The Emotional Costs and Rewards of Helping Others

Kolb_ohneASToday, we have a special guest at our anthropological colloquium: Ken Kolb, Associate Professor of Sociology, Furman University (South Carolina), will mark the start of the colloquium’s summer term with a talk titled “The Emotional Costs and Rewards of Helping Others”.

I came across Ken’s book “Moral Wages. The Emotional Dilemmas of Victim Advocacy and Counseling” last year when I was looking for literature on counsellors and women’s shelters. There’s not much written on counselling focusing on the perspective of the professional. However, Ken’s ethnography of a US-American Agency that helps women who have experienced abuse was especially interesting to me as I found many parallels to my own research that I conducted in similar institutions in South Africa. When the opportunity arose, I did not hesitate to invite him and here he is now.

Yesterday evening over a “special German beer” (nobody knew how to translate “Naturtrübes”), Ken asked me a very thought-provoking question: Had I ever made the experience of helping someone and ending up being upset or angry with the person afterwards? Of course, a lot of things come to mind: Helping someone moving out, only to find they haven’t prepared anything. Putting a lot of effort into doing something someone asked you for and not feeling appreciated. I think everyone can relate to that uncomfortable sensation easily. Usually, it is experienced as a strange dissonance. Shouldn’t helping someone else leave you with a good feeling?

Ken explained this was exactly what counsellors often experienced in their everyday work. As counsellors, they had to respect their clients’ decisions. However, sometimes counsellors sensed that clients were not cooperative, sometimes even lying to them. In order to still feel good about their work as a helper, what could they possibly do in these difficult situations to deal with frustrations? In his book, Ken describes the manifold rationalizations counsellors make use of and that help them to endure and on top of that, make meaningful this very source of frustration.

I am very much looking forward to Ken’s presentation later and to our discussions!


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