I have always attracted people who need help. It’s part of being clergy. I not only accept that and am used to it, I am actively pleased by it. I like helping people because I enjoy solving puzzles and problems, and I absolutely love watching people find their own happiness.
Helping people is an honor, but it’s also a significant responsibility, and that’s daunting. Being a counselor, an adviser, a priest – these are positions of tremendous influence in a person’s life. If I can actually significantly help, that means I can also seriously fuck it up. Obviously that’s never my goal. Intent and result do not always match, and I am responsible for the result regardless of my intent.
So I tell all of my students, all of my congregants, all of my clients:
You should always have more than one source of input. Never just take my word for it. I’m honored you trust me, but I’m as fallible as anyone, and you are responsible for your own choices no matter what advice I give you. So if the advice I give you seems wrong, I fully expect you to get a second opinion! That doesn’t mean you should shop around for answers you want to hear. Challenging you is part of my job. But if you’re not thinking for yourself, we’re doing this wrong.
One of the elders in my congregation has been, for various reasons, involved in a couple of different traditions that are dangerously cultish. He knows what it looks like to be involved in a group under a charismatic priest who goes too far. He knows what it looks like when a leader crosses the line from helping to manipulating, from advising to controlling. He’s my reality check. I’ve told him, if I ever seem like that, if I start taking people’s choices away, if I start isolating them, or dominating them like that, tell me!
“I’d tell you,” he promised, “But you’d never do that.”
Because I am what I am, many of the people I attract need help healing from past abuses, and developing better judgement. They have often been badly hurt by people who took advantage of their blind sides, abused them, damaged their trust and impaired their judgement, all in the guise of advising them how to live a good life as a good person.
Some have been so conditioned to accept abuse that their instinct is to pull someone into fulfilling the other half of that co-dependent, abuse-enabling pattern. The thing is, I don’t want to be needed just for the sake of being needed – that’s just exhausting. I want people to actually learn and grow from what I teach, and thus move on to greater things. So if someone isn’t actually learning and growing, after a while I have to recognize that, stop enabling them, and be the one to move on. But inevitably people like that are more afraid of being cast aside than they are of being harmed. So they rail at me for hurting them by doing the very thing meant to stop the cycle of abuse they haven’t learned how not to seek.
Every so often, someone will push and push and push me, searching for a boundary I’ll enforce with a violent reaction. (Needless to say, I do have them, but I draw the line long before anyone gets to them.) The intensity reassures them that they’re needed. Without dramatic reactions to signal with certainty, they don’t know where the boundaries are.
I am not okay with my temper being used as someone else’s personal development tool. It’s a very loud cue for me to back the fuck up because something is very, very wrong. If I haven’t already pointed them towards therapeutic help by then, that’s the point where I refuse to even try helping them anymore until they get a proper therapist, and possibly not even then.
I asked my therapist once, in tears, “If people who are attracted to abusers are attracted to me, what does that make me?”
He told me, “You are what they’re pretending to be, what they mimic to attract the people you are trying to help.”
I hope to all the gods he’s right.