Sometimes, doing something is less of a choice than a compulsion.
Sometimes, we find it difficult or impossible to stand by when an innocent is being harmed or an injustice is being done right in front of us. We feel a moral or ethical drive to act, one that requires us to do something or we may not be able to live with the results and ourselves afterward.
The easy advice is to tell you to simply not to act when, as we talked about Monday, the costs outweigh the good you can do. That assumes that logic will prevail every time you are faced with a crisis, though, and we all know that won’t always seem or even be possible.
It’s even harder for folks who are high responders, in the terminology I learned from Dr. William Aprill – folks who are biased towards action, wired to do something. They are the opposite of low responders, who are willing to stand by and who do not want and who may even not be able to respond, no matter how great the need. Neither type of person is better or worse than the others, but each have special kinds of challenges they need to overcome when bad things happen in front of them. It’s important to look at yourself honestly to figure out where on that spectrum you may be for different kinds of crises. If, for instance, you see an adult punch a child, what is your immediate reaction? Do you want to jump right in and give that adult a taste of their own medicine? Or do you live by the maxim that when it’s not your monkeys, it’s not your circus, so you’ll at most call the police and report what you’ve seen?
For high responders, the temptation is to rush in as soon as the need for help becomes apparent. It’s difficult to pause and take in the entire situation, to evaluate what should be done and what can be done, to decide whether you’re the right person to act, and if you are, to pause to ensure you’re acting in the best way possible to ensure success. It’s a potential recipe for disaster, every step of the way. It might be that the person you are intending to save was actually part of the problem, an attacker whose had the tables turned on them, perhaps, or a participant in a mutually willing fight. Your well-meaning interruption may distract a defender from acting appropriately while you are still too far away to physically aid them. Your rushing into an accident scene may prevent a qualified paramedic from reaching an injured person as quickly. You may default to choosing your gun to shoot someone who perhaps only needed a dose of pepper spray to stop.
Because the potential exists for you to act rashly, it’s important first to realize that you might do that. Do you always want to jump right in? What kinds of situations make you want to act first and think later? I return to that over and over again because of the pre-need decision-making concept that I’ve talked about before and that Dr. Aprill also explored quite a bit. If you know when you are likely to act before thinking, try thinking before that impetus to act comes up at all. Consider what a tableau must look like before it is reasonable and safe to jump in. Figure out what clues you will look for to make go and even more importantly, no-go decisions. Plan the kinds of actions you might take, and learn what is necessary to their success. When you go through those exercises in advance, you will better be able to make wiser choices in crisis. Your brain will be primed to look for the red flags you’ve identified, and to select more positive responses ranging from being able to rationally not act at all, or to do something that might actually be productive to helping fix someone else’s bad day.
As part of that process, you need to dig into all of the negative consequences that could result from inserting yourself into a potential disaster. You might harm an innocent person. You may be vilified for hurting someone, even if you are legally and morally justified in your actions. You could go to jail if you read the situation wrong. You might have to take unpaid time off from your job in order to deal with the police or courts. You might be injured or even die. They aren’t just burdens you could bear because they can also spill over onto your family. They could become the victims of harassment relating to your actions, or suffer from your reduced income or mourn the loss of your presence in their lives. While we all imagine ourselves heroes when we act, that’s not always the way it turns out. We can even do all of the right things, and everything can still go completely wrong. If the worst happens, will trying be worth it anyway?
Of course, there are also the negative consequences that could result if you don’t act. We all need to be able to look ourselves in the eyes the next day, and it may be that you know you would be ashamed of yourself if you allowed certain things to happen on your watch. That’s real and it’s valid, and it’s not just a high responder problem. For high responders, that knowledge may be what tips you over into acting regardless of what you know can go wrong and regardless of what bad things you know could result. Because that is true, it’s imperative that you be as well prepared as possible to step into those situations where you must do something and emerge with the best possible results. If you can’t resist a drowning child, then you must be the best rescue swimmer you can be. If you can’t resist stepping in when you see someone hit a child, then you must have good fighting skills if verbal deescalation doesn’t work, and you must be able to respond to increasing levels of force up to and including knives and guns.
As for being a low responder? Well, that’s a different set of problems for a different day.