There’s been a lot of conversation going on in one Captain Awkward post about “helping” relationships, where one person is needier, more vulnerable, and often advice-seeking, and the other is giving, caretaking, and wisdom-dispensing. I looove when the Awkward Army addresses this topic because it’s been a very common dynamic in my life, and there are a lot of ways it can turn sour for both parties. The helper can become overly invested in their helping role and refuse to see/accept when the helpee has developed strength and wisdom of their own. The helpee can feel completely entitled to the helper’s support forever and suck the life out of the helper. The helper can use the helpee’s perceived weakness as an excuse to control and dominate them. The helpee can consciously or unconsciously keep generating problems because they feel like that’s the only connection they have with the helper.
It’s potentially bad news all around, if both parties aren’t careful about boundaries and responsibility and self-care. That said, sometimes a person is in a more vulnerable or more needy place and needs extra care and support from loved ones. And some of us *cough* find that pouring out love, support, and nurturance just feels good, feels satisfying, makes us feel at home in the world. I don’t think that all relationships need to be perfectly balanced forever. But I do think that both parties in a helping relationship need to be very careful and self-aware, if the relationship is going to sustain time and growth and avoid becoming toxic.
Over the years, I’ve picked up a lot of attitudes and skills that have helped me have some functional helping relationships. These are all from the helper side, as I have very little experience being the helpee. I’d welcome further thoughts and additions.
1: Take care of yourself. Since I went to school with educators and therapists, we talked about “self-care” a lot. Every single one of us is way better at preaching it than practicing it. Have your own support network in place, the people you can go to with your stuff no matter how trivial or burdensome you feel it is. Have your personal rituals for when you need to be kind to yourself and recharge. If you’ve never taken all that compassion and lovingkindness you have and directed it at yourself, do that. Figure out what that looks like for you. And do it, on the regular, and especially when you’re in the middle of a strenuous helping situation.
2: Own your shit. I think most of us helpers have some not-100%-healthy baggage behind our helping instincts. Narcissist parents. Feeling like we’re only valuable if we’re giving. Feeling like helping allows us intense intimacy without making ourselves vulnerable. I don’t think you have to be past that and come at helping with an entirely balanced, zero-dysfunctional-history perspective in order to be a great helping person — I don’t think that’s even possible. We’ve all got our shit, and learning to use our shit in ways that make us and the world better is a pretty stellar way to handle it. But definitely know what your shit is, and how it can turn toxic.
Owning your shit can help you spot the line between those helping dynamics that feel good because they’re meeting both people’s needs in a productive way, and the ones that feel good because they’re scratching an itch deep down inside you that keeps getting inflamed. It also protects against internalizing the sense of “I’m mentally stable and healthy, and you are damaged and fucked-up” that can sometimes come into helping relationships. You can be mentally stable and healthy and damaged and fucked-up all at the same time, actually. Drawing a sharp line between the two just makes it harder for the helpee to ever imagine being in a position of strength. And it makes it harder for the helper to actually work on their own damage, because you have to see something in order to fix it.
3: Give yourself permission not to help. This really incorporates both #1 and #2. Not helping, whether it’s for the afternoon or the week or maybe forever, is sometimes the only self-care that matters. But it can be really hard, if you’re dealing with some of that baggage that says you always have to help or you will be unloved and unworthy and alienated. Being able to say “No, I’m sorry, I can’t listen today” and walk away without guilt (hahahahaha ok I mean without soul-crushing guilt that will make you spend your time off just as focused on the helpee as if you were actually talking to them) is a pretty essential skill — I think it’s a prerequisite for a functional helping relationship.
Taking a short break also tests whether the thing is sustainable on the helpee’s side. It takes two to have a functional helping relationship. If they cannot go a day (or whatever) without drawing from your well of support and compassion, it strongly suggests that they are not up for their side of this tango. They need to have some level of respect for the fact that you are also a person with needs and priorities that don’t revolve around them.
