Are You a Compulsive Helper?

Compulsive behavior includes thoughts, urges or behaviors that persist despite negatively affecting health, job or relationships. Normally when we think of compulsions, we imagine a person who constantly checks the locks on doors or washes their hands all day long. But any behavior that is persistent and includes negative effects can be considered compulsive. So is it possible to be a compulsive helper?

My answer is yes. I can say this with confidence because my behavior as a helper was incredibly compulsive for many years. This doesn’t mean I disliked helping but felt obligated to do so – it means I had to help when I saw a need, regardless of whether it would be beneficial. This played out in many different settings: advising people about their purchases at the grocery store, agreeing to mentor four different people at the same time,  and volunteering for too many projects at my kids’ schools. And then I joined a church staff and started a private counseling practice. Imagine the opportunities to over-commit!

People who help others are often very compassionate and merciful. They deeply desire to serve in whatever way they can. This desire is often sparked by their own stories and experiences, including their testimonies of salvation. This type of person is essential in God’s kingdom as he uses his gifts to encourage and care for others. But motivation really matters. A person who compulsively says yes to helping opportunities is highly motivated by some sort of need. Often the compulsive helper is motivated by a need to feel loved and special, or by a need to have purpose and significance in life. 

These needs are focused inward in order to create personal security. Compulsive helpers usually feel genuine compassion toward those who are struggling, but the urge to help is fueled by some sort of deficiency rather than by Christ’s love. If a person serves others out of a need to be upheld, secured or loved, he is traveling a dangerous path that may damage others and himself. 

I was not aware of my compulsive helping behavior until I began to lose heart and experience extreme fatigue in ministry. I was advised to slow down and delegate opportunities to others, and I found these things almost impossible to do. Why? I had built an identity around serving people, so I would have no sense of self if I stopped. 

If this story seems at all familiar to you, I encourage you to spend time answering the following questions:

  • When a need arises, do I tend to assume I will be the one to meet it?
  • What types of needs do I believe I have to meet? Why do I believe I need to be the one to meet them?
  • How long has my helping compulsion been happening? When did it start?
  • What motivates my urge to help others?
  • How and when do I rest? Do I need to add more rest to my life?

Taking a hard look at ourselves can bring clarity and wisdom for how to move forward. Compulsively helping is not sustainable – it will bring about burnout or resentment (or both). Ask the Lord to search you and know your heart (Psalm 139:23). He will show you the truth. As you see yourself more clearly, ask Him to help you process the motivations of your heart honestly. Then ask Him to give you a way forward.

A few things started happening as I did this process. First, I understood more clearly the necessity of Sabbath. The whole point of Sabbath is for us to relinquish control and trust God with what is left undone. I desperately needed this habit of grace in my life. Second, I began to pay attention to the ways in which ministry had become obligatory. I recognized my own resentment and worked toward forgiveness and healing. And third, I began to notice the value and beauty of saying ‘no’ to opportunities that might not fit my gifts or capacity. This included learning to celebrate my limits and be grateful that I could not and should not do everything.

Forsaking my compulsive helping means that I have to listen to the Holy Spirit in my decision-making. Now when an opportunity comes my way, I choose not to say ‘yes’ right away, even if it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Instead, I take time to pray and ask the Lord to show me whether He wants me to say ‘yes.’ I try to remember that Jesus did not say ‘yes’ to every opportunity – in fact, he said ‘no’ to many people who wanted to be healed or served in some way. The only way to know the best decision is to listen to the voice of the Father. 

My prayer is that the love of Christ will compel us above all else (2 Corinthians 5:14), and that we will serve out of an overflow of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in our lives. When we experience the need for approval, significance and love, may we turn to the Lord and ask for His love to nourish and strengthen us.

What Are Trauma Triggers?

When someone has experienced trauma, they are very often left with residual and long-lasting effects. One of these effects is what we commonly call ‘triggers.’ A trigger is essentially an instinctual response based on external stimuli that associate with the trauma a person has experienced. Any sensation (such as smell, sound, or touch), situation or reminder could bring about such a response. As you might imagine, this makes triggers very unpredictable and potentially scary for the trauma survivor. Imagine never knowing when you might be suddenly compelled to run away, cry, scream or attack. Many trauma survivors live with this uncertainty every day. 

If you have a loved one, client or fellow church member who experiences being triggered, it may seem very scary for you as well. You want to be helpful, and you certainly don’t want to make things worse. Let’s explore some triggers that are common to trauma survivors in order to help you better understand and come toward someone in their moment of need.

What’s happening when a person is triggered?

