How I Learned What Really Being Helpful Means

Ilene Strauss Cohen
May 28 · 8 min read

Pulling up my tights, I listened out for danger and desperate screams for help. Like any natural born superhero, I was ready to swoop in and save the day. I wanted to be the one to put the pieces of other people’s lives back together. I wanted to be the ultimate problem solver. You see, I was the perfect Mrs. Fixit, walking around with my metaphorical hammer looking for anything — or anyone — in need of fixing. I thought I was making sacrifices for the greater good, and man, did it feel great when I was helpful. I walked around feeling prideful and accomplished, thinking the badge of World’s Most Selfless person belonged to me.

But one day, my world came crashing down around me. Anyone who lives long enough knows this can happen from time to time, but I was too young to realize it. Suddenly, I began to sink with everyone I thought I was saving, going down faster than water in a sinkhole. Looking around for a lifesaver, I realized no one was there to rescue me. Later, I came to understand that I wasn’t the superhero I thought I was. I wasn’t actually fixing anyone’s problems; in the bigger picture, I was actually making those problems worse. In essence, I was giving out Band-Aids for gunshot wounds and completely ignoring myself while I did it, giving everyone in my life the option to ignore my needs, too. When it was my turn to need rescuing, no one showed up to do it.

We all think we know what it is to be helpful — whether it’s to someone else or ourselves. We believe that trying to take away pain or discomfort will help us and the people around us, but there’s more to it all than just getting rid of pain. In my selfless superhero days, I had an unhealthy investment in other people’s lives, because I was anxious around their suffering. Since I was allergic to my own suffering, I got totally uncomfortable around anyone who wasn’t optimistic or happy all the time. I wasn’t coming to terms with a natural part of life and, in the process, was stunting the growth of my loved ones. While I thought I was freeing others of their pain and suffering, I was actually holding myself in a prison that I build around me.

When your life feels like it’s in order, it can feel like fun and games to be the people-pleasing Mrs. Fixit. But over time, the problems being brought to you just keep getting bigger and bigger, and you’re not sure why. Then you experience a tragedy, like the loss of a loved one, and you can’t really fall apart. Because everyone else is falling apart around you, there isn’t any room for your grief. So, you hold it together on the outside, while inside, you fall apart.

It’s natural as a human being to care about others, and to attempt to help those in need. Giving and receiving help is part of all personal relationships. But who defines help? How do we know when we’re being helpful? Is it the immediate relief of pain and suffering? Or is it the ability to live with pain while finding the real underlying causes? I was forced to start tackling these questions and trying to find out what is truly helpful after I found out that what I originally thought was helpful, wasn’t actually helping anyone.

Being in the presence of another’s afflictions and needs used to provoke a deeply emotional response from me. And I know I’m not alone in this. Sympathy, and the desire to help someone in distress, are naturally instinctual responses; even Darwin wrote about them as part of the social instinct humans and animals share in common. Humans and animals alike take comfort in one another’s company, protecting one another and defending each other against threats. When I was in what I now call my superhero phase, I was operating from a purely instinctual place, reacting from a place of anxiety. I couldn’t access the calm and rational responsiveness that was appropriate and necessary for actually meeting the long-term needs of others and myself. I was operating based on knee-jerk reactions, instead of coming from a place of reflection and objectivity. When a family member would come to me with no money, asking me to pay their essential bills because they had lost everything to an addiction, I would cover it for them. All I saw was that they were uncomfortable and in need. I was ignoring the bigger picture, not seeing that I was enabling rather than helping. Even though I was trying to help out of the goodness of my heart, the real problems would still persist and become more serious and embedded, especially for my addicted family member. Our efforts to be helpful might be based on good intentions, but those good intentions don’t always provide good results.

By committing to learning what real help is, I came to understand that if I could manage my anxiety about other people’s problems and invest my time thinking about real solutions, I could change my responses and do something that was legitimately helpful. As the first step in this process, I began to define my true beliefs, values, and ideas about helping others.

