Working in the NGO field blesses you?
Well. I do get blessed by my students and others I manage to ‘conduit’ a little help to. But I don’t feel a particularly good person. I find the work hard, frustrating, and saddening and I even get really angry from time to time...and then something lovely happens.
I see a child drawing a recognisable picture of themselves when before she only made strange squiggles in reaction to being ‘taught to write’ at 3 years old...’ I praise a teachers theme/ topic table and her face lights up in pure joy. A disabled child learns to use the loo. Someone gives us enough money to make a centre beautiful, safe, secure and educationally appropriate and I watch both the children and the teachers flower and fly in their new environment.
But am I blessed? And what about the pain of failure and disappointment that dogs our footsteps in the difficult field of NGO work? After all if people didn’t need our help it would be a cinch to help them...meaning that they are not coping on their own for various reasons. And somehow one needs to beat a path before them over the rocky ground until they can beat their own path in the often very difficult situations they find themselves in. And without some passion, some belief in the rightness of doing things for others, some emotional investment - this work simply cannot be done...
I think those who approach NGO work or any ‘helping’ work be it medical, psychotherapeutic or educational do need to be able to find a way of investing themselves in the work. Anyone who does not will not achieve the change necessary in those they are trying to ‘help’. Only by helping a person -who is in need and is not coping - to grow can one really say one is ‘helping’. And this always requires what a psychologist or psychotherapist (and other therapists too) do - some investment of emotion, nurturing, giving of one’s own inner resources.
The main problem will of course be that although some ‘bless’ you others will be projecting their pain, anger, disappointment and so much more on you. Without fail you will receive the role of mother, grandmother, father, boss, nasty, kind teacher thrust on you – not as you see your role but by the roles others invest these figures with...This is of course based on the work of Winnicott and Bion who say that the infant projects their feelings that they cannot cope with into the nurturing mother and the ‘good enough mother’ (Winnicott) then process the feelings and gives it back in a way that the infant can make use of.
For a simple example: the infant feels a terrible pain that consumes her and screams. Mother hastens to pick her up and knowing that she is hungry puts her to her breast and cradles her. The infant then learns – terrible pain, project the terrible feeling, mother comes and understands the difficulty and gives the solution – which is experienced by the infant both as a solution to a physical need but also as an understanding of how the pain of hunger and the pain and fear of not surviving the pain can be processed, understood and ‘helped’.
This process Winnicott called ‘holding’ and Bion called ‘containment’. Well, anyone who is in need of help and is not coping will be needing someone to ‘contain’ and ‘hold’ them until they have come to the point when they can do it for themselves.
Let me stress that not all people our NGO helps is emotionally damaged. Some find the learning and growth offered ‘sometimes bitter’ but soon full of good things and satisfying experiences. Ordinary learning is like that...But others will find learning and growing far more challenging and painful and will need far more support and containment to come to a point when they can learn. And no, it does not mean ‘being all soft and mushy’ – that is not ones role – ones role is honesty, understanding and to hold boundaries...A simple example: The child overwhelmed in a toy shop has a tantrum. Mother picks him up and takes him out and hold him till he clams down. Later she explains that 'you got too excited and confused in the shop and that made you feel scared and angry. I understand but you can't scream and shout for a toy. If you do it again we will leave the shop again. Next time we will see if we can work together to make our visit to the toy shop less upsetting for you.'
And then there are also those so damaged by life that you might have to redirect to other less challenging functions in life – we after all are trying to create good, stable, secure teachers not data processors (always remembering that emotional stability can go with working on computers too).
But how to cope one self?
Well I don’t always cope. Sometimes I feel so tired at night I can’t speak. Physically tired but mainly emotionally drained. Only my community group, my academic endeavours and other ‘groups’ and my long experience of processing this sort of emotional exhaustion helps me to find equilibrium again. And of course the ability to see why people are projecting certain roles on you and how to mediate and process their raw feelings so that you can hand them back all in a way that becomes understandable to them! And helps them learn and increases their ability to cope with challenges...and does not thrust a knife in your heart...
So what I say is this: If you work in a ‘helping profession’ like an NGO always seek places and people of support – because even if you are ‘blessed’ by all and sundry you will also be absorbing a great deal more very unhappy feelings from people feeling very sore inside – and who will not be able to stop projecting these feelings on those appearing to ‘help’ them. It can create moments that you lash out and project feelings yourself instead of containing them...if you are not getting enough support of course...or if the projection touches a really painful nerve...
So believe us blessed if you like – and even saintly, or miss goody two shoes or just ‘that do-gooder’ or... if that is what you want to project on us today...but as an NGO worker I say hold onto your humanity and keep trying to understand all the frailty and strength of the person you are for your own sake and for those you work with and want to ‘help’...