When a person is triggered, an automatic bodily system kicks into gear. The body and brain communicate with each other in a split second, indicating that danger is imminent. A trauma survivor doesn’t have to be in actual danger for this system to kick in. When the brain perceives an indicator that is similar enough to the trauma itself, it will do its job to protect the body from harm. 

Here’s an example: let’s say you were bit by a snake when you were young. Then as an adult you are walking through the woods with friends and spot something long and thin on the path ahead. You immediately feel a burst of adrenaline and have an instinct to run away, even before you know whether a snake is on the path. That’s a trigger. Your instinct to run supersedes your logical decision-making.

When trauma occurs, the senses pick up sharp details about the environment. Those sensations are recorded in the brain for the purpose of future protection. That’s why a survivor of combat trauma might react strongly when a car backfires, even though he knows there are no guns or bombs in his vicinity. The response is automatic. 

Here are some other things to know about triggers. These experiences are highly unique to every individual. Just as we cannot predict when triggers will occur, we cannot create a list of triggers that every survivor is likely to experience. In addition, something that triggers a person at one time may never disturb her again. You can imagine how maddening this can feel to survivors – never being able to avoid the triggers completely because there is no discernable pattern. 

Finally, it’s important to note that triggers often happen in public settings. This means that the survivor inadvertently draws attention to herself in the moment of disruption, which can be embarrassing and can even amplify the fight/flight response. 

What are some common triggers?

Trauma survivors can be triggered by all kinds of things. Sometimes a person is triggered by being touched (especially in a way that is similar to a touch experienced during trauma), and sometimes loud noise or large crowds can trigger a fight/flight response. Many trauma survivors are triggered by specific smells, tastes or sounds, as well as situations and locations that remind them of their trauma.

Remember that a trigger is a response to something that reminds the survivor of his or her trauma, which means that the fight/flight response is activated in the same way it was activated during the trauma itself. So in any way that a person may respond to a traumatic event, they may also respond to triggers. A common response may be to withdraw or detach from people and situations, which is a ‘flight’ response. If a person’s ‘fight’ response kicks in, he may use words or actions to exert himself toward getting safe. Examples could be yelling, hitting, running, etc. If a person’s ‘freeze’ response kicks in, he may feel numb or unable to move or think. 

No matter how a person is triggered, there are some specific ways you can approach them in order to support them and help slow down their body’s automatic responses. I recommend that you stay calm and seek to move and speak slowly. Do not touch them without permission, and ask them how you can serve them. Attune to their needs and remind them that you are there to provide support. I also recommend that you follow up with them after the trigger has subsided. This encourages the person that you want to continue to be a safe person and serve them in whatever way you are able. 

Finally, compassion is paramount when someone is triggered. The survivor needs empathy and support above all, and any friend, neighbor, co-worker or loved one can be that supportive person. 

There are some specific techniques you can utilize to help diffuse trauma triggers. Christian Trauma Healing Network is offering a webinar called “Diffusing Trauma Triggers.” Click below to learn more about this event.

The Father of Mercies Comes Near

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)

Mercy is defined as getting that which we don’t deserve. If I get pulled over for speeding and the officer lets me off with a warning, we would say he had mercy on me. He gave me the gift of passing on an offense that should have cost me time and money.

From very early in the Bible, God identified Himself with the label of “merciful.” In Exodus 34:6, God passed before Moses and said these words to him: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” This phrasing of God’s character can then be found all throughout the Old Testament. The Israelites repeated it to each other and to their children.

We see hints of this same language in 2 Corinthians, but Paul calls God “the Father of mercies.” What does this mean? If He is the Father of mercies, that means He created mercy in its essence. It comes from Him. But we also notice that the word is plural (‘mercies’), meaning there are many kinds of mercy that God has created for His children. His mercy is diverse based on what we need at any given time. Paul then specifically includes that He is the “God of all comfort.” Comfort is a form of God’s mercy that is demonstrated specifically when His children experience trial and suffering.

God’s comfort has been dear to my heart all my life. I experienced lots of fear and anxiety in my childhood and teenage years. When I first read Proverbs 18:10, I clung to it: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.” Despite the many fears I faced, I believed the Lord was my leader and protector. But I also learned something that eventually proved untrue: If I trust the Lord, terrible things won’t happen to me.

When I was 17, I was sexually assaulted. Everything I thought I knew about myself, others and even God seemed to be turned upside down. I was forced to look sin and suffering dead in the face, and what I discovered is that it comes to all people, no matter how well they perform. 

