When I was in middle school, I volunteered as a counselor at my town’s “Safety Town,” a summer program for children entering kindergarten. The kids came in every day for two weeks to learn about everything safety, from crossing the street to avoiding strangers. I attended the program as a 5-year-old and volunteered as a preteen for four summers. I lived Safety Town.
One lesson, in particular, that has stuck with me over the years was about water safety. When someone is having trouble in a pool or drowning, we taught the kids “Reach or throw, don’t go.” This means in order to save your friend, reach out an arm or a stick of some kind to them or throw them a flotation device, DON’T GO IN AFTER THEM. The idea is that if you hop in the pool to try to save your friend, their panic will often lead to your harm.
The reason I bring up this anecdote is because I think the idea is so relevant but in terms of mental health and emotional peace. If your friend is drowning in emotional pain or stress, reach or throw, don’t go.
I have been someone who has tried to get in the water to help a friend, and I’ve seen it countless times. We as helpers get into the trouble to help our friends, and eventually we’re under so much pressure and stress to make their problems go away that they become our problems. That’s not fair, and it’s not right.
As humans, it is our instinct to help those in need. And of course, you should help your friends as much as you can, but don’t let them drown you. They won’t do it on purpose, but it will happen. Misery loves company, and it’s a burden too heavy with which to try to swim.
The missing part of the rhyme is obviously, get a lifeguard (it doesn’t rhyme so well). Lifeguards always get in the water to help people drowning, why don’t they have to follow the rule? The difference is, they are trained to do this. They have to get in the water to save people, and they know how to do it without hurting themselves. In the real world application, if you’re a trained lifeguard- therapist, psychologist, life coach- absolutely get in the water. Maybe you still shouldn’t if it is a close friend struggling, but that is up to your own discretion.
It’s hard sometimes because sometimes it seems like the person struggling doesn’t have time to wait for you to get something to reach or throw. The tide is pulling them out further and further, and you can’t reach them with this method. That doesn’t mean you have to jump in. Again, get help from a trained professional. It is not your job to save your friends. It is your job to help them as best you can, support them when they get rescued, and be there for them to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But it is not your job to go in after them. Life is hard, but we all have to live it. Reach or throw, don’t go.