You’ve been told all your life that you should help as many people as you can. They told you that you’ll feel happier and fulfilled.

You were taught to bring value to others to help them achieve their dreams and you’ll be able to achieve yours as well.

And maybe you’re really good at it. You’re a natural caregiver. The extroverted, gregarious side of you thrives on helping people. It’s just how you show your love. Maybe you’re doing well and comfortable in your career or business because you have a vast network of people you’ve helped.

But when’s the last time you helped yourself? When’s the last time you gave yourself a moment to reflect on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it?

You probably don’t feel like you have to question it, right? Everything’s great!

Is it?

(I’ll let you sit on that for a bit).

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

If you’ve been on a plane, then you’ll remember that they always tell you that in case the cabin loses pressure, you should put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

Which means you can’t help people if you’re not at your best. Make sure you are taken care of before you extend yourself too thin.

The funny thing is, I thought I was putting on my own mask because it felt like helping others was helping myself. But in doing so, I realized I was actually losing myself instead.

Helping for the Wrong Reasons

Of course, we should help others, but being addicted to helping others does become a problem if we’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

I was the type that would be willing and comfortable with self-sacrifice if it meant saving someone I cared about. I had the means and the privilege, so I shouldn’t be ignorant and complain about it. And while it’s brave and noble, it’s not sustainable in the long run.

Notice how all of those reasons had the word “I” in it? More on that later.

But here I was, with one sacrifice here and another back-bending stretch over there. And it all added up. I quickly became tired and ended up with a lot of shoe prints on my face from getting walked all over on.

This was especially true with my first girlfriend. She had just moved to Seattle for school, while I had been living there all my life. And because I was a natural caregiver, I would notice her hinting at wanting help with getting settled in, meeting new people, exploring the city, etc. It seemed like a perfect match, she wanted someone to lean on, and I wanted someone to lean on me.

“woman in blue denim jacket leaning on man’s shoulder near body of water” by Milan Popovic on Unsplash

After a while, the leaning was too much for both of us. She didn’t like that she felt like she was depending on me for everything. I think she felt like I was becoming too pushy with my help that it was becoming predictable. The excitement in the relationship was lost from that point because we broke up soon after.

During that time, I asked myself what went wrong with that relationship quite often.

I realized that I wasn’t helping for the sake of adding value. Instead, I was looking for validation.

I wanted to prove that I was good enough for her, that I will always be there and I expected appreciation for my worth and usefulness.

Of course, I was never satisfied. And because I put so much weight of my personal happiness on something external and unpredictable like someone else’s feelings, I was hurt badly when she wouldn’t reciprocate and called off the relationship. I thought I was doing everything for her, but what I was really doing was feeding my ego.

“Needing to be selfless was actually just selfishness in disguise.”

Sadly, I hardly learned my lesson since then. This need to keep pleasing people is a recurring theme that has been prevalent in all parts of my life. It’s well baked into how I behave.

I am now starting to see that what I give should only come from a place of solidarity, not out of a need to prove anything. Going out in the field to play for your team with a broken ankle is going to bring the whole team down.

You Can Hurt More Than You Give

“You don’t have anything to give that you don’t have.” -Oprah Winfrey

More likely than not, you’re finding yourself in situations where you’re actually not qualified to help them. Trying to help someone before you have the right knowledge or skills will probably do more harm than good. You’ll set yourself up to underdeliver and that’s a quick way to ruin relationships.

Imagine if you had a friend who really wanted to help you. So you decide to tell them that you’ve been having depressing thoughts lately. And if they aren’t prepared to help they might react confused, frustrated, or even patronizing, and that’s probably going to make you feel worse.

If you’re not in the position to do so, you don’t have to feel like you’re obligated to help them just because you care about them. Of course, show support or guide them towards someone who can help, but it doesn’t have to be you if you don’t have the right knowledge or skills.

I’m writing all of this, if not for you, then for me as documentation of this self-reflection and what hasn’t been working for me. I guess it’ll be something I can refer back to if I ever slip.

But I also want to keep track of the lessons I’ve learned so far from letting go of the need to help for selfish reasons. These are some of the benefits I’ve noticed so far when improving my emotional intelligence and being more selective with who I help.

#1. You’ll Have More Time Improving Yourself

Now that you’ve realized you can’t help everyone, you’ll find you have so much more time. It might seem isolating, but this alone time is going to be important. It is time that you can invest back into yourself and on what you want to develop so that you can provide real value.

Maybe you want to be that friend that can help them get out of depression. Well, instead of spending your time mistakenly making them feel worse, you can learn about human psychology and therapy to then be able to work with them productively.

Maybe you want to help someone in financial need. Instead of throwing your hard-earned money at them, you can go and improve your own financial literacy and money management and teach them that instead.

You might say that you can also learn “on the job,” and you can in some cases. But let’s be real, I would feel a lot safer if I knew you went to medical school and had practice in the field before I let you operate on me.

If you really want to help people, you first have to develop your own emotional intelligence. That means self-awareness, self-love, self-efficacy, empathy, and social skills. Doing that will help you accomplish the next 4 things a lot more easily.

