How to Help Another Person in Need


For most of my life I’ve felt an overwhelming urge to help my sister who’s unwell emotionally, mentally & physically. She exerts this pull/push affect, reaching out to me in the way of a helpless plea, then pushing me away when I offer advice/support. I love her dearly, but I simply cannot reach her. I feel I’ve failed her, and so her 'battle' within has become mine. I’ve become an insomniac. My health and spiritual practice is affected. I’m at a loss ..

—Tina, USA


Dear Tina,

I just finished a response to a similar situation. It is so difficult to help another person without their cooperation. Well, in fact, you can’t! While I wouldn’t say this is a case for “tough love,” I would suggest that a dose of calmness and discretion might help you and, in time, perhaps even help your sister. Ironic as this next remark may seem given the nature of this exchange, nonetheless I find that few people take the advice given to them by another, even when they ask for it! That’s partly a “chuckle” but partly to acknowledge that no matter how good or sincere advice from another is, it has to resonate as both true and do-able to the one receiving it.

Your sister, sadly, has the problems you’ve described. And you know that you can’t fix those problems for her, or at least without her cooperation, or quite likely without resources that you or she may not have. Willpower is the secret to energy, and energy is the solution to all problems — whether the problems are “solved” or not. If one makes a sincere effort but doesn’t yet appear to succeed, success is in the effort, not so much in the result.

So where does that leave you and her? Do you have a friend or professional who can help you to objectively and independently assess your sister’s condition, physical and/or emotional? In short, some “distance” is needed; some stepping back will help gain perspective.

Isn’t it odd that when troubles come, our spiritual practices tend to suffer, just when we need them the most? It’s the best thing you can do for your mental, emotional and spiritual health. Your health means you are better equipped to help your sister in whatever way is yours to offer. Your prayers for her, too, are like massage for the soul.

Social workers, therapists, and sometimes a friend who’s good at this kind of thing can be invaluable to the situation, so you don’t feel stuck or burdened beyond what is realistic for you. All of what I am suggesting is the importance of disentangling what is yours from what is hers.

I don’t know if this fits the situation, but remember that whenever we help someone else, they will tend at some point to push you away, to even resent the help, for the simple reason that the help they need is a stark reminder of their helplessness. When the one being helped has no practical way to reciprocate in-kind, it is frustrating and can lead to resentment for the sense of failure that might arise within them. Help can affirm another’s helplessness.

According to the law of karma whatever comes to us is, in some mysterious way or another, is ours to deal with. We can undo what we have done. We might need help, for sure, but in the best case, the assistance that is effective helps one to help oneself.

Look for ways your sister can pick herself up or at least cooperate with the help you or others offer. Quietly, or without making a fuss and without lecturing her, create opportunities for her to exercise willpower and self-awareness. Create some distance in time or space: things like, “I’ll come by next week,” or, “I’ll call you tomorrow,” etc. Use your discretion when cries for help come to make sure it isn’t merely a cry of “Wolf!” (again). Find ways to remain centered so that her emotions don’t become yours. Meditation and even controlled breathing are invaluable.

I think of the extraordinary life of Helen Keller: she drew upon enormous willpower to overcome her disabilities but also she did receive help and guidance from thoughtful supporters who were patient, supportive, and creative. Dignity and respect are crucial where the balance of energy and ability are uneven.

Have you ever watched a skilled yet compassionate nurse work with a patient? Or, a talented teacher with a student? It’s like watching a great artist or musician at work. In all cases, the “maestro” is firmly focused on the task, yet flowing calmly with eyes on the “prize” of healing, teaching, or expressing harmony and beauty. Can you feel how this might fit your situation? Help your sister help her Self! And when she cannot, simply do what is necessary: serving Divine Mother in your sister’s form with equanimity and faith that what is, for now, must be.

Blessings to you and your sister!
Nayaswami Hriman