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Tiffany Howard

Trying to Help Without Sounding Like a Condescending Jerk

Rating: 11 votes, 5.00 average.
I'm going through a stressful time in my life. My romantic life is all in pieces (though I'm putting it back together little by little), I am totally broke, and I don't even know where I will be living at the end of the week. In response I've been eating more junk food than I care to admit to and sleeping more than I should. However it's at this time that I am letting the idea of mindfulness plant itself in my brain. I've by no means perfected it, but if I can be mindful of my breathing, or of one of my mom's lovely smelling candles, or of the fragrant mug of tea I'm drinking, then that is time I'm not spending worrying about the future.

The lesson popped into my head when I was talking to a friend this evening. She is very worried. She wants to go home to Cameroon next week for her sister's wedding, for the first time in ten years. But she doesn't have her passport yet, she has to take a loan to make the trip, and this is the first time in years she's not getting a Christmas bonus at work. She hasn't been sleeping and says that if her passport doesn't arrive by Saturday she will most likely cry and break a few things.

Now in my mind, I'm thinking, "Mindfulness would help!" That's how I am..when I feel something will help someone else, I just want to gush to them about it. But often I have to control myself because I don't want to sound like the know-it-all walking encyclopedia of answers. She knows that I am Buddhist, so I told her that I am going through hard times too, but mindfulness has helped me not to worry as much. I told her of my situation, and what mindfulness is, and her answer was, "okay." It felt uncomfortable because I felt I'd thrown her a curveball. If I had complained with her, called the people at the passport office rude and incompetent, cursed the economy, and cursed the high plane ticket prices, the conversation would have flowed much more smoothly. Unfortunately there is a thin line between trying to help and sounding condescending. I didn't want to come off like, "I'm more Buddha-like than you, honey!" Not even subtly. How does one do it though, share the helpful insights of Buddhism when they fly in the face of a modern culture where bitching, moaning and panicking are the norm?

Updated 6th-December-2012 at 03:25 PM by Tiffany Howard

Meditation , General Buddhism


  1. Daniel Ionita's Avatar
    This is sometimes the hardest part. Helping or trying to teach someone something might turn out to be more difficult than you expect. For one, people may be conditioned to think that way, they don't actually want advice or help, they want you so sing along with them.

    There was a simile that I learned from one of Ajhan Brahm's talks. There were two monks, good friends. And when they died, one of them got reincarnated as an angel/deva in the heavens. He still had memories of his previous life, he remembered the other monk, so he decided to get reunited with him. He looked around the heavens, and then around humans ...but he couldn't find him. After looking for ages he had found him, he was a maggot in a pile of dung. He wanted to take him back along to the heavens, but the maggot refused. He explained about the heavens and the beauty and comfort there, but the maggot refused to believe. Anything he would have say or done could not have convinced the maggot, he was too comfortable in his pile of dung.

    There is a lesson here for both the ones that want to teach and the ones that want to learn.

    One thing I learned about teaching others is that first you have to get on the same level of understanding with them. You have to be able to fully understand their problem and their way of thinking. And for this you have to listen, very attentively and ask questions.

    People will rarely respond well to direct advice, as you said it usually sounds condescending. It's much better if you can find a way to drive them towards a good conclusion that they find themselves. Usually this is done through listening and questioning, in addition to being as mindful as you can. And still despite all the effort it may not work. So always be careful in building expectations of others and yourself, that leads to suffering. If you tried with good intention it's good enough, don't beat yourself up about the results.

    Hope this gives you some insight/

  2. Jo Tummers's Avatar
    Very well said Daniel, I totally agree with you. But reading Tiffany's post, a very close friend of mine comes to mind. He is suffering from from some traumatic experiences that happened way back in the past, in his pre-teen years (he's well in his fourties now). He is seeing a psychologist now who treats him with a combination of methods, one of them being mindfulness (which is mainly taken from Buddhism).
    I visited him a few weeks ago, asking how the mindfulness course was working for him. 2 minutes of conversation made it clear to me that he hardly gave it a chance. He has a sort of 'switch' for everything that sounds a bit alternative and/or new age to him. To be honest, I had to suppress the urge to take him by his shoulders and give him a shake, just to wake him up. I did not do that of course, but I think my big sigh told him more than that shake could have ever done
    For me, it was a difficult lesson in letting go. You want to help the ones you love but you can only do so much...
  3. Daniel Ionita's Avatar
    Thanks Jo, it's hard for me most of the time to figure when it's ok to talk and when I need to let go as well.
  4. Jo Tummers's Avatar
    I know the feeling, although I am slowly getting the hang of it (but still failing miserably sometimes)
  5. Krispy Not's Avatar
    Warm welcome to Tiffany on this forum.