I was also forced to contend with what I thought was true of God. I believed He was a merciful God, that He protected His children. So how could this have happened? As painful and heartbreaking as it was (and still is) that I experienced assault and all the consequences of it, that experience opened up a door in my heart.

It took quite a while for me to walk through the door. I felt really stuck for a long time. But all the while I felt the Lord calling me forward into something new. When I finally opened my heart and mind to healing, I began to see Jesus again.

When I was in my twenties, someone wise reminded me that Jesus suffered the most horrific assault that could ever happen – abuse of all kinds. He was mocked, spit on, beaten, stripped naked and laughed at, and physically exposed to everyone watching. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked the Father to spare him from this abuse if possible. He didn’t want to experience it, but he was willing to do it. Why?

Hebrews 12:2 says he did it “for the joy set before him.” What was that joy? The joy that carried Jesus through his crucifixion was the New Covenant. The creation of a new family to bring into his Father’s kingdom. The possibility of reconciling our relationship to God so that we could be united to Him forever. The cross is a literal picture of how much Jesus loves us, and how much the Father loves us (who was willing to send His only Son through such horror in order to adopt us.)

Because Jesus experienced every kind of suffering, including abuse, I can be assured that He understands and is walking with me through my suffering. Jesus’ mercy means that when I’m overwhelmed and tired of fighting and grieved to my core, He’s experiencing all of that with me. And He has suffered so that my suffering will only be temporary.

Hebrews 4:14-16 says, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Jesus is our great high priest. He leads us in our faith and has made the ultimate sacrifice for our sin. He leads us into the throne room of grace, where we receive mercy from the Father. And we are invited to enter that place in any and every moment of need.

In walking through that door of healing, I learned that God hates abuse and suffering of all kinds. He created a world that was meant to be free from these things. When sin entered, it fractured everything. But when Jesus came and took the penalty for all sin and suffering, you and I were given the right to be called children of God. This doesn’t mean suffering ends, but it means we are not alone in our suffering. We have a great high priest, king and shepherd through it all. We still have to fight, but now we have the weapons of spiritual warfare. We are equipped with what we need to sustain us till we get home.

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Losing Heart, Gaining Perspective

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This week I’m particularly drawn to a passage in 2 Corinthians 4. Paul explains our frailty as humans and compares it to the glory of God and the salvation we’ll inherit when our suffering on earth finally ends.

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16)

“Losing heart” indicates deep discouragement that leads us to give up and stop moving forward. I don’t know about you, but I have lost heart to varying degrees during 2020. Why does Paul say he isn’t losing heart? What kept him going through so much trial and suffering? The answer comes in previous verses.

  • In verse 6, he reminds us that God shines light into our hearts – “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Light is shining into our hearts if we are believers in Christ, and that light gives us hope.
  • In verse 7, he paints a word picture: treasures in jars of clay. He’s saying that the absolute glory and goodness of God lives inside these human bodies. God’s design in putting His glory into these frail vessels constantly reminds us that He is the one with all the power, not us. This is good news! We don’t have to muster up the strength to carry on. His power is at work to move us forward.
  • In verse 14, he says he knows …”that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” The truth of his inheritance spurs Paul forward and encourages his heart.

So Paul does not lose heart. His body is wasting away, but his spirit is renewed every day as he consciously recalls these truths: God’s light shines into our hearts, God’s power is hard at work within us, and God is bringing us home to heaven where suffering will no longer afflict us.

Paul then goes on to say that our affliction is light and momentary. At first blush I feel offended by this statement. I look around and see death, sickness, abuse, poverty and racial discrimination. I have a very hard time calling our present suffering “light and momentary,” and I certainly would never say that to a counseling client or friend who is grieving. What is Paul doing?

This passage is an example of a literary form of comparison in which the author holds one concept up next to another in order to magnify the difference between the two. The comparison lies between our current affliction and the “eternal weight of glory” that’s coming for all those who trust Jesus as Lord. So even though our current affliction is very great, Paul is saying that it will seem minuscule once we’re settled in our eternal home. Paul isn’t saying our suffering is worth nothing. He actually says our suffering is preparing us for the eternal glory that’s coming. In other words, we’re gaining perspective as we suffer.

I am currently standing on the earth. Compared to my body, the earth is massive. But compared to the whole universe, the earth is tiny. My suffering matters to God. Nothing is lost on Him. Psalm 56:8 says God keeps our tears in His bottle. Every moment of affliction is recorded and felt by Him. But He’s preparing us to see the earth fade into a tiny dot. The universe of heaven is waiting for us.

