At some point or other in our lives, we have desperately wanted to lend a helping hand to someone who we thought needed it. And in this situation, more often than not, this person did not necessarily ask for our help, but acted like they wanted it — so our natural response was to want to help them.
I’ve been in leadership roles through college, and I spent the last two years being a Resident Assistant in an Upperclassmen Residence Hall, which meant I was overseeing 40 people every year, and was viewed in a fishbowl at all times. In training, they taught us to be good leaders — they had handcrafted lists and agendas for us to follow, but really, when it came down to it — we had to act on our instinct.
It was deeply rooted in our RA philosophy to lend a helping hand, always. We had to often put other’s needs before ours.
What I soon realized is that most people aren’t looking, or even wanting your help. And offering help where it isn’t wanted can result in a very cold and hurtful experience. And thus, you shouldn’t force it.
People associate support with weakness, and people do not want to admit that they are in a weak spot. In the way that they know what they’re feeling, on some level they are having an emotional response inside, but they’ll never speak of it because that means fully acknowledging it out loud — which means accepting the depth of their grievances to the point that they can articulate it someone, which then feels very real. If it’s kept inside, maybe they can work through the mess without having to admit it.
This is not such a bizarre concept; it’s very common actually. I’ve done it myself at times.
And then you have people on the other side wanting to lose themselves in helping someone else.
Have you ever heard people complain and say “ I give so much, why don’t I get anything back?”
“Why aren’t they taking my help?”
Or some variation of that?
Well that’s the problem. Stop giving so much. If what you do and what you offer isn’t recognized — then just stop. Offer it elsewhere.
If you’re trying to help someone be better and it’s just not being appreciated or absorbed, then stop helping — you are not helping.
Maybe you are even making matters worse. Not only are you wasting your time and energy pouring into someone who doesn’t value it, you might be overwhelming the person to the point that they resent you.
“Don’t cast pearls before swine”
Jordan Peterson, the world-famous author, professor, and psychiatrist, is one of my mentors — and I have gained so much perspective and strength in life through him, that I must share that line today.
Peterson repeatedly says “Don’t cast pearls before swine” to convey his teachings. I believe the phrase comes from the bible, but I learned it through Peterson.
What it essentially means is don’t waste your precious energy and time to help someone who is unable and incapable of appreciating what you have to offer. Don’t cast shiny things to people who can’t understand its value, in other words.
Help, support, guidance, unconditional love — in and of itself, these are beautiful and desirable qualities to harbor and offer to others.
However, we must stop romanticizing this act of emotional martyrdom — because really, who is it helping if it’s not appreciated?
Firstly, it breaks down your self-esteem because you feel that who you are isn’t enough if what you have to offer isn’t welcome; and secondly, if your goal is to genuinely help this person — well guess what, that’s not even happening, because your help is not viewed as help to them. Perhaps they find it smothering, overwhelming, unattractive.
I often see in relationships, one partner notices the other partner suffering, and at a moment’s notice they are willing to sacrifice their time, energy, and wellbeing to help cater to this person — when, in fact, the other person hasn’t even asked for help.
Women are prone to this sort of “mothering” behavior because it is almost instinctual to nurture and care for something you find broken or vulnerable. Most men find this sort of behavior smothering, because not only do they hate being viewed as vulnerable, which they associate with weakness — they also find it suffocating to be viewed as someone who is unable to take care of themselves. They’re supposed to be the man, the breadwinner, the person who is the rock for others, they think.
Sometimes the gender roles are reversed on the scenario I just described.
Help and support are good things — I’m very thankful to have good friends and family to rely on when things are hard, and I’m grateful to have been the rock to many others as well, but I’ve also learned that unless someone confides in you openly, or tells you they would like your guidance and support, do not spend your energy giving and giving. Sure, you can make an attempt to test the water and see what light your support is viewed under, but once you know they don’t want it, trust that.
Let them get their affairs in order on their own. Give people a chance to figure things out for themselves.
Maybe the next time you’re tempted to tell someone how much you are there for them and want to help them, maybe you can say something like “I trust that you are strong enough to get through this, and you know that I’m here if you need support.”
By saying that, you reinstate their confidence to get their life together — which, most people, will find refreshingly positive. And you’re also establishing your consistency as a friend, partner, whatever role you may have — by saying that you are there for them, should they choose to seek it.
The plain, and ugly truth is — you can’t help someone who is lost who is unwilling to admit they are lost. You cannot help people who you know need help but won’t ever admit they need help. The awareness may exist within them, but the awareness won’t find its way to be spoken to you. And in those situations, stepping back and allowing the other person to figure out the pain they are in is the best shot you have at maintaining your bond with them, and actually allowing them to fix themselves.
Don’t cause yourself emotional injury by trying to force help or support — it only takes you down with them.
You can lead horse to the water, but you can’t make him drink it.