By the third week, my helping behavior had become less automatic.
The few favors I did along the way were carefully chosen: After hearing that a friend of a friend's young daughter was gravely ill, I attended the bone marrow drive and got my cheek swabbed. A couple of days later, when a friend who has shown me impossible loyalty for more than a decade confided that she was suffering from anxiety attacks, I asked if I could look into meditation classes that we might attend together.
On both occasions, I felt good about the support I was offering. I didn't feel put out. I didn't want anything in return. I was just thankful for the opportunity to give.
According to Thoele, this was the right kind of helping. "It's important to learn the difference between helping out and butting in," she says. "Butting in is often a product of the giver's sense of righteousness or insecurity, and it is neither wanted nor appreciated by the receiver. Helping out is a gift that comes from the heart."
And that was what I wanted—to be driven by my heart, not my ego. My month of restraint had allowed me to make that shift.
The experiment also paid off in other, unexpected ways.
One night after yoga class, I got into a conversation with my teacher and learned that she was single. I was dying to play Cupid, but I held my tongue. The next day, she sent me an e-mail, asking me to keep her in mind for setups. Now that she'd reached out to me, setting her up would mean doing a favor that she'd requested, as opposed to embarking on a self-appointed mission. I wouldn't feel the usual pressure to prove myself because I had never claimed that I would find her the perfect man in the first place; I had merely agreed to try. I liked the prospect of low-stress helping.
A few weeks after the end of my 30-day trial, my friend of the existential crises called, crying. Love was masochistic, she said. I listened to her list of romantic troubles. I didn't tell her what to do, or even ask leading questions. I didn't fan the flames by mirroring her outrage. I made just enough noise to let her know I was there. And I realized that in the absence of suggesting, solving, and fixing, my listening skills had greatly improved. After ten minutes, my friend took a deep breath and exhaled. "Thank you," she said. "You made me feel so much better."
Diana Spechler's latest book is Skinny: A Novel (Perennial).
More on Friendship
We Hear You!