We continue our series on the dark side of helping people affected by illness or injury by talking about the reasons they may not want your offers of help (however well-meaning they are).

As I said in the earlier post, helping others is a good thing and recognised as being good for us (Mental Health Foundation, 2018; Psychology Today, 2018; NPR, 2018).

Yet there are times when providing the help doesn’t fulfil the helper’s original intentions to help, nor help the person. This blog series is exploring that situation.

This post will explain the views of people on the receiving end of such help and give some ideas and tips to give you more choices on when to offer and withhold your help. It’s important as relationships you value can end as a result of the dark side of helping. And this is often not your intention when helping someone.

Pic of man in wheelchair and woman with sticks saying they are going to share their thoughts on helping

My aim is to share my learning from having operated at times from the dark side of helping so you can make mindful choices when to offer your help and when not to. Many of us have been there and done it. The important thing is learning from it.

What is the dark side of helping?

A quick recap – The dark side of helping is when someone helps another, and the person helping hasn’t asked if it’s needed. It’s a proactive form of help, which our society feels is a good thing. But the helper as assumed the person being helped needs or wants it. The person being helped hasn’t asked for it, so we don’t know if it is wanted or needed.

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

The impact of the dark side of helping

People who get around using a wheelchair, stick or walking frame have often told me it doesn’t feel good to be on the receiving end of this kind of help. They gave four reasons why. These reasons can also apply to people living with invisible illnesses. So have a read to learn what to do to make sure you don’t end up inadvertently wandering in the dark side of helping.

You want to help someone who has a #serioushealthissue #seriousinjury #chronicillness But they don’t want your help. Read the four reasons why here tell a friend

Reason 1: It’s an invasion of personal space

It some cases it can be when it involves you physically doing something for someone.

Reason 2: It can feel demeaning

People I’ve spoken said it can come across as if the person helping assumes the person is no longer capable of doing what they are setting out to do because of the illness or injury. To live with people treating you as if you do not have the capability can erode your sense of self-efficacy (your belief in your ability to accomplish a task or succeed in a particular situation), self-esteem and self-worth over time.

As the person helping, you may say that the person is no longer capable of doing that activity.

This can go several ways.

Ask yourself how you feel watching the person doing the activity. Are you thinking they can’t do it? Are you worried they will hurt themselves or drop something? Is it taking longer? And you’re busy and don’t have the time to wait for them to finish. Does it feel more laborious to you? Do you think you can do it more quickly or better? These are common reactions and they can often highlight your assumptions, standards, expectations, wants or needs.

If you find yourself feeling this way, that’s ok. Just notice it and you don’t have to act on it. The downside of acting on these feelings is you inadvertently transfer them to the person you are trying to help even if you don’t say anything about how you are feeling. For example, if you help someone because you can’t stand how much effort it is taking them to do what is expected to be a simple task… you get the feeling.

It’s not nice being on the receiving end of that kind of help. It’s difficult to understand. The person may wonder if they have done something wrong. Or be upset because they were trying to exercise their independence. It can also be confusing and uncomfortable when you don’t know the person trying to help you.

If you don’t know the person at all or only a little, ask before you help.

If you know the person and there is a time element to the situation where you both have to be somewhere, or it’s an issue of keeping the person safe (a safeguarding issue), I recommend finding a way to talk about when your help might actually be recommended or necessary. This can be a talk of a more delicate nature and warrants a separate article for another day.

Pic of woman having taken over of making tea for a man in a wheelchair

Wanting to try doing things for yourself when living in a changed body.

Reason 3: It disempowers the person you are helping

The person you are supporting may no longer be capable of doing the activity how they used to do it pre-illness/injury. But they may be able to find a new way of doing it. This a key process for people living in a changed body to go through. It fosters adaptability and flexibility which are key qualities they need to deal with the ongoing impact of their illness/injury, to look after themselves, and regain a quality of life.

When you rush in to help someone without asking, it’s focusing on what the person cannot do and that isn’t empowering.

When you support someone to figure things out, you are focusing on the possibilities that exist for them and what they can do. They may not always be sure what they can do, so you can give some suggestions (if they are open to them and you may need to ask them that too). You can also give them your moral support and belief in them, both which can be incredibly empowering for the person.

This kind of help on your part fosters a reciprocal partnership. It strengthens the person’s resolve that they can figure out a new way to do things, what they can do on their own and what they cannot. They may make a mess, drop things, and take a long time. They will express frustration. But they learn, and it can be empowering to find a new way of doing things. It feeds their sense of self-worth. So voluntary help can actually prevent people from going through this helpful process.

When you support someone with a #serioushealthissue to figure things out for themselves, you are focusing on the possibilities that exist for them and what they can do #empowerment #inclusivity #disability tell a friend

Reason 4: It takes away control

The person may actually no longer have the capability to do what they want. But for some people they have to go through the process of figuring this out for themselves. It will contain more meaning for them than someone telling them they are no longer capable. Even though it is hard for them to digest this realisation and for you to witness.

They retain a sense of control in making the decision knowing what they are capable of and not.

When someone tells you verbally or through their actions that you are not capable, it highlights a difference between you and the person/people telling you. Your sense of belonging can feel threatened. It feels like you can’t decide for yourself anymore. You can feel ‘less than’. This can erode your sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem as mentioned above.

Over the long-term, it can foster resentment for both people in the relationship:

Supporter: I resent you because you can no longer do what you used to do and now I have to do it.

Person being helped: I resent you having to do things for me.

This resentment can result in malfunctioning co-dependent relationships.

This realisation process of learning what one is capable or not capable of is tough

Because it involves the person acknowledging the loss of capability due to their illness or injury. And they may not be ready to do that just yet, particularly if they (and you) really valued the lost capability. It can take time.

And during this time, the greatest thing you can be doing for yourself is to make sure you have support and time out (as far as that is possible, I know it’s tough at times to have time out). This will enable you to top up your inner resources of patience, strength and whatever else you need to keep going.

Pic of a woman talking to another woman to get some support

Getting support for yourself when you are supporting another is important.

What’s it like for you?

What has your experience of supporting someone or receiving help taught you about the dark side of helping? What advice would you share with others to make sure they didn’t operate from that place? Share your thoughts 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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