When Helping Is Not Helping


Love is not patronizing and charity isn’t about pity, it is about love. – Mother Teresa

I left home just before I finished high school and started working. I was working full-time, living in my own apartment and going to college four nights a week in order to finish my degree in the standard four years. I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep in those days, but I was doing really well.

The idea of a 17-year old without family support was unsettling to some people around me. My boss at the time, an older woman, found out about my “situation” and began to offer unsolicited advice about my personal life. She would sometimes refer to herself as a “concerned mom”.

On the face of it, this sounds like a nice person, right? Who wouldn’t want someone being friendly and trying to be helpful? Yet somehow, there was something about her that felt intrusive. I felt burdened by her and wasn’t sure why.  Over time I realized that she felt needy to me. Isn’t that ironic? Why would that be when she was offering help to me?

Here’s why. The intention behind people’s offer to help is absolutely crucial. It can make the offer of help truly supportive or it can actually add a burden to the prospective “helpee”.

My boss seemed to have interpreted my “situation” as a negative thing and I didn’t view it that way at all. I was gaining a lot of confidence about holding everything together and I viewed myself as stronger because of it. My boss seemed insistent on characterizing me with an “oh, poor you”, attitude which I found insulting. When I diplomatically made it clear that I was quite happy, did not need her help and preferred to keep my private life…well, private, she would not be dissuaded from insisting that she was just trying to be helpful.

Over time, I began to feel like the unwitting target of a “project” she thought she had found – a person who was weaker than herself in relation to whom she could position herself as rescuer. I was clearly capable, however and did not need rescuing from anyone.

The disconnect between her attempted characterization of who I was, with the reality of who I was, was noticeable by others in the organization. They would chuckle at times at how off-base my boss was – not to mention how inappropriate her behavior was in the workplace.

I realized what made interaction with her feel burdensome. She was using the guise of helping me in order to satisfy her own needs – unconsciously I assume. I’ve learned since then that some people can become addicted to “caretaking”, since focusing on others people’s problems can temporarily make us forget our own.  She was using me to satisfy her own needs – not helping me.

On top of working full-time, going to school full-time, making my finances stretch to provide for myself and learning adult life skills by myself, did a 17-year old really have any energy for a middle-aged woman’s needs? No way.

At the same time in my life I had a Wise Aunt Bea who was a huge support. I felt she was someone I could talk to because she was always encouraging and usually could say the right thing to make me feel better. She had a full life – whether or not I was in it.  I felt able to accept her help somehow because she never made me feel helpless or needy – she actually helped build up my confidence, develop resilience and feel strong. She was the perfect example of someone helping another for all the right reasons – to give of herself.

I felt as if my Wise Aunt Bea really saw who I was and understood me in ways that even I didn’t understand.  I felt energized after talking things through with her. I believe she expected nothing in return from me. Her kind of help didn’t characterize me as helpless and unable. It characterized me as powerful and able.

Did she gain satisfaction from helping me nonetheless? Yes. She enjoyed the satisfaction of changing someone else’s life. She gained someone who loved and admired her. Helping to change another person’s life for the better is just about the most satisfying thing to accomplish in a lifetime. She did that.

The reason why the family members of addicts are sent off to Alcoholics Anonymous along with the addict is to see if they, too, are addicted – addicted to caretaking. An addict who refuses to get help can easily turn into a full-time job, which can serve as an excellent distraction for someone looking to avoid their own problems.

A “caretaker” can be just as addicted as the addict, except a caretaking addiction is generally unidentified by others, including the caretaker. In fact, the caretaker can often be rewarded by the people around them as a wonderful selfless person. In the extreme, a caretaker can actually be parasitic and highly invested in another’s illness.

Be wary of those who are invested in your remaining incompetent, unable or small. Stick with those who energize you to do your best and who feel truly supportive, rather than a burden. A pitying “oh, poor you” can become predatory, while “you can do it and I can help” feels empowering.

Some people will try to latch on to someone whom they view as in need of their “help”. People who are motivated by a need to shift their focus on to someone else in order to avoid their own problems feel burdensome to the people they are trying to “help”. By contrast, people who are motivated to help others by an honest desire to give of themselves energize the people they help.

All of us have something to give – and all of us have needs. Having needs doesn’t make us needy, it just makes us human.


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