Remembering these truths doesn’t stop us from suffering. It’s not a form of denial. It’s a widening of our perspective. It’s a “zooming out” so that we can understand more fully what God is doing. We’ll never completely understand. Suffering is mysterious. But we can trust that He is with us. Our tears are in His bottle. And glory is coming.

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Safety is Essential for Healing

Before I talk about safety, I’d like to recap the other posts in the series so far. If you’ve missed any of them, I recommend you go back and look them over before continuing ahead. I’ve placed them in a particular order because understanding and clarity should begin to occur before jumping into the practical steps for healing. Here’s what we’ve done so far:

  • “Is Anxiety Rooted in Trauma?” – In this post we discussed the overlap between anxiety and trauma, and we explored how we can discover whether our anxiety comes from unhealed traumatic events in our past.
  • “What Makes an Event Traumatizing?” – Here we listed several types of events that can traumatize a person, and we discovered that an event becomes traumatizing not based on the gravity of the event, but based on the state of the person involved and his/her ability to make choices.
  • “How Trauma Affects Us” – In this post I shared three signs to look for that may indicate you’ve experienced trauma that needs healing: changes in mood, relationship struggles, and bodily symptoms.
  • “The First Step in Healing from Past Trauma” – This post focused on the importance of having a safe person with whom you can talk about painful things. I also addressed how to be a safe person for someone who’s experiencing traumatization.
  • “Deep Breathing: Healing Anxiety and Trauma” – Last week’s post focused on the importance of calming our bodies through deep breathing. Without a calm body, mental and emotional health will be incomplete.

Now we’re going to take a deeper dive into the idea of safety. We do not find hope and joy in a vacuum. We also don’t find it while chaos is reigning. That’s why it’s so important to create spaces of safety when you’re trying to heal. So how is this possible?

First off, if you’re in an unsafe environment on a daily basis, healing will be hard to come by. Think of it like someone who’s just had surgery at a hospital. In the recovery process, the patient needs to be monitored and re-bandaged often in order to ensure he is getting back to normal. If a person refused these services and demanded to go home for this process, the doctors would surely object. When there’s been a significant wound, that wound needs time, space and intentionality in order to heal. If there’s continual re-injury, the wound will continue to fester.

Let me put it bluntly: if you’re in a home or a workplace in which you’re being wounded continually, your healing process will be slowed. It’s not impossible to heal in this context, but I would definitely recommend that your first step is to seek counsel on how to increase safety in your environment. You can talk with a trusted friend, a pastor with a good reputation for understanding and caring for those in oppressive situations, a hotline for those who are experiencing abuse (1-800-799-SAFE), or a professional counselor.

So your environment needs to be safe for healing to occur. This means you have:

  1. At least one safe person you can trust
  2. A physical place of refuge in your life
  3. Access to resources that maintain and increase safety

Let’s take these one at a time.

A safe person is someone who knows how to listen before they speak. It’s someone who commits to pray for you and offers wisdom that isn’t based solely on her own experience. She doesn’t throw Bible verses at you as if they’re pills for you to swallow, but she focuses on the attributes of God and His love for you in the midst of sorrow and difficulty. She’s not afraid to say hard things, but she believes in God’s timing and purposes in your life. She’s there for the long-haul and isn’t scared away by your struggle, even though she might not know what to say when you’re hurting.

A safe place allows you to have refuge. When chaos seems to be reigning in your everyday circumstances and in your mind, finding a quiet space is essential so that you can re-center your thoughts, emotions and body. This was essential even for Jesus (Mark 1:35), so of course we all need it. I have arranged a room in my home and called it “the quiet room.” I gave it this name so that my children would respect the space and speak quietly when they come in (not that this happens all the time, or even frequently, but we’re trying). This room contains my favorite chair, my favorite furniture, my favorite smells. It’s the space where I pray, read God’s Word, breathe deeply and journal. Maybe you don’t have access to an entire room, but I highly encourage you to create a space that is comfortable, cozy and relaxing (and do your breathing exercises there).

You’ll also need access to resources. I have known people who spent years just hanging on, waiting for their trauma to heal with time. It doesn’t happen. The Lord has given us His Body (the Church), wisdom from His Word, knowledge from the common graces of medicine and neuroscience, and educated people who have learned the steps toward healing in order to guide us on the journey. We are meant to utilize all these resources for the sake of healing.

You may not feel strong enough to create safety for yourself. If that’s the case, I encourage you to take one step. Just talk to one person who seems safe. Tell him or her that you feel weak and need some help to create physical safety and access resources. One step can take you a long way.