When caring for others can be self-serving

helpingIt’s humbling to see how easily I can fall back into this ‘over helping’ pattern given I’ve been working to improve my awareness of this over so many years. The work of maturing is indeed a slow process. In my own family my insecurities within could be alleviated when another was courting my advice and support. 

I’m aware that I need to monitor myself when it comes to responding to those in need. Recently I observed myself, during my small group church gathering, being over involved in the meeting – saying too much, filling in the silent moments, anticipating others needs and indirectly speaking for them. I tend to do this unconsciously, when I’m a bit tense or feeling over responsible for others.  As I reflected on what was behind this lapse I realised that 2 of the people in my group had been opening up to me about some challenging personal issues they were confronting. Rather than just stand side by side with them I fell into a position I had in my family of origin of feeling overly responsible for how their needs were being considered in the context of the community gathering. Emotionally (not intellectually) I perceived that they needed me to make sure that the group process was protective for them in their vulnerability.  Neither of them had asked me to do this and the effect of my over responsibility was to impinge on the work of the group facilitator – my husband.  My reactive efforts crowd out others space to contribute to relationships. These days I usually manage to stay aware of the importance of NOT allowing anxious sensitivities to other’s distress move me into taking on responsibility for what is not mine.  I have seen the evidence many times that when I listen and am present with people but allow them to work their way through their own life challenges, people do better and our relationship does better.

It’s humbling to see how easily I can fall back into this pattern given I’ve been working to improve my awareness of this over so many years. The work of maturing is indeed a slow process. In my own family my insecurities within could be alleviated when another was courting my advice and support.  My mother became a confidant to me in my teenage years and I tend to attract people wanting to confide in me and express their problems. You can see how well primed I was to go into the helping professions. I have come to see that any help giving that is used to steady one’s self is ultimately not genuine service to others. Just as any person seeking others to align with their complaints or overly bond with them through a helping process is likely to be reducing their own life responsibility. Both sides of the over helping and over venting are co-creators of a self- steadying pattern rather than a growth promoting relationship.

I’m often asked to give talks to church groups about ways to care for others constructively. In a faith community, with an imperative to love and serve others, this is a central issue. It’s such an interesting topic to tease out – What is genuine service to others and not a helping process that impinges on mature relating in community? The following is a list of questions I’ve developed to assist people to grapple with the different sides of this dilemma:

Questions to reflect on whether anxious relational sensitivities have gotten mixed up with caring for one another:

  • How thoughtful versus impulsive have I been in responding to the other?
  • Am I overly comfortable with people in need? Do I feel an impulse to rescue or fix?
  • How much is my response to the other based on my imagining what they need versus making the effort to draw alongside and hear what they think about their situation?
  • How much do I unknowingly bolster myself from the validation that comes from providing help to others? (Was this something that I experienced in my family of origin or early church community of similar non family group?)
  • Is the energy going into caring for certain people leaving any important relationships neglected? g. Family members. Not just neglecting being in good connection with family members but remaining responsible in family duties.
  • Is my effort to help another bringing benefit to them or is it resulting in increased helplessness and dependence? Are they responding by needing more and more time and attention?

And on the other side of the over helping pattern:

  • Is the way I expect others to care for me preventing me from maturing and being more responsible?
  • Do I talk more about the issues in my own life than showing interest in what’s happening in other’s lives?
  • When I’m struggling, am I prone to talk to others before thinking (and praying) things through for myself?
  • How uncomfortable am I with someone in need? Do I tend to avoid or distance?

By nature and nurture I have a high sensitivity to other’s pain and distress. I deeply care that struggling people should not be left to walk alone in their suffering. At the same time I know how easily anxieties can be caught up in the helping relationship. ‘Over helping’ and ‘over venting’ may temporarily make people feel important or valued but in the longer term can leave people burnt out and confused. In quite subtle ways what we think is in service of others can unknowingly be in service of ourselves. This is an area I continue to prayerfully and consciously work on in my relationships.

Reflect on the various postures towards helping that are shaped uniquely for yourself and each member of your family:

What was my position in my family in terms of helping?

Was I ‘over helped’ at time?

Was I valued as a helper?

Did I distance from any problems between other family members?

Was I encouraged to focus on self (my needs or achievements) at the expense of making space for others?

* Foot note – I think the issue of human selfishness/narcissism (in varying degrees) is universal. Hence even very good acts of care are often caught up in self- interest. Alongside this is the anxiety in family relationship systems that shape people differently in terms of their postures and sensitivities towards others.

Bowen quotes (from Family Therapy in Clinical Practice):

It is factual that dysfunctioning and over functioning exist together. P 155

It’s possible for the [person] to attain even more emotional equilibrium through the … helplessness of the [other]. The one down of the [other] permits her to function securely in the over adequate position. P 63

Basic relationship patterns developed for adapting to the parental family in childhood are used in all other relationships throughout life. P 462

I realized the degree to which I had been… instructing others and even functioning for them, while I had been irresponsible in failing to do other things that came within my own area. P498

‘When caring for others can be self-serving’ – Jenny Brown

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