When I began working exclusively with students with emotional disabilities I was all in. I fed myself a diet of “I can do everything” and jokingly told my students every day that I was there to change lives. I was no longer a teacher; I was someone who changed lives. Cue my students rolling their eyes. I had developed the superhero complex.
Everyone loves a superhero. We admire their commitment and virtue. We celebrate their selfless determination. They appear to do it all. They do not require sleep. They do not require acknowledgement. They do not need anything for themselves. They do not need time for mental health or self help. They are indestructible.
Underneath their cape and armor there is a different story at play. They are lonely because relationships are secondary. They are insecure because no accomplishment is enough to fill their requirements of care for others. They feel guilty because their efforts always fall short of saving everyone they meet. They are holding a mirror reflecting insignificance because their measure of value is so unrealistic they will never feel the worth they are actually providing.
The truth is that we are not the superheroes we read about and watch on the big screen. We are humans. We see the negative over the positive. We are more likely to see problems easier than solutions. We see need over abundance. We feel hurt over joy. We absorb this even as our minds convince us that we alone can fix what we deem broken.
Please hear me say that superheroes do not have to make life perfect for others. If you are called in your heart to help the many, do not take that calling lightly, but view it through a lens where you can make a difference while maintaining your own vitality. Here are four ingredients to being a healthy hero.
Stay Present: It can be easy to get hyper focused on those in need, while thinking those closest to you do not need you. Family and friends can easily be pushed into the background because of the virtue you place in fixing those that you think cannot survive without you. There is time for those in your care and there is time for those who care about you. Be present in the moments you are granted.
Know when you can and know when you can’t: There are things you can do to help and there are things that are beyond what you have to offer. Acknowledge when you do not have the capability or skill set to be “the person” for someone in need. Know when to tap out and defer to others. If you feel uncomfortable supporting someone, follow your gut. You most likely require the assistance of a different professional’s help.
Stop aiming to fix and focus on supporting: Do not set your sights on fixing problems for others. Let others feel the empowerment of overcoming their own hurdles. Provide them the encouragement, honest feedback, and active listening they deserve, but do not think you can give a roadmap to end all discomfort. Fixers often see outcomes that they are invested in, while the person suffering with the problem has not yet risen to a place where they can become invested. You can be the salve for wounds, but the healing is done by those who bear the scar.
Set Limits: It can be easy to compromise yourself while helping others. You can be put in situations where you act against your values or give more than you have to offer simply to ward off the guilt that comes with potentially failing someone in need. That is an illusion that can eat away at your spirit and your joy of being impactful to others. Feel confident and comfortable with setting limits on your time and what you can provide. You can remain a positive presence in someone’s life without being a yesman to all they need.
We must be careful not to let our capes become the weight that dilutes the joy we can glean from this life. We all have the power to make an impact, but when we sacrifice ourselves to “save” others we are being counterproductive. When we forgo ourselves we create a space for resentment and bitterness to take hold.
We must acknowledge that being a superhero is not about the big moments, but rather it is about being big in the small moments. It is about building trust, hope, and love in those who doubt they exist. It is about being a model of patience, acceptance, and understanding. It is also about knowing when to let go so you can continue to fly and help others, including yourself.