Variant #2: Avoidance Assistance
"I'm dying to start my own business," says Susan, a 30-something homemaker, "but I'm too busy pitching in with my sister's and my husband's lives. I never get a minute to myself." This makes Susan's loved ones grind their teeth to the gums. They experience her constant support as intrusive and frustrating. "I don't need Susan's advice," her sister tells me, "but she spends hours giving it to me. Please, Susan, get a life!"
Susan concentrates on other people's problems to avoid the scary prospect of following personal dreams. Author Julia Cameron uses the term "shadow artist" to refer to someone who lurks on the fringes of achievement, helping others attain the rewards they really want for themselves.
The Fix: Connect with Anger
Avoidance assisters rarely admit to being angry—just worn-out and disappointed. But anger is a healthy response to overhelping at the cost of your own dreams, so give your frustration a voice. Fill in the blanks below with any words that come to mind.
"I'm so tired of helping [name]. If I never had to worry about him/her again, I'd have time to..."
Now take half an hour off from assisting others, and spend those 30 minutes working on the thing you supposedly never have time for. If you're an avoidance assister, this may feel terrifying. Get used to it. Taking your own risks and creating your best destiny is always scary, but both you and others will benefit if you pour your helpful energy into your own life.
Variant #3: Messiah Madness
Every night, Ivan gives his girlfriend the same speech. "I practically have to run that whole office by myself," he complains. "Today I had to work with Jim on a brief, then check all the correspondence, because that new paralegal can't spell. And Brenda needed advice on her new case—I mean, how much can one man do?"
Ivan's girlfriend, bloodstream brimming with oxytocin, responds by feeding and petting him, all the time thinking, So who died and made you God? She knows that Ivan has a messiah complex. When she suggests delegating work, he ignores her. The son of two alcoholics, Ivan learned young that service justified his existence. Cleaning up his dad's empties, calling in excuses to his mom's boss, and caring for his younger brother, Ivan formed a belief he still unconsciously holds: The moment he stops helping is the moment he stops mattering.
The only problem is that this assistance comes off as arrogance. To ensure that he'll always be needed, Ivan criticizes his coworkers mercilessly. Their work is never good enough until he's "fixed" it. He thinks they depend on him. Actually, they sort of wish they could set him on fire.
The Fix: Give Support, Not Help
There's a big difference between help and support. Help tells the recipient, "You're needy and weak—I'm needed and strong." It forces others into a supplicant's position, while the helper gets to play savior. If you really want to serve others, stop doing things you resent (resentment is a sign of overhelping) and say something like this:
"You know, Bob, I'm positive you'll figure out a way to solve your problem. You can do it! I'm right here, cheering!"
Say this to yourself, right now, and you'll feel that even as self-talk, it's empowering. Offer that same encouragement to others.
If the bad news is that you're an overhelper, the good news is that you can stop right now. Nurture yourself, support others without assuming responsibility you resent, and feel your energy switch from "Eek!" to "Aah!" You'll become a contented, self-contained source of personal well-being, a model who shows others how they can achieve the same state. And that's the kind of help that really never hurts.
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