    If I were in your shoes, I would neglect all Buddhist teachings, except the 5 precepts, and straighten out the basis of your life piramide first: basic amount of money, shelter, security, relationship... When this basis is met, then things like teaching mindfulness or engaging in spititual exercices would become t he next step.
    A house needs a simple and basic, although it's very material and earthy, to be steady. So it's with the Dhamma. It's sometimes a cliche that spiritual people always tend to be broke... This is a wrong view, as basis financial and general life problems tend to induce a flight or running away into spirituality, as a drug, or a ambrosia to boost ones self esteem.

    I hope you be well, happy, prosperous and peaceful
  6. Bhante Nandiya's Avatar
    That's a really good title of a blog post. I've been there, done that!

    Mindfulness is kind of one of those things which will only work if you believe it will. This is why you can't get someone to meditate against their will.

    If you really want to help someone, give them kindness and compassion. Have you ever been in a bad mood, then someone has smiled at you, and you suddenly feel a lot better, maybe even for the rest of the day? I certainly have experienced that. Even a simple smile can take away a great load of suffering. So it's not necessarily hard to give someone kindness and compassion.
    One problem we sometimes run into is that our own kindness and compassion doesn't have much strength to it, so we end up doing what might be called "sympathetic suffering". A person frowns at us, so we frown back! Emotions are contagious, and if a person has a great momentum of negative emotion, it can end up overpowering us. It is very helpful to be mindful of this fact, that if we aren't careful, our mind can be overwhelmed by a negative emotion which really doesn't belong to us at all.
    In contrast, if we can maintain a certain strength of goodwill and compassion, we can "push" that into someone else, our happiness becomes contagious.
    Sometimes what I find, is you smile at someone, they scowl with a "what are you smiling at me for?" look. Normally then, we immediately drop the smile. However if we don't do that, and keep smiling, and if they say something negative, respond with something positive like "I care for you, okay?", then they end up smiling back. People are often quite attached to their suffering, but they don't necessarily want to be suffering, and may allow themselves to be pried away from it.
    If you 'learn' this power, and 'exercise' this power, then this can have a transformative effect on other people beyond the immediately apparent one. They might start to wonder what your secret is, of not getting caught up in all this suffering. They also may not. Some people just aren't very introspective.

    But in any case, it can never hurt to combine mindfulness with right intention - in the words of Ajahn Brahm, make peace, be kind, be gentle.

    If someone helped me, I used to think "Lucky me, that I got to meet such a wonderful person". Now though, I tend to think "Lucky them, they got to help someone". In truth, it's not easy to really help others, and it can be quite a rare thing to actually get an opportunity to make a real difference to someones life. So don't set your expectations high, and if you are successful, have a sense of gratitude that you could make a difference. If we come from a place of expectations, we're sunk before we even begin.

    With metta,
    Bhante Nandiya.
  7. Meredith Hooke's Avatar
    Hi Tiffany,

    This is very tough and takes a lot of practice to find the right balance - ie of knowing when someone just wants a shoulder to cry or whine on and when they are asking for advice. Everyone is a little different - I have some friends that I know when they are upset they just want to complain and for them I just listen with compassion. For those that are open or asking for some help, I gladly offer them some advice that I think would be helpful.

    Also, welcome to the forum - from another SoCal Buddhist!

    With much Metta,
  8. Rocky Roberts's Avatar
    Almost every psychologist and counselor I've spoken to says this kind of "help-rejecting complaining" is just some opinionated people being conceited. While I do think a lot of times these people are just frustrated because they're looking for an answer that resonates with them as opposed to "being conceited," I do partly agree with their conventional wisdom.

    Some people, irregardless of how we give advice, are always going to view it through a lens of hostility and close-mindedness. For example, I know I'm not being condescending when I'm giving advice because I'm never irritated, angry or see the other person as below me when I give advice. If you were to ask me, I don't give advice at all! When I give advice, I'm actually just expressing my personal excitement or interest with something. Often, it has nothing to do with the other person and has more to do with my personal idiosyncrasies. I'm just a bit of an energetic and giddy goof ball at times.

    On the other hand, if I feel like I'm giving "[B]advice[/B]", I realize that I'm just trying to control the other person and make them do things my way just to make things easier on myself. Nothing wrong with wanting things to be easier on yourself, but I think just avoiding the person (or at least taking up their personal problems) is better for everyone. Sometimes it's not that easy though. Even if you want to let them go or their personal problems go, they don't want to let it (or YOU) go!