The dark side of helping is the theme for the next four blogs. Someone who reads my newsletter and blogs asked me to write about what to do when you are living with a visible disability, someone helps you, but you didn’t ask for their help and don’t want or need it. Others have also told me they experienced this.

Reflecting on that conversation, it occurred to me that this way of helping doesn’t fulfil the helper’s original intentions to help, nor help the person on the receiving end. In fact, the person being helped can feel worse as a result. Hence why I refer to it as the dark side of helping.

In the end I decided to write this blog series for the people who help us – our carer, spouse, another family member, friend, colleague, or a stranger. I’ll refer to you as the supporter.

What I write here builds on what I wrote before about why asking for help is so hard

The issues which can get in the way of asking for help include feeling guilty, the fear of being seen as weak or needy, wanting to feed our sense of self-worth by doing it ourselves, people close to us not wanting to help, not wanting to show how we are different because we can’t do it ourselves, and the difficulty of acknowledging that a change has occurred which means we can’t do things ourselves anymore.

As a supporter, maybe you are aware that there is a dark side of helping. I’m highlighting it as there can be consequences for you and the person you are helping as referred to above. I write this article intending to raise awareness, not to judge you.

Did you know that there is a dark side of helping? Important to know when we are a #carer, spouse, partner, family member, friend, or colleague. Click here to find out more. #seriousillness #chronicillness #seriousinjury tell a friend

Relationships you value can end as a result of the dark side of helping

This is most likely not your intention when helping someone.

This blog series will explain the views of people on the receiving end of such help and offer some ideas and tips to give you more choices on when to offer your help and withhold it.

I am also noticing the parallel process of me assuming you want the support being offered in this blog, and that assumption can be part of the dark side of helping, which I will explain more about in a moment. If you continue to read this article, then I assume you are interested in my thoughts on this.

As you read this series of blogs, be gentle with yourself as it can raise some uncomfortable feelings. But also know this, some of what I write about in this article, I have done myself. So, the uncomfortable stuff – many of us have been there and done it. You are not alone. The important thing is learning from it.

What is the dark side of helping like?

The dark side of helping is when someone helps another, and the person helping hasn’t asked if it’s needed or wanted. It’s a proactive form of help, which is deemed to be a good thing in our society. But it has been assumed; the helper is operating on an assumption.

Pic of man insisting on helping a person who uses is sticks and is carrying a bag, the dark side of helping

I am talking about those times when you look at someone doing something and you are not sure if they can do it, you want to protect them, or maybe make their (and your) life easier in some way. Or it somehow feeds your identity of being a good person who helps others. So, you rush in and do whatever it is the person is doing for them. For some people this may include them being insistent that they help the person.

It’s a fine line because if the person is actually falling, spilling boiling water, burning themselves, accidentally setting the house on fire, yes, you do rush in to help.

Some examples of what the dark side of helping looks like

  • A person in a wheelchair going about making a pot of tea. Their family member, friend, visitor, whomever, says, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. I’ll get it.’ And takes over making the tea.
  • A person in a wheelchair or who uses a stick or walking frame is doing their shopping at the supermarket, is looking up at some shelves. You walk by them, seeing what they are doing, ask them what they want and say you can get it for them even after they say they are fine. (But actually, they can make their wheelchair go higher to get items out of arm’s reach.)

We often want to help others and are ready to do that. People around us say it is good to help others and we conform to that societal norm. This is not a bad thing. It also makes us feel good to help someone. Findings from research often demonstrate this and as a result encourage us to help others to improve our mental health. (Mental Health Foundation, 2018; Psychology Today, 2018; NPR, 2018)

Regarding this dark side of helping, on the surface our intentions may come from that good place, but below the surface it is at the cost of the person you are helping or wanting to help. Your help doesn’t actually help them in the way they want to be helped, if they want to have help at all.

Picture of an iceberg. Above surface, it's good to help. Below surface, the wise whale asks you if the person wants to be helped.

We often have explicit and implicit intentions when helping people.

How do you know if you are entering the dark side of helping?

Some questions to ask yourself before helping someone is:

  • Am I intending to help this person because they want the help?
  • Am I helping because it makes me feel good or better in some way?
When you want to help someone, first ask yourself: Do they want or need my help? Have I asked them? Am I helping them because it makes me feel good or better in some way? #seriousillness #chronicillness #seriousinjury tell a friend

If you are unsure that the person wants the help and it would make you feel good to help, then ask them if they want your help.

If they say no, then say ok and move on. There are good reasons for people to say no to offers of help and we will review them in this series.

If they have said they do want help and you can and want to help them, then help!

Key learning about the dark side of helping

Help that benefits both the person helping and the person receiving help is the thing to aim for.

Picture of man asking person using sticks and carrying a bag if they need help and person replies that she doesn't but will say if she needs help.

Reciprocal help benefits both the giver and the receiver.

Next time

We’ll explore the reasons why people whose capabilities may be limited by an illness or injury may not welcome offers of help, however well-meaning they are.

What’s it like for you?

Have you found yourself helping someone but you haven’t asked first if they wanted or needed it? What did you learn from that? Likewise, if you have been on the receiving end of unsolicited help, what was that like for you? Share your experiences in the comments below.

If you are living with a challenging health issue or caring for someone who is, and would like support on any of the issues discussed here, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.

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Has this blog made you think? Helped you in some way? Share it so it can do the same for someone else.

© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2018

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