Everyone usually highlights how helping others is a great thing. However, what about those times we get burned? Have you ever loaned money and never saw it again? Have you ever referred someone to a job and they did something dumb or quit early? Have you ever helped someone out of a predicament, only to be stuck with all the associated issues? It happens, and if we’re too “nice,” it could happen a lot. People suck. But people can be amazing too. What’s a good way to keep a balance?
Firstly, let’s get the small things out of the way. Opening a door for someone who doesn’t say thank you or giving a few dollars to a panhandler who uses it for alcohol isn’t ‘getting burned,’ but it’s a similar concept. Clearly, that’s no reason to stop opening doors for people. But if it happens a lot, it can become the reason we stop doing things for others; no one seems appreciative. For the panhandlers, maybe it’s not that they aren’t appreciative, but that our help isn’t really ‘helping’ in the way we intended.
These are no revelations, but they help underscore the most basic level things we really want (or need) when we help others: 1. to be needed, meaningful, or worthwhile, and 2. to be appreciated. Really, those combine into one: our helping needs to be or feel worthwhile.
Subjective Meaning and Worth
Is it worthwhile to help a panhandler with a few dollars? Ask this question to 10 people and you’ll likely get several different answers. If the panhandler used the money for food, many would say, yes, it’s worthwhile. While if the panhandler used it for drugs, the vast majority would say no, it’s not worthwhile. Then there are those who say even if the panhandler used it for food, that we are enabling them the same way we enable a loved one to be spoiled.
With strangers, it’s often not realistic to know whether something is worthwhile or not because there’s just no telling. They take the money or help, and we don’t see them ever again. In this case, we are ‘hoping’ that it’s worthwhile. Some of us are more hopeful and assume that it is meaningful and will help. Others are more skeptical and assume that it isn’t worthwhile and don’t help unless they’re more sure of the outcome.
Neither of these positions is ‘right,’ but again, it helps build context for the bigger issues. Some of us are more hopeful; others are more skeptical. We can’t assume the skeptics are jerks who don’t help; they just may not see a positive outcome the way a hopeful person would. Everyone’s determination of what is ‘worth it’ is different, and there is no right answer. Just know that if it was ‘worth it’ before helping, it should be ‘worth it’ after helping, even if we got burned.
Customs and Tradition
What about when we give something because it’s ‘tradition’ or it’s just ‘what we do’? For example, when we visit a friend or family member’s house for a holiday or special occasion, many of us will bring food or drinks. It’s somewhat ‘customary’ to do so; the same way it is ‘customary’ to say thank you or show appreciation for bringing said contributions. Returning the favor is, likewise, a custom of sorts. When someone does something for us, we return the favor to both show our appreciation and even things out.
Yet if we bring two apple pies, only to realize there are four apple pies at the party already, we probably will feel like we should have brought something else because it wasn’t as worthwhile. If the host threw away the pies saying we don’t need them, we definitely wouldn’t feel appreciated. Even with tradition, it is still giving. If we follow ‘tradition’ and somehow don’t feel it is worthwhile, we won’t like it.
Love and Helping
Imagine your loved one is in a predicament; they need money to pay for a bill. If they don’t get that money soon, all types of problems could arise. If we had enough money, many of us, both hopefuls and skeptics alike, would help out and pay off enough so that they could get back on their feet. In some cases, we’d try to help, even if we didn’t have enough money. We’d do whatever we could to help them out.
With loved ones, helping is the default; it’s always worthwhile. We love them; that’s what love is, isn’t it – giving without expectation of receiving? While for others, maybe it’s more a matter of custom, it’s what we do. If we have plenty to give, we could argue that there’s no problem. We help them out of the predicament and do so as many times as they need.
Enabling Makes It Our Responsibility
Yet something that is a very common theme when we talk about giving to someone with an addiction is the idea that sometimes giving is doing the opposite of what we think from a psychological perspective. It is no different with giving or helping in general. If we help someone get a job every time they need a job, will they be able to get a job on their own? If we pay for someone’s bill every time they have a problem, will they learn from that mistake? Or will they just rely on us when there’s a problem?
The somewhat ugly truth is that we may instinctively want to be relied on. If that’s the case, then we have to accept the full responsibility of what that entails. If their problems start to weigh on us and we’ve been enabling them the whole time, ‘drawing the line’ is unreasonable and not truly helping. It’s the same as a parent who enabled their child from 0-25 years old, and then want to kick them out and force them to be on their own. It takes a long-term effort, similar to the amount of time spent enabling. In fact, it may never change if it has gone on too long, especially without professional help.
Giving Versus Helping
For some of us, giving for the sake of it just feels good. As for simple gifts, there is nothing wrong with that at all; have at it. Yet, when someone has come to rely on our gifts and it becomes a recurring gift that is ‘needed,’ that has clearly gone into the enabling phase. At that point, we need to be smarter about how we are giving versus how we are helping.
We’ve used these two terms somewhat similarly because we typically see them interchangeably; yet we want to establish a divide. Giving is more ‘altruistic,’ providing things without expectation of anything in return. Ideally, these things should be worthwhile to at least some extent. Even the most ‘altruistic’ gift has a price: it needs to be worthwhile to someone.
Now with helping, on the other hand, we don’t help for the sake of helping. We are working to improve *someone else’s* situation to the greatest extent within our means. That means although we are helping, it is someone else’s responsibility. If we help without providing that person the means to help themselves, we aren’t truly helping the person; we’re temporarily changing their immediate situation and enabling them to rely on us, which is ultimately hurting them (and potentially us as well).
Helping Is Like Coaching
What this means is that when we truly help someone, we are like a coach. We are working with them to become better able to handle their situation. Throwing money over the fence, paying for something isn’t helping anyone in the long term without deliberate methods and verification of some sort of result along the way.
A coach can’t play the game for the players. A coach can’t make the shots for them or take the burden of their training away. A coach has to help a player understand why the training is necessary and explain and teach what is needed to achieve their goals.
So, if we want to help someone by giving money, we have to be a coach. Ask them to do something positive toward the ultimate goals in exchange. Have them work on whatever it is will help them out of their situation permanently. If they don’t want to, then it should become clear that their responsibilities and issues go beyond what we should be taking on without professional help.
Other People’s Business Is Business
Giving and helping without expectation of things in return doesn’t seem to happen. When we do *anything* in relation to others, we are getting into their business, their responsibilities, their situations. If we stick our nose into other people’s business, when we give or help, we have to believe that it is worthwhile, that it is of value to the person being helped. Otherwise, what is the point of giving or helping?
Just like in business, sometimes people don’t want help the way we gave it. Sometimes people want more than we are willing to give. Sometimes things don’t go our way and we get burned for helping. But that’s ok as long as we recognize when someone isn’t willing to work on helping themselves. We can limit being burned. As long as we are doing our best to provide something worthwhile and to help others help themselves, it should all work out and our burns will be worth it in the end.
P.S. Giving or Taking?
It shouldn’t need to be said, but seriously, if we haven’t helped ourselves, we have no business helping others. If we are subtly or unknowingly weighing down our own friends, family, or significant others due to taking on the responsibility of others and ‘helping,’ are we really giving? Or are we taking?