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When Being Helpful Hurts

A journey to seeing the truth about how others see us

I was raised on southern values. My mother always taught me that having a good work ethic meant being helpful. These values served me well in college. I was known for being a hard-working and giving individual. I’m a people pleaser so I internalized the positive messages and created a correlation between my self-worth and helpfulness. I didn’t realize I was unintentionally sending a message to others.

Early on in my career I often took on extra projects, came in early and left late, and offered my peers/managers assistance regularly. Every time I got praise for my superior helping skills it gave me a self-esteem bump. However, over time I realized the more I offered to help, the less my coworkers respected my time and abilities. I asked myself, “Why don’t my coworkers take me seriously?”

As a young woman, I began to realize there’s a societal expectation to be agreeable and to put others before yourself. Women who have strong boundaries risk being seen as “aggressive” or “selfish.” I never questioned the status quo until I was faced with the harsh reality that how I viewed myself didn’t match how others viewed me.

I started the journey of understanding how I come across to others by reading an incredibly thoughtful book called Insight by Tasha Eurich. It opened my eyes to the truth of who I am and how to be authentic through my actions. Tasha explains that self-awareness is so much more than self-reflection. A critical part to truly understanding ourselves is knowing the truth about how others see us.

The reason my coworkers didn’t take me seriously was suddenly clear. By focusing on being “helpful” at all costs I was sending the message that my time is less important and I’m willing to take any task. To be truly effective in my workplace, I needed to learn how to advocate for myself to be assigned tasks and projects that utilized my skills and talents to further my career.

Before my epiphany, I was so overwhelmed with menial tasks and projects that no one else in the office wanted to do. My helpfulness was serving no one because I was quickly burning out. Changing the way I came across to my coworkers and managers was not an easy task. I had already created an expectation that I was the go-to person for all the “office housework.”

The first step I took was believing in my own skills and abilities. If I don’t value my time and talent why should others? Next, I stopped the constant habit of asking others, “How can I help?” They still asked but at least they had to be more intentional about it. Third, I started suggesting they assign tasks to other people. When asked if I watered the plants in the office, I would say, “ Jane Doe has a green thumb why not ask them?” Lastly, I made sure I got credit for the important work I do. Instead of calling attention to how “helpful” I am, I made sure to bring attention to the valuable contributions I make to the company.

Before taking on a new task or project I will ask myself, “Does this line up with who am I and my purpose?” and “Does this utilize my skills and talents?” If it does neither, then it is probably something I shouldn’t focus on. We all have certain aspects of our jobs we don’t enjoy and many people don’t have the option to turn down a task in their workplace. But, all of us can advocate for ourselves and believe in our own strengths and abilities to offer meaningful input to our workplaces. 

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