June 1, 2018

Are you being too helpful?

Blog, Working Mums


As a working mum many of us experience feeling overwhelmed, stressed out and drained. 

Most of us don’t have enough time. We probably give the best of ourselves to our family, our boss, our work colleagues and our friends. Maybe even to strangers. As mothers we are probably nurturers, and give selflessly to others.

Throughout my life I always thought it was a noble and good thing to want to help others. Maybe you can relate to this. Maybe you were raised to be a ‘good girl’ and ‘be nice’ and ‘be helpful’ were somehow part of the (often unspoken) rules by which you got recognition.

If you read my last blog post you may remember that some of us have a ‘Please others’ driver. 

Throughout our childhood this may have been a really useful approach to gain the approval, recognition and sense of belonging that we needed.  But for some of us in our adult life this can lead to our helping tendencies getting out of balance.

If you’re feeling like an S.O.S. mum – stressed out, overwhelmed and stuck – it might indicate your helping is out of balance.

I learnt mine was! Looking back I’d had many clues to where my need to help had become unhelpful but I just hadn’t realised it. The times when I felt resentful. The times when I said yes when I really wanted to say no. The times when I became a martyr. The times when I was exhausted. They were all signals, but I just didn’t know it at the time.

I remember vividly sitting in a training room in London in January 2016 and my mentor John Whittington tapping me on the shoulder after observing me facilitating a group. His words struck me and it felt like he was driving a knife through my heart. He directly and compassionately whispered in my ear “You’ll be great at this work once you stop trying to help so much.” 

His words hurt me because I knew there was a profound truth in them. They hurt as I was being overly helpful in an attempt to gain his approval. And it was the first time someone had called me on my helping being so unhelpful.

John Whittington is a systemic coaching expert. He helps people and organisations understand how invisible dynamics in the systems they operate in (e.g. family, work, friends) influence their behaviour. 

John helped me to see that my need to help wasn’t as helpful as I’d thought.He helped me to see the difference between being helpful and being useful. He made the distinction to ‘be useful because that’s helpful.’

Through his work John helps people to see that if they try to help, fix or rescue others they may be playing out an unresolved personal dynamic. This can lead us to experience exhaustion and burnout.

In January 2017 Adam Grant and Reb Rebelle wrote a Harvard Business Review article on Generosity Burnout. In the article they share how being selfless is not only personally damaging but can also hurt the very people we are trying to help.

Grant and Rebelle describe a generosity spectrum. At one end are:

Takers; who see see every interaction as an opportunity to advance their own interests. They will run you ragged if you don’t protect yourself. They act as if they deserve your help, and they don’t hesitate to impose on your time. 

Then there are: Matchers; who trade favours evenly. They can give as good as they get, but they expect reciprocity. Grant and Rebelle describe matching as a transactional, defensive stance — it adds less value for both you and others, but it can be helpful when you’re dealing with a taker. 

Then there are: Self protective givers; who are generous, but they know their limits. Instead of saying yes to every help request, they look for high-impact, low-cost ways of giving so that they can sustain their generosity — and enjoy it along the way. 

At the other end of the spectrum are: Selfless givers; who have high concern for others but low concern for themselves. They set few or no boundaries which makes them especially vulnerable to takers. By ignoring their own needs they exhaust themselves and, paradoxically, end up helping others less.

Where would you put yourself on this spectrum? What’s the impact of that position for you? If like me, you’ve been conditioned to believe that being kind and helpful means being available to others 24/7 then perhaps you fall into the Selfless Givers end of the spectrum. It’s important to know that this has an impact and often it’s not helpful for anyone. 

Grant and Rebelle argue that it’s better to be a ‘giver’ than a ‘helper’. Effective givers make sure that the benefit of helping others outweighs the cost to them. It’s about finding ways to give without depleting your time and energy. It’s about being generous but not selfless. Effective givers are comfortable to say no as they recognise that it frees them up to say yes when it matters most.

They know that they can’t support others when they’re so overwhelmed that it damages their health and wellbeing. They know when their good intentions might go wrong. If you’re naturally a ‘selfless giver’ you can move to become an ‘effective giver’ by thinking about helping in three ways:

  1. being mindful about how you help
  2. being mindful about when you help
  3. being mindful about whom you help

As with any change, awareness is important. If we can start to develop a deeper understanding of when our inner ‘helper’ might get triggered and resourcing ourselves to lean back and respond from a more useful place, this can be transformational. I know it has been for me in my life. It has allowed me to set boundaries that support me and the people who matter most in my life.  Far from making me feel less kind and helpful, it’s enabled me to feel more compassionate.

As Brene Brown explains: “When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice. So to be at our most compassionate for others we need to ensure we aren’t being too helpful.

We need to address our own behaviour and choices in order to be an effective giver.

I hope this helps you to think about how in balance your helping tendencies are.  And by doing so I hope it’s useful for you and those you care about.

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