How to Help Other People Without Hurting Yourself

Meredith Kirby
Feb 8, 2020 · 5 min read
Photo by Annie Spratt

here’s nothing like the joy that comes from helping others. It creates positive changes in the world that you can see before your eyes. It also has the added benefit of making you feel better about yourself.

Victories are more satisfying when you help others on their own journies, and these kinds of actions create a reciprocating cycle in which you are also helped on your own journey. You can take extra pride in your good grades if you helped your friend study. A home-cooked meal tastes better when it’s shared with a friend.

If nothing else, helping people just makes you feel good. It raises your self-esteem and increases your confidence in yourself. Anything that does that is not just a good deed, but an invaluable power move in the game of life. Giving others support has even been shown by science to have concrete neurological benefits.

Unfortunately, helping people feels so good that it can also be habit-forming. Like most habits, this habit can be healthy or unhealthy, depending on the person, the dosage and the frequency.

If you’re anything like me, helping people can even become a real problem. A UK doctor has even recognized this as a pattern in the friends and family of the drug addicts he treats, calling it compulsive helping.

Personally, I’ve found that I’m very prone to overextending myself, and susceptible to the very real consequences of doing so. Nevertheless, I still can’t seem to break my helping-people habit.

I think that helping can sometimes be a way for me to avoid dealing with my own problems, or a way to prop up my own ego. Being helpful can have this kind of dark side for many people. Sometimes it’s more about us than it is about the people we’re helping. We do it to compensate for something else we’re missing, or to feel valid and significant.

Helping others can energize and motivate you, but if you do it too much, it can leave you feeling physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. It’s never good to let yourself get to that point– not just because it isn’t fair to you, but because an exhausted person isn’t capable of helping anyone.

Also, giving a lot and not getting much in return (even when you aren’t expecting anything), can leave you feeling bitter and resentful. The feelings of love and care you had for the person you were helping can turn sour by your own hand, and that, in itself, is a small tragedy.

After years of well-intentioned helping gone wrong, I’ve come to this conclusion: If you really want to help people, the key is finding the best strategy.

Understand your limits

Be honest with yourself about what your physical, mental, and emotional limits are when it comes to helping those around you. You can’t pour from an empty cup or an empty bank account. You need to secure your own oxygen mask first– just like you need to secure your own job, home, and self-worth.

Ask yourself if you’re doing it for the right reasons. Are you helping because you want to, or because you feel like you have to? Are you doing it out of love, kindness, and generosity, or guilt, obligation, and fear?

Take time to care for yourself, and make sure you actually have the energy that you’re about to give. Know when to stop.

Develop strong boundaries

Once you understand what you are and aren’t capable of, think about what you are aren’t willing to tolerate. Be uncompromising about what you will and won’t do.

Giving in to requests that you don’t feel comfortable fulfilling might relieve whatever guilt or pressure you’re feeling in the short term, but will probably become a source of regret in the long term.

Learning when and how to say “no” is one of the most important lessons that any of us can ever learn, and it can have a huge impact on what happens in our lives and how we feel about it. Never compromise your own integrity for somebody else’s sake.

Understand what actually helps

There’s a big difference between helping and enabling, and that, unfortunately, is something that many of us end up learning the hard way.

Helping someone who isn’t ready to help themselves can actually be destructive– the help you’re giving them could be fueling whatever it making their life difficult in the first place. Even if it isn’t, it could also create feelings of disempowerment in the person that you’re helping.

A person who is getting too much help can start to feel like they don’t have any power in the world or agency over their own lives. This feeling spirals into a consistent inability to help themselves. This is sometimes called learned helplessness, and it’s a phenomenon that is common enough to have been researched.

Ask yourself if what you are doing is really promoting the growth and independence of the other person. If it isn’t doing that, then it’s very possible that you’re actually feeding the irresponsibility, incompetence, and dependence of the other person.

And that doesn’t help anyone.

Do more with less effort

We can strategize at a very practical level to find a wider audience or create a broader reach with our good intentions.

For example: instead of spending hours talking to your friend with depression, you could write about how you overcame yours, and potentially help thousands of people.

Instead of going into debt trying to help your sister with her bills, you could help her find a steady job by calling that guy you know in her industry.

Instead of emptying your wallet giving money to every homeless person you see, you could go volunteer at your local shelter or food bank.

Focus on long term benefits. Create things with the potential to last. When giving gifts, try to make them the ones which keep on giving. Plant seeds.

this article helped you, I’d like to thank you. You have already helped me, in return, by letting me be helpful in a way that’s healthy for me.

Helping people is a good thing. You should absolutely do it, and you have every right in the world to feel good about it. Just make sure your help is wanted, that you’re ready to give it, and that you’re doing it for the right reasons.

You’ve already helped someone else today– help yourself out.

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Meredith Kirby

Written by

I write about things that matter to me.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +786K followers.

Meredith Kirby

Written by

I write about things that matter to me.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +786K followers.

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