When does “helping” people do more harm than good?

Do you give until it hurts? We’ve all been there! A friend or family member tells you – often in gory detail – about the struggles they’ve been having in their relationship, marriage and/or family life. Being the caring people that most of us are, we want to do what we can to make it better. But do our good intentions help or hurt? While there are unfortunately no clear rules of engagement here, I’ll suggest a few guidelines.


Ask yourself, does the word “fix” enter into your approach when supporting your family or friends? Such as, “I can help them fix this issue.” One gets the image of a superhero rushing in to save the day. If so, you’re into the unhealthy giving until it hurts arena. There is a feeling of condescension to being in the “fixer” (one up) versus “fixee” (one down) position. Of course, you’d never actually say this, but the subtext is “You can’t handle this for yourself, so let me be the good parent and make it all better.” This feels yucky and creates resentment.


Use your “gut” to tell you whether you’re overstepping your own boundaries or those of your targets. If you do this, do you expect something in return (unwritten contract)? Gratitude, being seen as a person who “helps people”, recompense at some future date? Will you be worn out in some way (e.g. emotionally, financially) that causes resentment on your part if the unwritten contract isn’t fulfilled? If you don’t have it to give, don’t give it. The relationship may be the casualty.


Are you able to politely, assertively protect your personal space – physically, emotionally, and ideologically? We all have a right to have different opinions and beliefs from others no matter how close we may be to them. We also have the choice about whether and with whom to share those opinions and beliefs. If you have trouble with this idea, then you’re also likely to fall into that unhealthy caregiver role.


How often do you do something purely for yourself? Do you tend to fall into the trap of claiming that you’re taking care of yourself when you’re really measuring and deciding based on how it will impact your significant other, kids, or friends? If your answer is “rarely or never or huh” and “I go to the spa when my family thinks I’m too hard to live with lately”, then this is an area that needs work. If you want to have energy reserves so that you can give an honest “yes” when it’s appropriate, then you need to have refilling your tank built into the equation.


A final warning is that, when you do lapse into getting overly involved in another’s personal drama, it’s a bell that cannot be un-rung! Your friends or relatives may be on divorce’s doorstep when you’re called in to help fix it. Then they manage to resolve it (or at least back away from the precipice), but you may still have negative feelings toward somebody because you weren’t included in the make-up sex! This can lead to some really awkward family holidays!

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