Helping is UN-Helpful

Are you a natural-born helper? Are you someone who is always willing to lend a hand or advice even if no one asked? Does it feel like your helping is on auto-pilot or even compulsive?

Do you ever wonder if there are times when helping maybe…isn’t that helpful? 

In this episode, I’m breaking down what constitutes unhealthy helping. You’ll also learn what you can do so you can get back some of your bandwidth and increase your potential for intimacy and authentic connection with the people in your life. 

Prefer the audio? Listen here.

So much of the time, we can see our helping as just being “nice” but the truth is, there is a tipping point where our compulsion to jump into someone else’s situation is less about their needs and more about our own. 

What is the difference between helping and unhelpful helping? Here are some examples of unhelpful helping:

  • Unsolicited advice-giving – Are you the person who is always there offering suggestions or problem-solving for someone else (even when no one has asked you)?
  • Checking in on people constantly –  Are you okay? Are you sure? Are you positive you don’t need anything? Constantly asking if someone needs help, even if they’ve already said they don’t, isn’t actually helpful. 
  • Overly soothing others – Especially when someone has already told you they are OK, if you keep checking back in compulsively, it’s pushing the envelope of caring behavior. 
  • Auto-fixing – this looks like you offering to take over for someone else if there is an issue or a problem. This may feel like you’re being helpful, but what if it is a reaction rather than a choice it is unhealthy. 

Why do we do this? A lot of my clients over the years have said things like, “I see myself as a helpful person – it’s who I am,” or, “I like to be needed”. Here’s the thing: If we are pushing our help on someone else, then are we really being needed, or are we doing what we need to feel valuable or OK? 

There is nothing wrong with wanting to help others, but if our “helpful” behaviors are on auto-pilot, causing us to over-give and over-function, it can point to codependent tendencies. 

Codependency is being overly invested in the feeling states, situations, decisions, relationships, and outcomes of the people in our lives. There are so many myths and misconceptions out there about codependency, but the truth is at its core, codependency is really an overt or covert bid for control of situations that are not our own. 

This can be hard to take if you are in a pattern of thinking you just want to help, save, or fix things for the people you care about. As a recovering codependent, I absolutely get that. 

But this is where we need to understand and practice healthy boundaries. We can learn how to be supportive, helpful, and loving while staying on our side of the street. Even if the other person is our grown child, a cherished family member, or a best friend, it is their life to manage. When we are in a pattern of auto-advice giving or auto-fixing, what we are really saying to the people in our life is “I know better than you.”

Deepak Chopra says, “the infinite possibilities of your life are in the unknown. Everything is possible.” While that might sound esoteric, there is truth in it. The only way to come to decisions in life is to be in the tension of not knowing, to feel the fear of making a mistake, and to choose for ourselves despite those feelings. It is a process. It is how we grow. 

And if we are always fixing for others we are in fact, robbing them of their own process of becoming.

I was highly codependent in my younger years, and it wasn’t just with the people who were close to me. I could become codependently invested in literally anyone – from my mail carrier to my hair stylist. If anyone was having a problem or in pain, it made me so uncomfortable that I would immediately jump into a fix-it, solve-it, here’s-what-you-do mode. I took on the weight of the world, but in doing so, I was trampling on the emotional boundaries and sovereignty of other people. 

If this is you, it doesn’t mean you are a bad person or have bad motives. But if you are the perpetual, perennial helper, the fixer, the one everyone comes to, or the one who offers and does, even when no one is asking– it is worth it to take a closer look at why you might be in this behavioral pattern. 

Does it feel compulsory – like you can’t help yourself? What is the level of urgency you feel when someone is in distress? There can be so many unconscious processes going on and bringing them into our conscious minds is key to changing our behaviors. 

Remember, we don’t grow up in a vacuum. Codependent behaviors are often rooted in dysfunctional family systems. I grew up in a high-functioning alcoholic system as the designated hero child in my family of origin. I was set up to be the fixer and the helper from a very young age (interestingly, my mother played the same role in her family of origin.)

The reason I’m passionate about helping people recover from codependency is because it can be very damaging to our relationships, and it takes a toll on our own mental, emotional, and physical wellness. 

What you can do to move into healthy helping:

  1. Take a look at the secondary gain – this is the hidden benefit you are getting from the dysfunctional behavior. Ask yourself: what do I get to not feel, not face, or not experience by compulsively helping others?
  2. Learn to ask expansive questions when someone comes to you with a problem – instead of jumping in with auto-advice or auto-fixing, learn how to pause and ask questions instead. In this way, you respect the other person’s autonomy. Inside the guide, I have examples of questions you can ask and you can download that right here. 
  3. Understand your codependency – if you are a high-functioning codependent (like me), you are highly capable and on the surface, you make it all look easy. You might be the person who is the rock in your family system or friend group. Inside the guide, I’m giving you some questions to answer so you can get dialed into how much of a codependent you might be. 

