What's driving your desire to help?
Today's article has been inspired by some conversations with my lovely clients on the theme of helping and supporting others, which at times can feel all-encompassing. I have been there too, many times. And so, I wanted to share with you what I have learned about balancing the desire to help others with your own wants and needs too, so you don't keep losing yourself and ending up exhausted and burnt out.
You see, in today's society, helping and self-sacrificing have become the socially acceptable thing to do. I'm certainly not suggesting that helping others is a bad thing - it's my job after all! However, it can be all too easy to take on being helpful and pleasing to others as an identity, focusing on their needs and responsibilities, rather than your own.
So, it's really important that we are mindful about how we help others and that we balance this with taking care of our own needs, too.
The hard truth about helping
It's nice to be seen as kind and a 'good person', right? Maybe being helpful is not even something you think about, it's just automatic - like putting your socks on in the morning. You don't think about how, you just do it.
Yet, when we become overly focused on others, it's usually because we are trying to (unconsciously) avoid something in our own life. Often, that 'thing' is experiencing difficult emotions such as fear, anxiety, guilt, and shame. So, our need to please and help can sometimes be more about us trying to feel better or safe or avoid feeling worse than it is about 'helping' the other person.
In his book, The Advice Trap author Michael Bungay Stanier introduces us to the three personas of our inner 'Advice Monster' - the part of us that, as soon as someone starts telling us about an issue they are struggling with, rubs its hands together with glee and declares "I'm going to add some value to this conversation! Yes. I. Am!"
The tell-it monster
Tell-it is here to convince you that you must have the answer; if you don't have the answer, you've failed. Having the answer is the only way for you to add value, and the only way you'll be recognised as a success.
The save-it monster
Save-it's tactic is to take you aside and explain, earnestly, that if it wasn't for you holding it all together, everything would fail. Your job is to be fully responsible for every person, every situation, and every outcome. When in doubt, take it on yourself (and when not in doubt, take it on yourself). Also could be known as 'The Martyr'!
The control-it monster
Control-it, with a tone of gentle authority, will assure you that the only way to succeed is to stay in control at all times. At. All. Times. It convinces you that everything is controllable, so long as you're in charge. Don't trust others. Don't share power. Don't cede control. If you let control slip, even just a little, disaster will befall us all...
Now, maybe you recognise all of these personas in yourself, or maybe one is most prevalent? Maybe you've worked hard to eliminate some of these behaviours and now they only show up in very specific situations or with specific people? No matter which of the three personas struck a chord with you, all of them share the same core belief...
You're better than the other person.
Ouch! Confronting right? Now, before you stop reading and run away, bear with me...
Often, this belief actually comes from a place of low self-esteem and has become the armour we use to protect ourselves - it feels way safer to be right, to be the helper, and to be in control than the alternatives!
So, it's not that you actually think you are better than the other person. On the contrary, it's a coping mechanism you've learned to cover up that, in reality, you don't feel good enough.
Yet, when you allow your Advice Monster to take control of the reins and start telling others what to do, or saving them from themselves, or taking control of situations, what's really going on is that it feels safer for you if you do it.
The upside of dysfunction
You see, unconsciously we may be seeing others as incapable of doing things themselves or feel anxious that it won't be done the way we would do it. We also get something out of being the helper too - being needed, love, validation, recognition, security, etc.
So, whilst our desire to help may feel like it's coming from a good place, we need to check in with ourselves as to why we are getting so involved in others' lives or careers:
- Are we seeking approval, attention, status, or recognition?
- Are we trying to avoid feeling uncomfortable emotions such as fear, anxiety, guilt, and shame?
- Are we trying to keep ourselves super busy to avoid dealing with our own problems?
- Do we feel like we know better than others? Or maybe feel that they aren't capable to do it alone?
- Do we secretly need to be needed and like being seen as the 'go to' person who always has the answers?
We all do this to some extent, often unconsciously. It's when it starts to have a detrimental effect on our well-being or on others' ability to take responsibility for their own needs, that this way of relating becomes toxic.
The downside of dysfunction
It can feel quite intrusive to be on the receiving end of this kind of help and can make others dependant on you as they don't build the confidence to do it themselves.
Whilst I know it comes from a good place, stopping people from experiencing failure or hitting rock bottom actually stunts their growth and keeps them stuck in their situation much longer than if they are given the opportunity to feel the pain of their actions (or lack of action).
And, when our relationships are based on over-giving, trying to be pleasing, and taking responsibility for things that aren't ours, we can end up feeling exhausted, powerless, frustrated, and hurt if our helpful ways aren't appreciated. It drains our battery and can end up sucking the joy from our soul.
There is another way
When you choose to adopt the mindset that people are 'creative, resourceful, and whole (not broken)', even if they are struggling, you begin to trust that they are capable of helping themselves and dealing with the consequences of their actions.
That doesn't mean that you can't support them. It does mean that you acknowledge that we are all different and what you might do in their position, might not be right for them.
When we embrace our differences and seek to empower people to help themselves, we are able to stop giving unsolicited advice and telling people what they 'should' or 'need' to do, and instead start to get curious about their experience.
So, next time someone brings a problem your way, rather than jumping straight to advice-giving, take a breath and ask an open question instead. Open questions start with who, what, where, when, how. You could also use questions that start with tell, explain or describe too (TED).
Here are some examples:
- Tell me what's been going on?
- What else?
- And then what?
- What did you do?
- What do you want?
- What are your options?
- How do you feel?
- Where could you find out?
- Describe your side to me...
- What's your part in this?
- Who can help?
- How can I help you?
- What do you need from me?
- What's the real challenge in this for you?
And remember, you don't need to fill every gap in the conversation. Give others the time to ponder and gain insight into their needs and responsibilities. Often doing nothing other than listening, validating, and giving someone the space to think is transformational in itself - no advice or help needed!