Help Without Helping

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People need support, too. But most tell me that they don’t like to ask for help, because they don’t want to impose.  In reality, most people are desperate to help.  I see this every day from my mobility scooter.  Last Sunday, an old man, whom I didn’t know, noticed me approaching my building’s front door.  Pushing off with his cane for propulsion, he went into his fastest hobble and raced to open the door for me.

I thought this was very sweet, but he couldn’t open the door all the way, and his own body took up some of the space I needed to get through.  So he wasn’t really helping much, but he was trying. I smiled at him, grabbed the open door, and said, “I can take it from here.  You’ve been a big help.” I don’t know if he believed my lie.

But thinking we are helping when we’re really getting in the way is common for most of us. A young neighbor named Marcie told me about her efforts to help her roommate, Jenny, with some relationship issues. Jenny’s boyfriend had been mistreating her, including some pushing and shoving and a lot of insults.  “It’s been weeks,” Marcie said. “I’ve been telling her to leave him, but she won’t listen. I gave her an article on communication skills and another one on abusive boyfriends, but it hasn’t helped.  Now she’s starting to take it out on me, slamming doors, not even saying hello.”

“Ah,” I replied. “So she is still struggling with her boyfriend, but now it’s become your fault.”

“Kind of.”

I told her about standing in the doorway you’re trying to open. Advising someone to do something that they already know they should do rarely helps. “Just be there for her. Lead without leading,” I advised, borrowing from Lao Tzu.

Marcie is 23 years old and a senior at San Francisco State. She is planning to go into a Master’s program and become a family therapist. She is definitely tuned into helping people, so my advice to “lay off” was hard for her to hear.

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19 Responses to Help Without Helping

  1. Angelee Dion says:

    Your stories always move me, David. Thank you again. (I also recently reread much of The Art of Getting Well and was again inspired by its compassionate wisdom, humor, and reminders to be kind to ourselves and our bodies.)

  2. Linda C says:

    I love this story, David, and I love the way you told it.

  3. Pat Gray says:

    I know your advice is good—but difficult for me to follow. It’s hard to see someone suffer when I think I have a good way for her to change and make her life better. I will stop giving her books and advice and just try to be like your desk.

  4. Michele Weitz says:

    I’m going to pass this along to a few people with the intro, “If you *really* want to help me, …” I’ve also written down a few take-away messages as reminders to myself when attempting to give advice. Thank you again for great inspiration.

  5. Jean Selby says:

    As a social worker, it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to fix or change someone who we see as suffering, when we think we know what would help. However, I have found that being supportive, letting them know how I see the situation, and just asking how I can help, is often more effective that any unsolicited advice.

  6. Linda Martin says:

    A beautiful story about the rubber plant. I can see that I am probably a “fixer” and need to learn better. Probably just need to learn to be a “prop” for people. Sometimes all we can do is listen to people and pray for them.

  7. jamal says:

    thanks, david. super entry. it gives me another way of looking at how i can make progress in my relationship with my daughter. way too often i try to do way too much to help her, whether she asks or not, whether she welcomes it or not. rather than helping, i end up pushing her away. i am struggling to learn how to just be present to support her by simply listening to her, rather than always being in problem-solver/protector (translation: controller) mode. thanks again for your helpful article.

  8. Marsha says:

    Wonderful story, David. Thank you!

  9. lynn says:

    really good story and follow-up to your other recent posts

  10. Neal says:

    Thank you for a great article. It reminds me of how important it is to have patience, and thoughful presence of mind when offering support. I suppose I would be more open to help if I believed more people understood Maureen’s approach.

  11. Tammie says:

    What a great story, David. I am one of those people who “help” the wrong way, and this gave me much needed perspective. You always inspire me! Thank you.

  12. Tom Robinson says:

    Great post, David. I especially liked your sharing with us how your friend helped you when you fell. What a wonderful person, with a wonderful presence, to have as a friend!

  13. I read the whole story. Reminds me of my son, being up when everyone else is asleep so he doesn’t have to deal with the rest of us.

  14. DT says:

    This story touched me in a way that I have not been touched in a while. You know what I have been going through … reading this story let me know that there are persons going through something that they may not be ever able to over come. Thanks for sharing it with my and letting me know this “in order to get to your destination, you must go through a number of things that will only serve to make you stronger in the end”.

  15. Scot Murphy says:

    Thank you, from someone who is at times in both positions. It’s gotten easier for me to ask for help since I decided to do positive things as often as possible. But since I can’t really do a lot physically, I repay with kindness…I say good things to people who deserve them, I open doors, I make people laugh, I support and encourage people. I am the recipient of so much help in so many ways that I’ve been changing my life just to pay it back. Now that we’re even, I take when I have to and pay back as often as I can. People want to be good; stress drives it out of them.

  16. Patricia Monagle says:

    Loved it!

  17. You can spend years trying to help people when what they really need is to be let go of so they can decide to help themselves.

    It’s incredibly hard to do. Totally counter-intuitive. Pains you inside. Often, they start to blame you when they’re no longer able to rely on you as an enabler. But it’s frequently the ONLY way to help.

    Definitely hit a chord with me.

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