The Dark Side of Helping Others

The act of helping others is a wonderful thing.

It is one of the things that define friendships, relationships, communities, etc. It is (or at least it should be) a mutually beneficial act – we do something good for someone and we receive pleasure from the fact that we are able to help. But when does helping lose its light, positive side and turn into something dark and harmful?

What need does it fulfill in ourselves?

All of us are born with some universal, basic needs and one of them is the need for affirmation (validation, significance). Our physical and emotional health to a great extent depends on how much these basic needs are satisfied. If one of them has been unfulfilled for a long time, the person starts to seek compensation through becoming overdependent on behaviors that fulfill the other needs. However, this person can never feel satisfied internally, they are still starving for the missing things related to the ignored need. The attempts for compensation only temporarily distract them from the deficits. And unfortunately, such people lead a very unbalanced life and their style of communicating and relating with others becomes rather unbalanced too.

Helping others is a way to fulfill our need for validation and significance. Usually we want two things – to do something good for someone and to do something good for ourselves by enhancing the feeling that we are useful. We should keep these two motives in mind because this win-win situation occurs only when both motives are present and when helping others is a balanced, conscious and healthy act of behavior.

When does it become something negative and even harmful for ourselves and the others?

So when does helping become something negative? When the first motive  – to be of real help to the others fades away and we do not pay so much attention to the question: “What would be the best thing for the other person now? And how can I REALLY help them?”

If someone we know has a problem or a difficulty and we have the impulse to help by doing the first thing that comes to our mind (usually what we are used to doing in similar situations), we need to stop and focus for some moments on our breathing in order to control the impulse. And try to see the situation clearly. This enables us to be flexible and respond to the situation in the best possible way. Sometimes this means to curb our impulse to help in this particular situation. Sometimes not “helping” is actually helping because this may be what the other person needs – some space to come up with a solution on their own.

Pay attention to how the other person is feeling and what they are doing in this situation. Are they actively searching for a solution and just want your support, faith, tenderness and love? Have they asked you for your opinion? You can ask them: “Do you want me to tell you how I see things from my point of view?” or “Is there anything that I can do to help you?”

Like any other positive thing, helping loses its good qualities when we overuse it and stop being aware of our motives and what the specific situation may require. Then our main driving force may be the desire to inflate our ego by quickly giving advice to the other person without giving them the chance to reach a solution on their own. The other person may just need someone to believe in their ability to cope with the situation. Or they may just need someone to ask them open questions in order to shed light on these angles of the situation that may have been in the dark. When a person can see the picture more clearly, they are highly likely to discover the best move to make.

Envy, controlling behavior and the inability to feel joy for other people’s successes and happiness

Another very unpleasant and dark aspect of the tendency to seek validation only through helping others is the inability to feel happy for their happiness and successes. It may be really hard for the people addicted to helping to admit that they actually need the people close to them to be in some kind of trouble or distress so that they can rush into a helping, saving and giving advice mode. People addicted to helping often desperately need to feel needed. This may be the only way they feel appreciated, loved and validated. Because they do not love themselves. They usually neglect their own need for self-regard, self-knowledge, growth, development and self-actualization. It is such a pity that they secretly envy people who are succeeding in something (this includes people who are their relatives, family members, spouses, and friends).

The truth is that the most valuable help we can give someone is support them in becoming stronger by building their confidence that they themselves can learn to cope with life challenges and become more and more independent. People who are addicted to helping the people close to them want to make their family members and friends feel dependent on them and do not usually work for building the other people’s confidence. They often use (consciously or unconsciously) helping people as a way to control them. They tend to give only “emergency help” and try to “cure” the “symptoms” of the problem, but not the real problem. It would be much more beneficial if they could just listen attentively and ask some proper open questions so the person in need would be able to connect the dots on their own and realize what the root of the problem is and how to deal with it.

If you consider yourself a helper/ healer/ problem-solver

Find out if you overuse helping and why you do it. What is it a compensation for?

Do you feel that this is the only possible way to feel significant and validated?

There are many ways in which a person can feel validated and make their life meaningful. Helping the people close to you when they need it is one wonderful way to do it but you will get a constant influx of the feelings of usefulness and meaningfulness when you:

  • learn to appreciate and love yourself and start taking better care of yourself (your body, mind and soul)
  • start reading books and attending courses and workshops that are related to your interests so that you will feel your need for self-actualization fulfilled
  • find a job that serves your desire to be helpful
  • find hobbies and volunteer activities that serve others

All these things will balance your need to help the people closest to you and will prevent you from interfering with their own capacity for finding solutions to their own problems.

When a close person of yours with a self-destructive behavior rejects real help but requires your company only to complain and shower you with negativity

And one last thing about the situations in which you really want to help friends/family members/spouses who have a self-destructive behavior. Talk with them, ask them questions that may help them see where it all started, what the functions of this behavior are and so on. Help them realize whether they need help from a professional to deal with the hidden mechanisms that stay behind the self-destructive behavior and to change the harmful models of thinking.

However,  if the person rejects any opportunities for change and for seeking professional help, and if you feel like they are ignoring your attempts to help them find a solution, then withdraw and give them time and space. Accept that this is their life and they are responsible for it. They have the right to reject help and you have the right to withdraw if they seek your company only to complain. Do not allow to be drawn into their spiral of negativity.

Setting healthy boundaries will be the best thing for both of you. In this way you are increasing the chances for them to “wake up”, see the situation from a totally new perspective and realize they need professional help.

Author: Mariya Dimitrova

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