When helping does not help

March 30, 2020

Last week was a real test; of resilience, strength, patience and multi-tasking. As the parent of a school going child, like many others around the country and the world for that matter, juggling home working and home schooling was a struggle. I am used to multi-tasking and working on multiple projects at the same time, but this was an experience I was not prepared for. By the end of the first few days, we had gone through all the structured activities of the year one curriculum from phonics and spelling to maths. All this whilst managing client work and writing up an important report. I found that I had filled every minute of my day with something whilst justifying to myself that it had to be done. And, in turn I had also filled every minute of my son’s day with one of the many learning activities that the school and other parents had sent us. It was exhausting!

What I also found very interesting over the week was the number of (very well intentioned) forwards that I was receiving from my friends who are also parents. Numerous resources were being shared online for activities to do with children. At one point I had such a long list of activities that I started feeling overwhelmed. I became anxious that I would not be a good enough parent if I did not organise all these activities for my son. And this in turn started to overwhelm me further. The well-intentioned resources were meant to ‘rescue’ but instead ended up ‘persecuting’.

I then came across Gianpiero Petriglieri’s excellent piece on Panic Working in which he reminds us about the psychoanalytic concept of mania as a defence against anxiety. He says that the obsession with staying productive (mania) functions to protect us against underlying anxiety (defence). And, in this case throwing myself into work was my defence.

Anxiety is not in itself pathological. We need appropriate amounts to keep us motivated. It is an evolutionary mechanism to help us with survival. However, when anxiety is very high, our capacity to think rationally and function properly is compromised. 

Relating this to organisational life I began considering what we are missing by focussing only on work tasks? Being on the treadmill may enable us to keep some of our own anxieties at bay, but what is this doing for our teams and our colleagues? By manically creating more tasks and work are we mounting the pressure on our teams? To what extent are we failing to acknowledge our vulnerability and the vulnerabilities of those in our teams? After all we are all experiencing something that is unprecedented in our lifetime and with that, we all need the time and space to process what is happening around us. To what extent are we all contributing to the manic storm that is being experienced.

I was at a board meeting (virtually) last week where one of the participants rattled off a list of all the things that they were busy with and everything they had achieved over the week. When I stopped him and asked how he was feeling and coping, it changed the texture of the conversation. It enabled him to voice some of the concerns he was having and the distress he was facing. He thanked me for slowing him down and helping him acknowledge his own vulnerability.

I get the feeling that we are not doing this enough; we are not focussing on the relational aspects during these anxious times and instead basking in the illusion of comfort that completing action lists gives us. The British psychologist Winnicott spoke of a concept called ‘Holding’ such as a parent gives to their distressed child. It is the parallel of how a parent allows a child to express emotion whilst still keeping them safe. It is the creation of a safe space to face and manage life’s difficulties without avoiding it by manically engaging in tasks.

This may be the time to slow down rather than to speed up. So perhaps what is needed now are more pauses, more reflective spaces rather than manic deliverable completion or activity. And, more than ever before, what is needed now is for us to be there for our colleagues, team members and family. I mean just ‘be there’ as a source of comfort and safety. And, not to do things for them and definitely not to forward on more lists of things that they can do.

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