#2. You’ll Have More Fulfillment and Energy That Doesn’t Depend On Others

You might get “emotional highs” when you help someone successfully. Maybe it’s a heartfelt hug, a thoughtful gift, a meaningful compliment, or that look in their face that they’ve come to a revelation.

But how much energy did that take to get to that point? I know it wasn’t insignificant because when you get back home, I know that energy will immediately evaporate and you’ll crash into bed, waking up next afternoon with your shoes on.

Why? Because we based our happiness on them. We might have even sacrificed a lot to get them to that point. But because we put most of our energy into them, we lose our main source whenever they’re not around, and we’ll get cold and tired.

I began to understand that I couldn’t wait for someone else’s approval to feel energized. That was all up to me. That was my decision.

Think about it, you wouldn’t ever invest all of your life savings into any number of stocks or investments, would you? If that stock were to tank, you would have nothing left. Of course, I’m not your financial advisor, but I think it’s better to have a certain amount of savings accumulated first before risking what you can’t afford on something you have no control over.

Same goes for your happiness. Don’t depend on anyone or anything else to give you fulfillment or energy. That has to start from within.

#3. You’ll Broaden Your Perspective and Awareness

“Horseshoe bend, Arizona” by Jack Finnigan on Unsplash

By being more selective with who you help, you are freeing your time to meet a wider range of people.

This will be natural for people with high emotional intelligence (EI.) They better understand who they are, where their values and skills lie and know who they’ll be able to serve best. They know how to avoid holding people down when they can’t give them what they need. Let them go find a better fit for their needs.

When you do that, you’re now free to expand your network and education with people you never thought you’d meet. You might find people on the same path from all over the world, with different stories, cultures, and personalities. You’ll learn about so many different topics and perspectives from a diverse group of people that you can then use to connect the dots and become a more well-rounded version of yourself.

#4. You’ll Earn More Respect

Another benefit of saying “no” is that saying “yes” will be that much more valuable. Basic supply and demand.

In learning to say “no,” you’re solidifying your backbone and what you value, only giving to those who deserve your help. That means you have to be full of love for yourself (without arrogance). Give yourself more credit. You know what you want, what your skill set is, and who you can help the most. So only help them. Everyone else can find someone more qualified for them.

I know you don’t want to be a jerk and leave anyone behind. So what you can do is at least point them in the right direction, or to someone who has what they need. They’ll most likely appreciate you more, admiring your self-awareness and humility for admitting what you don’t know, as well as your empathy for understanding their core needs.

And when you can understand their core needs, that is where the true power of your help will shine. Once you are deeply committed and in love with who you are, you won’t be so focused on yourself, on how you look, or what you’ll get out of it, and you’ll be able to get to the root of their problem to help them in a profound way.

#5. You’ll Develop Deeper Relationships

With a smaller pool of people clawing for your attention, you’re now able to devote more meaningful time with your core group, your “cabinet members.”

Humans are terrible multitaskers. We can’t perform at our best when there are too many things overwhelming us at once.

Plus, who wouldn’t like your undivided attention when they’re asking for help? If you can listen attentively and remember the smaller details, they will be more comfortable forming a meaningful connection with you.

These are the people you’ll do anything for because they deserve it, not because they asked for it.

These are the people who understand how much to take and how to personally give back to you.

These are the people you would never leave anything unspoken with.

These are the people you trust with your insecurities.

These are the people you’re comfortable working through your incomplete thoughts with.

These are the people you would have never met if you were stuck helping those you couldn’t.

Where Do We Go From Here?

“When you limit who you help, who you help will be limitless.”

Continue listening, reading, and taking in the advice you hear from others, but please don’t just take it as it is. Challenge it, question it, debate it. Heck, even all of this should be under inspection. *Hint, it’s all bs ha!

Seriously though, I hope that most, some, or none of this takes to heart and it helps you in some way on your journey. Or you could either completely forget about this two minutes from now, or you could something that contradicts all of what I just said (if you do find that, I’d love to hear about it).

In any case, please don’t be afraid to be selfish once in a while. Definitely help others where you can, but only where you can, and only after you’ve helped yourself.

The good news is that helping yourself is the hardest part and once you work through that, helping others will be so much easier.

Once you’re full of yourself to the point where nothing external can affect you, that’s when you know you’ll be able to offer your best.

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  • Victor Ung

    EQ Writer, Speaker, Coach, & Meditation Guide

    Human Up

    For so long, I felt like I've been asleep. My memories seemed to be broken, constantly playing on a loop because I was doing the same thing, over and over again. But the worst part was, it was emotionless. Everyone around me, including the mainstream media in American society, stigmatized emotional and mental health. People wanted to stay positive and above the surface level. No one wanted to dive into the deep, dark ocean, afraid of what we might find. Any time we expressed how we felt, we would be told to "man up," "don't be so sensitive," "don't be a downer," or worse, our trust, credibility, or respect would be lost because we "let our emotions get in the way." So I've been shutting it down this whole time, sleeping. Well, now I'm awake and I now know that our emotions are always going to be there, we can't avoid them. But we can learn how to respond to them. I am here documenting this journey to free myself and my emotions, no matter how "down" they might be. It's time I learn to live with authenticity, not just positivity.