I’m Learning To Help Other People Less

Those who take me for granted, that is.
Publish date:
February 22, 2016
friends, asking for help, saying thank you, communication

“If I can help, I’m going to…”

I was in the thick of another revelatory therapy session with my phenomenally insightful therapist last week, describing a situation with a friend wherein I felt completely taken for granted and diminished. I had pitched in where she needed help, doing quite a bit to assist, and sincerely looking for nothing in return.

Nothing material or easily quantifiable, that is. After weeks of assisting her with her situation, feeling more and more put-upon and less valued as both a very close friend and another human being in the world, I realized that I was looking for something in return. I was looking for gratitude, for consideration, for basic acknowledgement of the situation, however negative it might be.

It’s taken me a long time to understand that many people just cannot or will not acknowledge a situation that is less than positive, or maybe just messy in its real-life-ness. Of course I know that most people are not comfortable addressing uncomfortable topics or situations, hence the “un-,” and many people have serious difficulty with conflict or things that might lead to it, but there’s a new layer I’m trying to make space for: the unintentional inconsideration displayed by those who can’t even say the most basic truths about a situation that might make them feel bad.

“If I can help, I’m going to…”

I’m not looking for a parade or a medal for helping my friend, just sincere acknowledgement. Just, “Thank you.” However, I think my friend is unable to face the situation as a whole, and her slighting me is neither intentional nor personal. I might be filling in that blank with too much slack for her, but that explanation seems more reasonable to me than total lack of gratitude on her part. I think sincere recognition of me helping would require sincere recognition of the situation she’s in, and she’s not there. (Yet?)

Also, I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt; the very good friend who forgot my birthday recently, even after mentioning it the week before, is not automatically an evil person cut out of my life—who knows what was going on with him?

Does that make me hopeful? A fool? I’d rather be a hopeful fool than think the worst of people. That doesn’t mean brushing it off, it means that, regardless of the reason, if he could just acknowledge it, moving on would be that much simpler for me. Or maybe there’s something much more serious happening in his life; I don’t know because we haven’t spoken, and my gut tells me it’s because of the birthday thing.

To those who are extremely uncomfortable with appropriate discomfort, it seems like any mention would perpetuate and exaggerate that discomfort, erecting a barrier where someone like me might see an expressway.

“If I can help, I’m going to…”

One of the worst things in the world to me is offering someone you care about help of any kind, and then making a big stink about it afterward. To continually bring something up or paint oneself as a hero after the situation has been resolved is probably unnecessary, and to hold a favor or assistance over someone’s head is downright appalling. There is no room for indentured servitude in a caring relationship of any kind, in either direction.

My perspective on both sides is that the help-ee can feel “less than” or even embarrassed for wanting/needing/asking for/being given help, and the help-er can feel uncomfortable with giving it in a way that avoids a significant shift in power or communication dynamics. Whether it’s a ride to the airport or a down payment on a house, many of us have excessive baggage around asking for and offering aid.

I’ve always known that my baggage is firmly on the side of trouble in asking for help if I need it, often getting myself into deeper trouble because I grew up without protection or care from parents and those who were supposed to give it, so (subconsciously) I told myself a neat little story in which that would be the way things always are, forever and ever amen.

This is how I found myself collapsed in a heap of boxes the last time I moved because no of course I don’t need help don’t be silly it’s not even that many boxes I can handle it myself is my default setting, regardless of any relation to the real situation at hand.

I can’t handle everything by myself. No human being can, and as much as I know that to be true of all of us, it’s part of my challenge to give myself the same permission to be human and want/need/ask for help that I afford everyone else. That portion has been on my plate for some time now, but last week, I found I have a whole new discovery to explore.

“If I can help, I’m going to…”

I said it casually, almost as an aside, in talking to my therapist about this situation with my friend, and my therapist interjected: “Why?”

Thinking she was asking about some detail of what was going on, I said, “Why…what?”

She said, “Why are you helping just because you can?”

I’m rarely rendered speechless, but there I sat, with no answer for her whatsoever. The best I could do was string together a weak “…but…why…wouldn’t…I…?”

“Maybe because it’s doing you harm? It’s possible that you are providing needed help to this person, and also that the situation is detrimental to you, at the same time. It’s possible that your friend is ungrateful and taking you for granted, and it’s also possible that you’re looking for some deeper relationship validation through performing these tasks; I don’t know. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.”

Well goddamn.

“Shit, you can drive a car with your feet if you want to, that don't make it a good fucking idea!” –Chris Rock

I quote that bit, from 1999’s “Bigger and Blacker,” all damn day to other people, in other contexts, and yet I hadn’t applied it to myself.

I have a friend who has a strict quid pro quo policy when it comes to help and favors, and she’s so blatant about it as to present transactional options in everyday conversation in ways that I never would. But this approach has served her well, so perhaps I could stand to adopt more of that philosophy. It doesn’t have to make one into a Hannibal Lecter just because that’s where my mind goes with that phrase.

I’m still helping my friend out, as I allow her the space to navigate her difficulty in facing her situation or expressing herself. She’s now prospering and I’m still helping and we’re not talking about it.

When I’ve brought it up, that perhaps a change could be made or that we could even discuss it, she doesn’t really engage. She becomes quiet and changes the subject, which makes me the bad guy simply because I have the ability to address things that need to be addressed: good, bad, or anywhere in between.

Helping as my default setting makes me neither a hero nor a saint, it makes me someone who treats people I care about the way I would like to be treated, even as I try to reconcile that with the truth that not everyone wants to be treated in the same way, so in most instances, this is a doomed equation.

I got in trouble in Sunday School for pointing this out, but one of the Bible’s greatest hits, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," is largely bullshit unless applied to the most basic “rules” of coexisting, like maybe don’t kill each other recklessly.

As applied to actual daily life, with any specificity, it becomes a garbled mess of good intentions and misread signals, wherein someone doing something for someone else just because they can may be interpreted in all sorts of ways, and someone having something done for them may not have wanted it done for them, or perhaps in a different way, or perhaps they don’t mind overall but are also made to feel infantilized or otherwise less than capable, which is just gross.

So maybe I am the bad guy. Or maybe there are no good or bad guys, just adult life, with much to figure out so that we can put more kindness into it than we found it with, which is certainly my interest.

But that’s not everyone’s way, and that’s OK. Others probably get more done in a day than I do, worrying less about others and more about themselves. And that’s not a thinly-veiled humblebrag, it’s a sincere wake-up call to myself to invest less in relationships that don’t return that investment, and more in myself. I’m not writing this as a Queen of Philanthropy; I’m writing this as a human being who is presently feeling taken for granted in more than one close relationship, and whose dear friend forgot her birthday. That’s nothing to brag about, humbly or otherwise.

No, this is a call to arms, to my own emotional arsenal, to give more of a shit about myself and my own interests.

“If I can help, I’m going to…”

Starting with myself.

Image credit: Roger/CC