I’ve learned that in crisis situations, it’s best for me to calm myself down and respond as wisely as possible — when it’s needed and, of course, when it’s welcomed. The ability to manage my emotions in the highly anxious and emotional presence of another, especially a loved one in pain, is a lifelong mission of mine, because I truly believe it’s what will be helpful. If we can all manage ourselves in the face of other people’s problems, we can truly be present and accountable. On my journey to find out what it means to be truly helpful, I’ve found some tools I keep in my back pocket when the going gets tough.

First, stay in touch. This isn’t easy to do in the presence of someone who’s very anxious and upset. Some people naturally create distance when anxiety is high. Thinking that you can’t help, or that the situation is too large, can lead you to run in the other direction. I try to stay in contact with people I care about, even if their problems are too big for me to solve or aren’t solvable at all, like having an illness. Staying in touch helps me manage myself around the big stuff I can’t solve, and learn to accept people as they are.

Second, see the person past the problem. When I was walking around with a hammer, I was basically seeing everyone in my life as a nail. There was more to them than the issues they were facing, but I wasn’t relating to them as whole people. Now I look for other people’s strengths, and their ability to solve their own issues. People are more resilient than we tend to think.

Third, respect others’ boundaries and ability to solve their own problems. Many people are vulnerable when they face life’s stressors, and some people look to others to solve their problems for them. These days, I try to respect other people enough to let them come up with their own answers. Determining how much to say or not say in each situation we face is not an exact science. I respect others’ boundaries by supporting their autonomy, being there for them but staying out of the way when my opinion isn’t needed. I make sure that any ideas for possible solutions come from them. I offer useful information without telling anyone what to do.

Fourth, know your own limitations. Writing this article now, I see how arrogant I was in my superhero days. Grandiosity is something that tends to get triggered in the helping relationship, making us believe that we can do the impossible. It was humbling for me to find out how little control I have over the way others decide to live their lives. I changed my thought process from thinking I knew what’s best for my loved ones, to defining what I really could and couldn’t do; then my responses became clearer. I was able to be more open and honest about the reality of my own life and how available I could be for others. I learned the hard way that, most of the time, my limits were reached before other people’s needs were met.

Fifth, become more objective. Boy, is it hard to think objectively when it comes to our important relationships. In intense emotional situations, it’s easy to get pulled into it all and feel pressured to do something, instead of taking a step back and seeing the bigger picture. With each situation I face, I work on getting more objective about it, reflecting on how I can remain calm and not feel the need to solve anything immediately.

Sixth, work towards being open and honest. To be seen, heard, and understand is an important aspect of any relationship. However, way too many people aren’t open and honest in their relationships. When we can be open about our vulnerabilities, it can be healing and calming. When we’re trying to solve and fix everything, we aren’t connecting with others at a deeper level. We’re acting as if we’re above them. When I went through personal struggles and searched deep within myself, I got knocked off my high horse and brought back down to earth. I can now meet people where they’re at, seeing them better and letting them see me.

So, what is help? When it comes to answering this question, I think we each need to look within, deliberate, decide, and act in the context of each situation we face. What I describe here is my own personal experience. I share it as a way to get you thinking, but there’s no one-size-fits-all method for determining what help is. The biggest lesson I learned in all of this is that I wasn’t helping anyone when I was swooping in trying to solve every problem without looking at the bigger picture. I understand now that when my “helping” is rooted in anxiety and an urge to smooth things over, it isn’t coming from a genuine place. I now know it’s okay to not have all of the answers; it’s okay to take my time to think things over; it’s okay to throw my hands up and say, “This situation really stinks right now, and it’s going to be hard for a while.” It’s okay for you to do all those things, too. Not all problems can be fixed. Not every struggling person need saving. Knowing that, and accepting it, might be the most helpful thing of all.

Ilene Strauss Cohen

Written by

Dr. Ilene S. Cohen, is a psychotherapist, blogger, and author of the popular self-help books, “When It’s Never About You and “Its Within You.”