Unhelpful helping and codependency are so exhausting because you are using up so much of your bandwidth to take on other people’s problems. There is nothing wrong with being kind, giving, and helpful, as long as it is coming from a healthy place. 

I hope this added value to your life and if it did, please share it with the people in your world! Drop me a comment below or connect with me on Instagram @terricole and let’s keep the conversation going. 

Have an amazing week and as always take care of you.

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  1. This is such an amazing article and the video is very informative. And I have a deeper understanding between helpful and unhelpful. My work is not related to the psychological field however since my task is more to this expertise I'm beginning to understand more about mental state. My job role wherein I not only benefited from my work but also I'm learning in most cases the articles I read is much more to appreciate. These are having a significant impact on my personality as well as my understanding of different personalities.

  2. Last year I was hospitalized for a two week period because of a brain abscess. When I left the hospital I when I left the hospital I was unable to use my right side of my body. I was dependent on using a walker and I could not use my right hand. This. In my life gave me time to focus on myself and my own healing. And I was during this time I realized how exhausted I’ve become from trying to be everything to everyone. Once I realizes I started to move away from being available to everyone and instead I started to focus on my own healing. It has been an amazing journey and I have started to identify my own needs and boundaries. Your discussion has reinforced some of the things I have learned and has shown me that I am not alone in my struggle to set my own boundaries. I have started to ask people more questions and have found not taking on their problems to be very freeing. Because I feel so deeply I must continually remind myself when I hear of peoples problems that I am not responsible for solving their problems but I can provide emotional support by listening and helping them to reflect by asking questions.

  3. This was very helpful to me. I was “groomed” from a young age to be the responsible person, the fixer as you put it. I’ve had to be responsible for the care of a parent twice, sibling was no help. Now, with one remaining parent, I’ve gotten depleted in several crises but ended up with an injury that required I step back and a few close family and friend have stepped up. Sibling still no help, but I have developed a better understanding of self care and boundaries, as well as learning that NO is not a bad word. Thanks.

  4. I think that my husband and I are both 'auto-helpers':
    * me as a co-dependent person who doesn't want him to be unhappy or annoyed by anything because then the mood inside our family gets very negative (walking on egg shels)
    * and him : I don't know: he comes from a not-so-healthy family and thinks he always knows better and gives advice like 'you should have said this' or 'you should have done that'…
    It's a difficult theme and it's hard to find a balance…. (Barbara from Belgium)
    (BTW I just love your podcast! It brings a lot of insights and I started with the book as well, take care of you Terri.

  5. Hi Terri thankyou for your generosity sharing this information I have a background of many years Nursing switched over to counselling and Hypnotherapy . For the past few years I have had most of family and friends fall away . Before I was the one they turned to. I see this is the problem that caused it . I will have to unpick this like a jumper where Ive dropped a stitch before I coudnt see what I had done wrong . I cut myself off from everyone I decided that I was just unbearable . I was thinking if People bother to ring me up and download their problems then they must want my assistance otherwise why burden me ? And after Id spent all that time listening I figured they should take my advice . People like to complain a lot in my opinion but seem to never actually want to make the effort to change they just want to take up your time complaining . This has taught me a valuable lesson now I don't interact with others as much as I can help it .Your blog on this was the jewel I have been looking for but never found . My mother never helped me and I think I thought I needed that to feel loved and if I didnt help then the people I loved wouldnt think I loved them . Also my son preferred his Grandma to me who was always helping and I think without realising it I became her . . I use to have alot of friends but not now and no family interaction either ,My mother only was interested in me if I was useful . I have stepped back for 3 years now on helping but did not really understand what was happening . I realise I offered unwanted advice but because I said the truth I thought that was ok . I was protecting someone else that my mother was manipulating . Any way thankyou again maybe I can go deeper now with it and come out the other side .Thank you again

    1. Hi Katrina – That’s an insightful reflection and continuing to better understand your relationship to (unhelpful) helping will help you continue to grow. I’ll be cheering you on along the way ❤️

      Btw, “People like to complain a lot in my opinion but seem to never actually want to make the effort to change they just want to take up your time complaining” — I have a blog on this very topic coming up soon that breaks this down 👀

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