Every time I hear someone say, ‘I know EXACTLY how you feel,’ I remember an experience I had years ago wanting to volunteer for a non-profit organization which helped recovering addicts.
I called and offered FREE services in whatever form the organization needed. The first question the interviewer asked was: ‘Are YOU a recovering addict?’
The response was no, I wasn’t, but why did it matter? I lived in a family in which addictions destroyed the innocence of childhood and confused at a deeper level, my teen years which were confusing by definition.
‘Sorry,’ the interviewer said, ‘we ONLY accept volunteers who are recovering addicts. You must have walked in our shoes to understand.’
Oh!!! I was so angry and stormed out of the room! I was not, still am not, confident enough to not take rejection personally.
For many years I didn’t understand why ‘they’ thought I would have needed to be a recovering addict to be able to help efficiently. In other words, I questioned the value of WALKING IN ONE’S SHOES to be able to understand one’s thought processes and level of pain.
As I continued on the winding journey of life, one by one, situations presented and slowly I started to understand the value of having experienced the problems of the people one attempted to help.
Here is an example of a personal situation in which the roles reversed:
As young parents, my husband and I needed help to adjust to the new situation and went to see a family therapist.
‘Do YOU have children,?’ was one of my first questions to the therapist. He blushed and the tone of his voice indicated aggravation, probably similar to mine when I was rejected as a volunteer to help recovering addicts. He refused to answer the question, as he had a PhD in clinical psychology, and his academic knowledge was the tool needed to help us, not his personal experiences. True or false? It really didn’t matter, because our decision was already made: we wanted help ONLY from a therapist who, in addition to academic knowledge, had a personal experience parenting. We didn’t come back for a second session and found a therapist who was also a parent. Someone who was up in the middle of the night to soothe their sick baby, someone who had experienced the excitement of hearing her baby say ‘mama’ for the first time…
Several other situations occurred in our lives, in which professional help was needed: divorce, financial troubles, serious illnesses and the event that topped all others in its complexity: suicide!
In each of them I was more trusting, open-minded and receptive if the help came from someone who, in addition to his/her academic knowledge, had personal experiences with the very problems I struggled with. In other words, while my logical mind knew education and empathy were enough to be efficient as a professional, my gut, the part of me that I don’t fully understand, but which I trust, ordered me to only follow the guidance of professionals who have had similar personal experiences. Professionals who had WALKED IN MY SHOES. Perhaps the ‘shoes’ were not the perfect size, yet the helper had taken a few steps in them as human beings, regardless of their education.
The conclusion is that there is NO conclusion!!! The reality of life is that therapists and counselors could not possibly experience every problem presented to them and they chose a helping profession because of their high level of empathy, to which they added years of education.
As I look back, my personal conclusion, NOT THE CONCLUSION, is that what is absolutely necessary to help someone efficiently (in addition to academic knowledge) is the relationship, the ‘alliance’ between the one who seeks guidance and the one who offers it.
If we take everything into consideration, going back to the beginning of this post… should have the organization helping recovering addicts allow me to help? I say, ABSOLUTELY YES, but I understand why they didn’t.