This must be one of the most pernicious dynamics in human relationships. Like UV rays, this dynamic causes a subtle cancer that can spark and spread soft and deadly though the most honest and heartfelt relationship:
Offering people help they don't need
I once knew a beautiful man, a very successful builder who, late one night, shared his life with me in a car-park in Southbank. He was late 50's divorced with grown kids. He loved his family more than anything else in his life and would have given ANYTHING for them. Matter-of-fact, that's exactly what he did - but what he gave was what he thought they needed, not what they actually needed - so he lost them in acrimony and shame.
He worked. He made money. He built a very successful business. He gave them everything and more than they could ask for - except he didn't give much of himself. So he lost them.
When we give what we think people want, not what they are actually asking for, we betray them. This betrayal is keenly felt and sinks gently into the very stuff of which your relationship is formed.
How can offering help be a betrayal?
It’s a betrayal because you’re not actually offering help – you’re actually withholding what they need and offering something that serves what YOU want. It is selfishness wrapped up as generosity.
Selfish help is a subtle way of using generosity to dominate: your needs over theirs in the very act of giving.
We wrap selfishness up as generosity a lot, but it hurts most when the help is actually needed. In those instances, the impact is on our relationships is greater because we are essentially blackmailing them: withholding what they actually need until they accept what we want to give them.
Using a person’s need or moment of weakness to dominate them might pass in the moment (especially if any help at that moment would be valuable) but it is a kick to the self-esteem when what is required is the opposite: is to be empowered and built-up
We do it because we have crafted an ideal of ourselves as the kind of person who would provide that sort of help – utterly divorced of course from the need in front of us. We are blind to the help that would be most suited (sometimes even what has been directly requested) because we are focused on bolstering our own view of ourselves.
We see this in the international aid space a lot: where donor countries offer help to poor nations when they need it that has more to do with their electoral ratings at home than what the recipients actually need, but we also see it in our own lives.
I’ve written previously about how our values and even our identity is essentially retro-engineered from a vision of the kind of life we think we should be leading (see HERE for the piece on this). Helping other people is a key way we can bolster that sense of ourselves (especially if that sense of who-we-are doesn’t seem to be matching the reality we are and look like we’ll continue to be living) but it has nothing to do what the person/people we are proposing to help actually need.
As many of you would know, my wife and I recently, and rather abruptly, returned our family to Australia from Indonesia so my eldest child could do high-school with her friends.
My daughter had been making sounds about this for a while. I wasn’t listening because I was committed to the kind of international expat’s life I’d been working towards for many years. My vision of who I was, was tied to that lifestyle whereas what my daughter needed was rapidly diverging from it. She needed a stable group of friends.
My daughter’s emerging needs started threatening my vision of life so, instead of re-exploring the vision and digging into what was really driving it (essentially the need to prove my real or imagined adolescent detractors wrong) - why I had that vision and not a different one - I started justifying my actions as a form of generosity: selfish-help!
I told myself (and her) that one of the reasons we were travelling was so that she got to be an international citizen, expand her horizons, learn how to be with different kinds of people and different cultures, never feel constrained to live in one place or with one vision of life.
These were all true! However, as time progressed, they were becoming less true. My ‘help’ was shifting from a true act of generosity to a form of domination.
On the face of it we're being generous, but we’re actually pursuing our agenda and using other people’s need to do it. This will cause deep and long-lasting but hidden damage to a relationship.
When people need help you have to be extremely sensitive to what they are really asking for, and be wary of projecting onto them the kind of help that would make you feel good to give
Beware, getting you to this gives you the ability to recognise where others might try-it-on you... and they do!
Selfish-help is subtle and dangerous precisely because it does offer something valuable, and because saying no to a seemingly generous offer can make you feel churlish. Weirdly enough, thinking of saying no to selfish help positions you as the ungenerous one… ahhh the subtle art of messing with someone’s mind!
Once we got what my daughter was really saying and decided to make the move back to Australia, it happened fast. At one point my mother sent a message asking if she could help. I asked if she wanted to help with the steep and unexpected school registration fees. She said no, she wanted to help pay for extra-curricular activities that would come due later through the year. The clear implication was she wanted a say in what the kids would do.
This is classic selfish-help. I didn’t need help with those fees and I didn’t want help choosing what the kids would do with their free time (that’s a conversation between them and us, at a pinch, their teacher).
I was left frustrated and disappointed and feeling like I had to say ‘no’ to what, on the face of it was a generous offer. This may be a small example but variations of this happen all the time. We all do it.
If you value your relationships, it is important to recognise when you do it to others and when others do it to you and put in the appropriate
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