Ask Bear: Advice for Helpers -The Toast

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Dear Bear,

I help too much. I can’t stop. It crops up in all kinds of ways, but the bottom line is that I am constantly giving too much help. Too much as in more than is wanted sometimes, too much as in more than I can afford (time or money or both) some other times. People feel like I don’t have confidence in them. Or sometimes they take advantage. Or sometimes I am supposed to listen and empathize with their feelings, but I don’t get why I would want to do that when I could be fixing it and then they wouldn’t have to have those feelings at all.

I do kind of get why I do it (or what my therapist says about why) but it’s all past stuff. So I’m not trying to be funny, this is actually awful and I don’t know what to do.

Please help?

Dear Brave Correspondent,

Man, writing an advice column is so illuminating. Anyhow.

I too am a helper, and I too have had all manner of trouble with this over the years. Also many good things, it must be said, but in general most of them have come as I have gotten older and figured out how to get a somewhat tighter rein on my horses. I’ll tell you what I have figured out, and perhaps some of it will be useful to you?

(Actually, that’s one of the things I have learned – when giving advice, frame it. “Here’s what I learned about this in school…” or “When we went through that, what worked for us was…” or “I’ve never had anything like that happen before, and I am not trained in this area, but my first instinct would be to…” I apply this rule especially to unsolicited advice on the internet but it’s always useful, because (I have learned) it seems more like sharing and less like directing. Which, listen: I am a New York Jew living in Canada with my British husband. Any help I can get sounding less directive, I will take.)

The first and most important thing I had to get on board with is also the one with which I struggle the most intensely: the idea that I am worth keeping around even if I am not actively making myself useful all the time. Without doing too much extra, my family situation as a young person was not a tiptoe through the tulips. I internalized the idea that I was way too awful to love, or even like. I compensated for that brutal reality by being as useful and as entertaining as I possibly could imagine to everyone, all the time. People tend to respond more warmly to the “entertaining” part (at least until the people who’ve known you for years eventually realize that they don’t really know you at all because you’ve been so busy being entertaining, but: that’s another column) than the helpful part, as you have quite correctly identified. And so some of your work here will be slowly working your way toward the idea that you’re actually a totally worthwhile and probably quite delightful human, despite messages you may have received from people purporting to know better.

(Related: the thing that happens to some of us where we get so good at reading other people’s emotional weather and tides that we figure out very, very quickly what they need. And then supply it, because HELPING. Feel free to sing along if anything sounds familiar.)

Now, about how to not help. I will tell you honestly that I have never had any luck at all trying to pretend that I am not feeling or wanting whatever I am feeling or wanting. The only way I can ever get past a “bad impulse” is to look at it, recognize it, spend a moment imagining it, and then choose elsewise. If I try to pretend that I am not silently planning to totally overhelp while also pretending it’s a spontaneous coincidence, I get nowhere. I have to imagine it, and indulge it for a minute or two in my head. Then I can take a deep breath and pull up my socks and try to imagine how a less-insecure, less-codependent person might behave, and do that. This process degrades when I’m tired or low on cope anyhow, but it works for me. Try it and tell me what you think.

Last, on listening and empathizing: I am so bad at this. I am so bad at this that it is my actual, non-euphemistic habit that if someone I love says they’re hungry I reflexively start listing every food in the house that they could choose from. (Apparently, you’re supposed to say “oh.” Or maybe “have a snack!”) on the one hand, I get it – some people just find it cathartic to complain. Some people need to talk a issue through in order to get their own problem-solving skills engaged. Those are all completely legitimate choices. I just always always forget them when I’m in the moment.

Eventually I developed a script, which I run in my head while someone explains their upsets. It helps me enormously, and it has three parts:

  1. Validate their emotions. “That sounds super hard,” “I would have screamed too!” “I don’t know how anyone could be expected to…”
  2. Give credit. “Really, I don’t think you could have explained it more clearly.” “Good for you for speaking up.” “I think you’re doing an amazing job considering all the factors.”
  3. Problem solve (but not too soon). At this point you say: “I have a few ideas about next steps. Let me know when you have the bandwidth/spoons/patience to hear them and I’ll share.”

Now, here’s the other thing, though. Don’t let people help-shame you too much. It’s good and appropriate to keep an eye on how much we actually do in the world of helping because, as above, it’s not entirely uncomplicated. But also remember that of all the personal challenges in the world, Brave Correspondent, wanting to help a lot is not the worst one. Being someone friends can count on when they’re locked out of the house or need some maddening computer glitch handled is lovely. The trick is to choose as friends people who want to help you, too. Everything is much nicer that way.

It doesn’t have to be a strict tit-for-tat arrangement. There will always be ebbs and flows in time and energy and money during a relationship of any kind – sometimes you’ll have more to spare, sometimes they will. But your friend will be the ones who will say “you can get the next one,” sometimes, too. They’re the ones who will put pants on at 3am in January and come collect you from a parking lot, figure out why your phone is doing that, listen while you think out loud, distract your racist great-aunt at a party so she doesn’t bother anyone, and on and on.

Notice in whose company the world feels bigger, more expansive, more optimistic, more alive. Notice when you feel met. Notice when you feel buoyed. Keep choosing those feeling, Brave Correspondent, because – not to be like that about it, but – you are totally worth it, and those assholes made you believe you weren’t don’t know dick about it.

Love and courage,


S. Bear Bergman is an author, editor, storyteller, publisher and loudmouth.

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