"Please Help": How to Help Others Without Hurting Yourself

Updated on February 23, 2018
izettl profile image

I am passionate about health, wellness, and relationships. I'm in the business of people and offer solid advice from experience.

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Most people want a simple solution to a complex problem—not one person or one thing can help!

Profile of a Helper

If the idea of helping conjures up images of someone like Mother Teresa, who sacrificed her life to helping others, then you might be a helper type.

We revere someone like Mother Teresa as the Saint of helping. She helped the poor who were in need of loving compassion and basic resources like food, healthcare, and clean water.

Her mission was admirable, but unless we dedicated our whole lives to helping others, we have other obligations pushing and pulling at us: job, kids, family, friends, or other responsibilities. Sometimes, we are the ones in need of a rescue while we are busy helping others.

Society encourages helping without considering all the factors involved. It's difficult to answer all those who request help from you sometimes. Not even Mother Teresa could answer all calls for help, and she was limited to what she could help with. It's these limitations that many helper types today ignore.

As I soon found out, the world is full of people with very complex problems that even Mother Teresa would not have known what to do with. If you're a helper type, you can feel it is your duty to help, but first, you must decide what, who, how, and if you can help.

The Trouble With Helpers

Beginning at an early age, I distinctly remember feeling good about helping others. Teachers awarded me the title of a "good helper". I was often praised for this trait. Fast forward to adulthood, and as much as I was willing to help, there were just as many people waiting to take advantage of my generosity, unfortunately.

For years, I didn't acknowledge that I was a helping type, especially one without rules or limitations. I would help when help was needed. Simple as that...or so I thought.

I gave 100% to others while ignoring my own needs. Needless to say, there was a tipping point.

Even when someone sincerely reaches out for help, are you obligated to help? Can you experience burnout from helping? Would you truly be helping even if you don't specifically have what it takes to help that person? If we can't help everyone, how do we decide who to help? Questions like these plagued me in the past, but I have since learned and gathered useful tactics to be the helper that I am naturally, without the hassle.

There are limitations to helping
There are limitations to helping | Source

It is not sustainable to do a favor for everyone you meet, or even everyone who needs it.

Are You the Helper Type?

Signs that you may be a relentless helper:

  • Do you feel more comfortable helping or giving than receiving?
  • You have a hard time thinking about yourself when others are present.
  • You believe you have experienced symptoms of burnout from helping (exhaustion, resentment toward others, emotionally drained, irritability, ignoring your own responsibilities).
  • You rarely ask others for help.
  • You notice people ask you for help more often than others.
  • Knowledge of "bad" things in the world is almost too much for you to handle.
  • Reinforcement: Do you consider it an honor when others come to you for help? Do people give you compliments for helping?
  • Your job/career literally involves helping others.
  • You value helping others.
  • You received attention or praise for helping when you were younger.
  • You find yourself being a chameleon- act accordingly to whoever is in your presence.
  • Somehow you are attracted to those who need help.

Are you a helper type?

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I learned I was a true helper type when I wrote one of my first articles on breaking family ties. People poured their heart and soul out to me about their family problems.

"Please help".

"I can't go on living this way".

"This is destroying me".

These were how most of their emails began. The pain is palpable, and my biggest weakness is I like to help people whether I actually could or not.

Truth is, I can't help them all. However, that didn't stop me in the beginning from staying up until 2am (for two years) trying to help. All the while I was dealing with my own issues. Really, I wasn't dealing with them very well. I was having marriage problems, adjusting to a new baby, on the verge of losing my job, and suddenly got a chronic illness.

Ironically, nobody was there to help me even when I asked. Finally, I said, "ENOUGH!!!" Things had to change and so did my helping habit.

Have you experienced burnout helping others?

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Help versus support
Help versus support | Source

Reformed Helper

With a chronic illness, I was forced to take care of myself. This was a huge wake-up call as I'd rarely considered myself. I'd heard of the various analogies on this: 'You can't pour from an empty cup.' 'Put your emergency mask on first so that you can help others.' None of that meant anything to me until I experienced it firsthand.

After substituting my full-time job with a part-time job from home, I paid close attention to both my skills as well as my limitations when helping.

Practicing my personal rules for helping and the fine art of self-care, I established a no-guilt approach to helping people, and I am now in the business of helping professionally (wellness writer and meditation coach). My ability to help is more specific to who I can help and what I can help with.

Everything I learned took approximately 7 years! I learned from others who were reformed helper types too. The value in the insight gained is immeasurable, and totally worth the mention here! (Another thing worth mentioning is the type of "help" I'm referring to is not a life or death situation where someone needs immediate rescuing).

Self-Care for the Helper

One of the best things helpers can do, concerning self-care, is to ask themselves how they are doing before helping. Simply jumping in and helping without care or concern for yourself, can result in resentment. Self-care is necessary, not a luxury.

Other questions:

Do I feel good about myself?

Have I been exhausted or busy lately?

Do I regularly schedule a day off from most everything?

On a scale of 1 - 10, how am I feeling right now?

Self-care involves adequate sleep (staying up until 2am to help others via email was probably not my brightest idea), taking medical advice from your doctor, manage any illnesses you may have (45% of Americans suffer from at least one chronic condition), regularly practicing proper hygiene, and establish good mental well-being with unscheduled time for yourself, meditation, or connect with your support network.