There are kinder and less kind ways to take a break. “Hey, listen, I need to take some time for myself right now, I will call you again on X day to hear all about it, ok?” sends the message that you are not abandoning them forever, but that you also have needs that are a priority for you. Helping and helping and helping until one day you just can’t take it and stop answering their calls — not so kind. (I have done this. Urgh, and I’m sorry to those people.) It’s one reason I think it’s so important to work in self-care and time off early. If you’re suffering severe burnout, you might just have to do that, especially if they roll right over your first “Hey, I need to deal with my own shit today,” but it’s better to avoid that situation by taking regular breaks and making that an understood part of your relationship from the first.
If you say “I’ve got some of my own stuff going on, I need to take a break,” they may come back with “Oh I’m so sorry! Let’s talk about you!” This might be okay, but it’s often a (likely unintentional) trap. We have this idea in our culture that all good relationships are balanced with equal give and take. The helpee likely feels uncomfortable with the idea that this relationship is unbalanced, and would welcome the chance to be the one helping you for a change. The problem is, if they’re usually the helpee in relationships, their helping skills may not be very well developed. Listening and lending compassionate, appropriately critical but non-judgemental support is hard. Setting our own stuff aside to be present for another person and their needs is hard. To us helper-types it often feels easy and natural, but someone who isn’t practiced in it will likely end up floundering and feeling inadequate. Or they will end up listening for about 45 seconds and then turning it around and making it about them, because they just don’t know how else to operate. Or you, the helper, will find that you’re not actually comfortable being vulnerable with them, because that’s not how your relationship functions and you likely have some vulnerability issues that mean it’s only a select few people you can feel okay going there with (high-five, fellow vulnerability-averse helpers!)
So I think it’s better, if they counter-offer with “Let me help you!” to say, “Thanks, but I really just need some me time, that’s how I process best.” Me time can mean talking to your go-to support buddy, they don’t have to know. And if they can’t deal with this or have a shit fit or try to get you to help them process their feelings of rejection around not being allowed to help you, that’s all the more reason to get away. Which brings us to…
4: Boundaries. You get to have them, they gave to have them. Everybody has to respect them or this thing is fucked. Just because you’re a helper doesn’t mean you get to know or comment on every little detail of their life. If you’re giving them a lot of care and support over their relationship with their mom, that doesn’t mean you get to tell them how to relate to their boyfriend, if they don’t want your help there. They are a grown-ass adult who is talking to you because they respect your wisdom and perspective in one area. That doesn’t mean you get an all-access pass to their life, or that you’re responsible for making sure they don’t screw up elsewhere. Maybe they’re making a mistake. Grown-ass adults get to do that.
Just because you’re a helper doesn’t mean they get access to you all the time for everything. YOU don’t have to listen to details of their sex life if that’s uncomfortable for you. You don’t have to invite them to everything you do (or anything you do). As discussed above, you don’t have to and probably shouldn’t be available to them at all hours of every day.
When one person sets a boundary, the other person needs to respect it, period. If the boundary is confusing or upsetting to you or you think it means something really uncomfortable or bad, you can say this: “Okay, I will respect that, but I have some concerns. Can we make time to talk about them at some point?” And the boundary-setter gets to say yes or no, and the boundary-setter gets to decide when that conversation happens, and the boundary-setter gets to decide when that conversation needs to be over. And the other person respects the boundary before and after the conversation (with any revisions or improved understanding that happened in the course of the conversation.) If anything else happens? Run away and don’t look back.
I’ve had a lot of helping relationships go bad. I’ve had a lot of helping relationships successfully convert into more balanced relationships. (Because I lean helper, I tend to gravitate toward people who lean helpee, and a lot of my intimate relationships involve me doing more listening and caretaking than vice versa. I can and do turn around and receive support from them; it just happens less often than the other way around. That might be another whole blog post.) I’ve had a lot of helping relationships that were good for both of us at the time, and then we drifted apart because they were moving on to a new stage and there wasn’t enough in the relationship to sustain a friendship built on anything other than that one helping dynamic. That’s an okay outcome too. These are the principles I’ve found to be essential to making a helping relationship constructive on both sides. I’d love to hear from others who have insights of their own, and especially from people who tend to be helpees, on how things look from their side.