Recently I chatted with a woman who was distressed by the developing tension with her daughter –in- law. She was devastated that her son’s wife and mother to her 2 young grandchildren had conveyed that she no longer needed her regular visits. I asked about how she had been interacting with her son’s family and she reported that she had made every effort to be as supportive as possible. I heard that when she was on ‘grand parenting duty’ she’d take on a range of jobs to assist her son and daughter in law manage with their full time workloads and the demands of their young family. This included doing vacuuming, washing and other domestic chores. Additionally she would add extra things to the children’s routine that her daughter in law had written out for both grandmothers. Her thought was that an extra trip to the park would surely be helpful and guarantee the children a better night sleep. She was shocked to hear from her son that these acts of service had been interpreted as a negative judgement on her daughter in laws domestic standards and a lack of respect for their parenting practices. How painful for her to find that her well intentioned acts of help were experienced as intrusive!
I can certainly identify with the propensity to assume I know what will be helpful for others and to just dive in and action this. Throughout my growing up years I developed a strong sensitivity to others struggling to cope. My own mother was burdened by the load of caring for her elderly father as well as her 5 children and I discovered that ascertaining ways to help my grandfather, and in turn reduce her stress, was rewarded with a close appreciative response from my mother. Hence I entered my adulthood with a well-honed tendency to mind- read what I think others need without actually finding out what they think.
Having awareness of my priming to assume what will be helpful to others has enabled me to pause before rushing in to other’s space. It may sound incredibly basic but I am practicing asking others what I can do to be helpful – NOT jumping in as if I’m the expert on their emotional state. When one of my family members was recently going through a time of distress I made sure that I did nothing without checking in first, asking what they would like from me. I readily offered a few ideas of what I was able to do to lighten their load but I ensured that I was not invested in doing any of these things. It was entirely the call of the members of the household. This still doesn’t come easily to me as I can impulsively be ‘overly helpful”. I have come to see however that over- helping and assuming I know the perspective of another is actually an invasion of their privacy and personal space.
Dr Bowen observed the tendency of humans to move into either ‘over responsibility’ or ‘under responsibility’ when there is insecurity and stress in a relationship. The ‘over responsible’ one steadies her/himself through feeling useful to the other while the ‘under responsible’ one stabilises her/himself by drawing strength from the attentiveness of the other. The overly helpful person can easily burn her/himself out and neglect addressing their less interpersonal responsibilities such as financial management and administration. The under functioning one becomes gradually more unsure of him/herself and may become vulnerable to symptoms of depression, substance misuse and/or inability to manage life’s tasks. Help that affects a person’s ability to manage their own life responsibilities is actually not help at all. Help that assumes what another needs is also not help but is a contributor to misunderstandings and relationship discord.
Pulling one’s self out of such patterns is a way of addressing one’s own part in a relationship disruption. While misunderstandings in relationships can be deeply discouraging, being able to adjust how we respond to others needs or helping gestures provides a basis for bringing good to another and to our relationship. For the distraught mother in law who had been trying too hard to help her daughter in law, she could find an alternate path of asking her son and daughter what ways they would like her to assist them. This enables people to interact more respectfully without stepping into territory that belongs to others. Of course this woman’s son and daughter- in- law were contributing to the misunderstandings, however the most helpful thing any of us can put our energy towards is averting attention from blaming or mind reading the other to addressing our own part in unhelpful patterns.
Relevant Questions from “Growing Yourself Up” about ‘over – helpfulness’.
“Caretaking is an easy way to cover over unaddressed insecurities in much the same way that leaning on another as a prop can be.” P 89
“If a parent confided in us or leant on us when things were tough…we’re likely to be at easing giving advice but less comfortable accepting it from others.” P 38
“She needed to find a way to be real about how much she cared for [the other] without this compulsion to take care of [them]. Caring about another would come to mean something very different …than taking care of another.” P 59
“I am committed to not taking over and doing for another what they have the capacity to learn to do for themselves. (Not crowding another’s breathing space so they can develop their own capabilities and coping skills)” p 228
This grandmother “could see how much she had assumed her role as grandmother without asking her son what he thought.” P 204
In Family Therapy & Clinical practice Dr Bowen wrote of the problem of being overly helpful as a counsellor/ health care clinician:
“When the therapist allows him/herself to become a “healer” or “repairman,” the family [client] goes into dysfunction to wait for the therapist to accomplish her/his work,” P 158 FTCP
‘Help that Doesn’t Assume’ – Jenny Brown