up in a broken world, we all end up with false beliefs attached to painful relational and identity wounds, which form a flawed filter for our experiences and get us to react and relate in dysfunctional ways. Unless we identify these wounds and beliefs and bring them into the light where they can be healed and corrected by the truth, the person has no hope of changing their behavior in a lasting way. (Sozo is one of many valuable tools available for this step.)
3. BREAK OFF SHAME.
Shame attacks our identity. The message of shame is not, “You did something wrong,” but “You are wrong.” Believing the lie of shame makes us feel powerless to change, which ultimately prevents us from taking ownership and responsibility for cleaning up our messes. For this reason, one of our primary goals in helping people must be to break off shame by inviting the valuable, powerful person who’s been hiding behind fear and pain to show up in the conversation.
Obviously, in order to do this well, we need to believe the person is powerful! If we secretly believe they are incapable of changing, we will agree with the message of shame and treat them as a powerless person who needs someone else to clean up their mess for them. This is punishment, not discipline, and it doesn’t lead to restoration of people and relationships.
4. WALK THROUGH 4 QUESTIONS WITH THEM TO BUILD A CLEANUP PLAN.
Once we have identified the core problem and separated the person’s identity from their mess so they can take ownership of it, we can ask questions to help them build an effective plan for cleaning up the mess:
- Who has been affected by the mess? These are the people they need to “clean up” with.
- What are you going to do to clean up this mess? Naming the actions steps they will take is critical to them having and owning a plan.
- Do you need my help or anyone else’s help in this process? Remind them that they have support and can ask for help.
- When will you have this finished? Dates create accountability.
5. SUPPORT THE PERSON AS THEY CLEAN UP THE MESS.
So much is at stake for people in the cleanup process. This is where they have the potential to learn, grow, and develop the skills and passion to keep their relationships mess-free. But to reach this potential, they must own the process and walk through it of their own will. What they really need from us as helpers is not to do the process for them, but to come alongside them in the midst of it, ask a lot of good questions that will help them keep learning, and encourage them to keep going even when it’s tough.
It is a great privilege to help others grow in becoming powerful people who take ownership of their choices and relationships—and who ultimately become those who can help others in the same way we have helped them.
PS) Are you someone who desires to help others, but often find yourself in the middle of someone’s mess? This blog was directly inspired by the new track in the Life Academy for people in helping professions, or anyone regularly involved in relational situations with friends and family. The track is called People Helping People, and just launched this week and is running a 20% off special for 24 more hours. Learn more here about how to help people build solutions to their problems.