What is your personal definition of self-care?
What is your personal definition of self-care? | Source

The Rules and Limitations to Helping

Don't feel depleted and used anymore. Here's how to help effectively instead:

  1. Have "help" partners. This works two ways- Enlist people who know you well and can help identify cues and signs you may be extending your limits. Secondly, have a list of people who are resources. When the time comes and others need help from you, you can simply direct them to someone on your list of resources. You are not the ONLY one who can help them!
  2. No seconds. Identify the people who keep coming back for seconds of help AND do not follow your advice or resources the first time - they continue to seek your "help". I like to refer to certain people as "sticky takers" and "stingy givers".
  3. Be a helping hand. People in need of help have to do the heavy lifting for themselves and you can simply be of assistance.
  4. Time limits. Decide how much time you spend helping another. Also, I know someone who says he believes everyone deserves at least 5 minutes of his time. Beyond that, decide if you have the time to help the person and estimate how long it will take.
  5. Be a specialist. I now specialize in what I help with. I can't be a good helper if I help people with EVERYTHING. Not many people are an expert in everything. Generalists spread themselves too thin. Can you and are you willing to help someone in which you have the unique set of skills to help?
  6. If helping is stopping you from taking care of yourself, then don't do it. Maybe later, but always evaluate whether you have filled resources from the well of giving.
  7. Consider the value of listening. Often when faced with someone who appears to need help, we feel the urge to do something. My personal rule about this is listen first and listen well then do 10%. I know what 100% looks like, because I used to give it right away! Now I scale back and see what 10% does. This also helps with people who seem to want a simple solution to a complex problem. You might find out pretty quick you are not the right person for the job.
  8. Take another perspective on helping. What is helping? Is it doing whatever someone asks of us in accordance with their perceived needs and desires. Are you sparing them the lesson of figuring out something for themselves or lifting them out of a hole they dug? In that view, you really aren't helping anybody.
  9. Develop your intuition. Pause before jumping in to help if it's not a life or death situation. Navigate the person and the situation: It depends on how the person approaches you, the relationship between you two, and how you feel about it
  10. Ask what they have already tried before coming to you- this can determine real fast whether you can help them or they are willing to be helped.

Tip: Do not help when you were not asked to help. Some people volunteer help a little too fast and end up "helping" a little too much.

Help someone, you earn a friend.

Help someone too much, you make an enemy.

— Erol Ozan
There are many things to stop and consider before helping.
There are many things to stop and consider before helping. | Source

It's their problem! If they're willing to ask for help but unwilling to do the work, I'm unwilling to help.

Quick Tips for Helping

  • Be compassionately detached. Do not have expectations of how the situation will turn out and what the other person will do with your help.
  • Will your help actually make a difference?
  • The rule of 3: If you’ve tried helping someone three times or offering 3 resources or giving 3 solutions or pieces of advice, and they still need help? You’re not the person that can help them.
  • When it comes to advice—if they want it—encourage them to seek it from other people in addition to you. It’s too much pressure to be someone’s last resort or only confidant.
  • Do you have the time and energy available to help?
  • You are only responsible for yourself, not others' outcomes or changing others.
  • Recognize when your “plate is full”, and until you feel less overwhelmed, hold off on making any decisions about helping for right now.
  • Co-dependent relationships begin when a person with low self-esteem tries to help another at all costs.
  • You can help through mentorship if someone is on the same path as you.
  • Learn when helping becomes enabling. For instance, you keep telling someone what they should do, but you continue to do most of it for them.
  • Some people do not want help as much as they want sympathy, attention, and or validation.
  • Request the person to do something first. It can show whether they will take action in helping themselves.
  • Not many people are truly incapable of helping themselves.

Help doesn't always have to be a grand gesture.
Help doesn't always have to be a grand gesture. | Source

Questions & Answers

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      • izettl profile image
        Author

        Laura Izett 2 months ago from The Great Northwest

        Tom,

        Thanks for your nice comment! It is a good feeling when you know how to best help others, especially if you do it is as often as it sounds like you do. That’s a great reminder about “a little kindness”.

      • izettl profile image
        Author

        Laura Izett 2 months ago from The Great Northwest

        Thanks WillStar,

        I have found that family will also take all of our reserves so even in that respect we have to evaluate our helping and caring for family.

        It’s interesting that most people report regretting the lack of time spent with family. Life’s not perfect. I bet your family knows you love them.

      • Tom Cornett profile image

        Tom Cornett 2 months ago from Ohio

        A wonderful Hub packed with good solid advice. I work with people everyday who are in need of some kind of help. Helping them help themselves is many times much more rewarding for both giver and receiver. Often, even a little kindness is help. Again, wonderful Hub.

      • WillStarr profile image

        WillStarr 2 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

        I'm commenting on your reply to Cynthia rather than your excellent article when I agree with your decision to devote time to your family first. Far too often, our own families are neglected in our zeal to help others. Our own families need us just as much and in truth, they usually need us more. I regret not spending enough time with my own family, including the generation before me, my own generation, and those I brought into the world. We can't do overs.

      • izettl profile image
        Author

        Laura Izett 2 months ago from The Great Northwest

        Cynthia,

        I love it! What a great comment! And I almost went into social work after getting my Psych degree.

        Lately I’ve had enough on my plate with just my family that I’ve been holding off on decisions to help or participate in other things right now. Practice, practice, practice!

        I’m so glad you are in recovery mode and taking the time and care you need.

        Laura

      • techygran profile image

        Cynthia 2 months ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

        This is one of the most helpful articles I have read in a long time! I was a parent-child who became a social worker. When I retired, I transferred my career-related skills and help-atitis into my church community.

        I am currently recovering from burn-out. I thank you for the time and care you put into writing this hub. Now, go celebrate the accomplishment in a truly refreshing and self-caring way, Sister!

        All the best, Cynthia

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