I recently asked a colleague and friend about a person whom she had provided considerable help to. Her response was interesting. Besides recounting what she had done for this person, which was considerable and well beyond the call of duty, she noted, She went home and a couple of months later she told me online that she didn't have time for me now that she had friends where she lives who accepted her "as is." That was the last time I had any contact with her. I felt like I had gotten kicked in the gut and then slapped across the face.
In my response, I commented, when you provide support and help to people who are in extremely vulnerable situations they will often reject you over time simply because they don't want to be reminded of their one time dependence on you. I could have also added that “over helping” can make people uncomfortable. Shame goes hand in hand in many of these situations and if they are embarrassed about how they behaved, they may keep their distance.
Shortly after this e-mail exchange, I listened to the On Being Podcast of Adam Grant Successful Givers, Toxic Takes, and the Life We Spend at Work. Couldn’t have been more timely. While his focus is on giving/helping in the workplace, the same rules apply in other areas of one’s life, particularly as it pertains to our kids and when we’re in the role of caregiver. These are two instances where we are more likely to over help and not for the betterment of ourselves or them.
I’ve watched parents literally make themselves sick trying to provide for adult children. Sadly I know more than one caregiver who became ill and died before their charge did. If anything, the following recommendations are most important for those in these situations, because it’s easy to go overboard, forget boundaries and absolutely expect something in return.
In order to be helpful, and avoid being rejected and/or burned out, consider the following:
• Help without the expectation of return or benefit.
• Be productive in your helping by setting appropriate boundaries, prioritizing who you will help (e.g. family, then job, friends, community, etc.) and in what manner. You can’t be all things to all people. The thinner you spread yourself, the less helpful you become. By the same token, by focusing in areas where you have knowledge and expertise, people are more likely to call on you for that type of help.
• Understand your own cues when you’re bordering on giving too much or becoming burned out. Such signs may include:
- You start resenting the person
- You find your self saying things like “haven’t I done enough?”
- Caring seems like a waste of energy.
- You feel like nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated.
• Empathy is a wonderful characteristic but if you continually allow yourself to shift priorities because of other’s needs you may end up short changing yourself. Selfless is not something you can sustain for very long and remain productive and healthy. Keep in mind the flight attendant’s message regarding the need for oxygen-“place the mask on your face first before helping children and others around you.” In short, you are most helpful when your needs are taken care of and you help from a position of strength.
• Solicit others to help. This is particularly important for caregivers and in situations where the need is great.
• They type of help you provide can change relationships. Making a loan to a friend in financial difficulties alters the dynamic of the relationship and not one that can be easily reversed. Think carefully before doing this.
• Helping doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. Adam Grant has coined the phrase of the Five Minute Favor-something you can do because it’s very helpful and it doesn’t take more than five minutes of your time. It can be as simple as sending a check for membership to a condition specific organization or writing a “hope you feel better” card or e-mail.
My favorite quote on the idea of being helpful comes from the film critic Roger Ebert, who wrote the following towards the end of his life. “Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.
Resources that might be of interest
• Adam Grant’s Website: Be sure to check out his newsletter and Facebook page