Friday, April 8, 2011

What Does It Mean to Help People?

It is my firm belief that the only acts of help that count as such are the ones that the person who is being helped has requested. Every unsolicited act of assistance is, in reality, a manipulation strategy. There are different bonuses that fake helpmeets try to garner through their unsolicited assistance. Here is a little list of what manipulative helpers usually strive to accomplish:

1. The most innocuous and easy to deal with breed of helpmeets are people who have read too many self-help books of the How To Win Friends and Influence People kind. They have bought into the myth that you need to demonstrate to people how doing what you want them to do will ultimately benefit them. These well-meaning folks have no idea how condescending their Dale Carnegie-inspired fake concern for others actually is. To give an example, I've been recently contacted by a colleague who said, "Look, I want to do you a huge favor. Let's do what I propose, and it will benefit you a lot." As a grown-up, intelligent individual who is more than capable of looking out for her own needs, I did not appreciate this manner of framing the request and refused it. Had the person honestly told me, "Look, I need a huge favor from you. It would be great if you could do this for me, but I'll totally understand it if you refuse. In return, I'd be willing to do X, Y, or Z for you, in case you ever need it", I would have been a lot more receptive to the request.

2. The second category of fake helpers are the ones I call sacrificial lambs. These people make it their life's goal to burn at the stake of other people's needs. All day and every day they bustle around trying to benefit humanity which neither asked nor wanted their solicitous care. Such people would be genuinely surprised if you told them that what they are is users. They use their unsolicited help to others to avoid taking care of their own problems. I knew a guy like that in grad school. He would spend inordinate amounts of time reading chapters of everybody's dissertations, helping people to create conference presentations, and editing their articles. In the meanwhile, his own dissertation had been stuck on page 15 for two years in a row, he didn't have a single publication, and didn't go to any conferences. 

I used to be such a person myself a while ago. I dedicated my life to listening to people's love troubles, offering them a shoulder to cry on, and dispensing useful relationship advice. In reality, though, I couldn't care less about these folks. I just needed them to explain to myself why I had no time or energy left to take care of my own crappy personal life.

3. The next subclass of fake helpmeets are guilt-trippers. These folks thrive on doing things for you and then telling you triumphantly how their health has suffered and their work has been sadly neglected while they have been busting their asses trying to do things for you. Your guilt and feeling of indebtedness that can never be exorcised because they accept nothing but you eternal guilt as a reward are all they seek. Such people are very likely to exaggerate the extent of their help to you and regale others with stories of how much they had done for the horrible, ungrateful you for years to come. 

Once, I was shopping with an acquaintance and discovered that I had left my wallet at home and couldn't pay for the pair of shoes that I wanted. I was perfectly happy with leaving and coming back for the shoes on the next day. The acquaintance, however, insisted that I let her pay for the shoes. I accepted the loan and repaid it on the next day in full. Imagine my horror when, years from then, I heard another acquaintance tell me how this person had been telling everybody in sight about how I used to borrow money from her on a regular basis. The amount of loans that I supposedly requested from her had grown almost tenfold.

4. The last and the deadliest category of helpers are those who are sincerely and passionately convinced that they know how to improve your life. These people are scary because they are fanatically convinced that their intentions are good and pure. They decide that your partner doesn't treat you right and set out to destroy this relationship that they find to be all wrong. They try to prevent you from spending time with people they believe are not good for you. I knew a guy who used to get into his wife's email account and delete messages that invited her to participate in university committees because he believed she was overworked and needed to rest more. Another acquaintance mixed anti-depressants into her partner's food because she had decided he was depressed and in need of medication.

And, of course, they are also the same people who want to impose their knowledge of what's best on poor, miserable, silly and helpless inhabitants of other countries. If need be, they are willing to impose their vision of what's right through the use of deadly force. There is no arguing with such folks because their conviction that they are in possession of some higher form of knowledge that can benefit humanity at large is clad in armor that has not a single chink in it.


Anonymous said...

There's no such thing as a free lunch. Every one wants to help to gain you attention, or to influence you later on. (So like I'm doing by writing this post ahahaha ;-))

I guess the best help you will ever get is from those who never intended to help you. Kicks in the ass (Rejections, etc), are sometimes rather helpful either as reminders or to help you look at different perspectives and approaches to things.


marroncito said...

I read through the post and agree with your points individually. People definitely do what you described. However, I don't agree with your opening statement: "It is my firm belief that the only acts of help that count as such are the ones that the person who is being helped has requested. Every unsolicited act of assistance is, in reality, a manipulation strategy.".

I can think of some instances where I wonder if you would consider it help.

I think life threatening emergency is an exception where unsolicited assistance would be welcome. If someone else notices you are in danger, for example a fire, someone lurking outside of your home/car, etc., they shouldn't wait until you call for help. Also, unconscious people needing assistance probably also fall into this category.

Another group of people I want to consider are those who don't even know to ask for help. People who's problems are so overwhelming. People who think they're alone and that no one can help them. If you've been through something and see the signs in someone else, I think it would be more hurtful not to extend help even where it isn't requested. I agree that if the help is declined, it shouldn't be pressed further, but the help should be extended. 2 examples of this that come to mind are heartbreak and depression. Heartbroken people rarely go around saying "help me", but can often benefit from comfort and reassurance from someone who's been there before. If a friend is showing signs of clinical depression, do we just leave them to struggle with it alone? Again, extend the offer and then don't press further if turned down, but if my friends started to seem depressed, I would talk with them and see what their needs are. I see helping them get the assistance they need in this case as a positive.

Another place I see unsolicited assistance being useful is in cases of trauma such as rape or physical/mental/emotional abuse. Often times, those that suffer such trauma do not ask for help. The shame and stigma associated with these traumas as well as the fear of reprisal keeps these people from asking for help. I would extend unsolicited assistance to any friend of mine that I knew to have suffered such a trauma.

In my church we have a few families with special needs family members. These people require 24 hour care and expensive medical treatment. The families handle it day to day, but they appreciate when someone can step in and give them a few hours off to sleep, eat, refresh, etc. They don't endlessly ask for help, but seem to appreciate it when someone else at church sees that they are giving much of their time and resource to the loving care of the special needs person in their life and volunteer to help.

Lastly, I think there are times where people who struggle with drug use and other addictions can benefit from an intervention. They usually don't want it and don't always accept the help offered, but I believe there are times where family and friends should be that direct and blunt about their loved ones need for help.

In each of these circumstances I agree with the points you were making about how people can use unsolicited assistance to manipulate. I hope we can discuss whether it is manipulating to offer help in the scenarios I've described.

Clarissa said...

Lear: you wrote the comment to help me?? In what way, exactly?

marroncito: I wouldn't say that getting people out of a burning car really counts as "help". That's more along the lines of rescue.

The so-called "intervention" with drug addicts and alcoholics I believe to be completely and utterly useless. You cannot cure an addiction of another person. You just can't. Unless the person in question is passionately committed to getting clean, you are wasting your time trying to "intervene."

As for the people who don't know how to ask for help, a separate post is scheduled to appear on that subject later today. On the subject of depression I hope to write later.

As for people who have been victims of rape, I think what you mean is that you'd extend an offer for help to them, right? I can't really imagine how one would proceed to help when the person who has been the victim of the crime hasn't communicated to you what exactly they need.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

This is brilliant, & I think it should go in Historian's list of Lessons for Girls (though it is good for everybody).

Clarissa said...

Thank you! :-)

marroncito said...

I think you summarized my thoughts succinctly.