“Care is no cure, but rather corrosive for things that are not to be remedied.” —William Shakespeare
Could you be hurting yourself or someone else more than you’re helping?
After a friend and bookstore owner broke his leg, a customer insisted on taking him to a doctor’s appointment. He thanked the Good Samaritan with assurance that he could manage although he hobbled around on cast and crutches. When she persisted, he reluctantly gave in to her requests in his words “to get her off my back.”
On the appointment day, the bookstore owner had to bend double to squeeze into the Good Samaritan’s tiny compact car, grimacing after banging his leg against the door frame. Before he was fully inside the vehicle, the woman accidentally slammed the door on his cast, whereupon he screamed in excruciating pain. Crutches stuck out the window, the small car puttered down the road—the Good Samaritan wearing a warm glow in her heart, beaming smile on her face and the bookstore owner, sweat pouring from his brow, agony tattooed on his face.
This true story illustrates how helping can do more harm than good when performed from a need to be needed or when the helper benefits more than the recipient. Much has been written about the commendable actions of caring, spirituality, and acts of kindness. Helping others can make life worthwhile and give us a sense of purpose. Studies show that compassionate people have more vitality, calmer dispositions, and longer lives than non-helpers.
But there’s a big difference between compassionate caring and careaholism—the craving to be needed at any cost, even if it means that things go wrong rather than run smoothly in order to self-medicate unmet needs. Careaholics overload themselves with other people’s problems as an escape from their own worries and stresses often to the point of experiencing what is commonly known as the helper’s high.
If you insist on helping people—even if they don’t want or need your help—you could be feeding your own needs instead of practicing selfless compassion. You’re genuinely caring when you have an unselfish desire to give without making others dependent on you or taking away their ability to care for themselves. You give only as much help as needed. And sometimes you even let people fall down without rescuing them.
You can follow four rules if you want to avoid corrosive caring and practice genuine compassion:
- Be a caregiver instead of a
caretaker. Examine your motivations for helping. Ask if fixing others
would fulfill a greater need in you than in them. If the answer is yes,
you could be taking more than you’re giving. Sometimes the best way to care
is to not get involved with people’s problems if it robs them of standing
on their own two feet or learning from their mistakes.
- Ask if your help is wanted or
needed. Offer to help, but if people say no, honor their refusal instead
of pressuring them. Anticipating the needs of others and meeting them
before they ask or putting your need to help over someone’s need to be
helped is corrosive caring. Caring and detachment are twins, not enemies.
- Make sure you’re responsible to others, not responsible for them. Encourage people to
fish instead of feeding them fish. If your help makes them dependent on you,
perhaps you’re holding them back when they’re ready to fly on their own.
- Avoid compassion burnout.
Learn to say no before you crash from a depletion of emotional energy and
physical exhaustion. When you’re overloaded and need time for yourself,
let that be a sign you’re in no condition to take on more helping
commitments. Every time you say yes when you mean no, you do yourself and
the one requesting your help an injustice. Hit the pause button and
recharge your batteries. Schedule a fifteen or twenty minute appointment
with yourself for personal time: a hobby, hot bath, manicure, yoga,
facial, reading, playing sports, or meditation.
- Amp up self-care. Practice
what you preach. Genuine caring begins with the way you care for yourself.
Be for yourself, not against
others, but for yourself. If
not, then who will be for you? Before you embark on a helping campaign,
get yourself healthy first. Be
kind to yourself. Give to yourself as well and as much as you give to
others. Care for yourself in the same way you tell others to care for
themselves. Face your inner unmet needs that you’ve been avoiding at the
expense of others, and let them find their own solutions while you attend
to your own neglected life.