Overhelpers Anonymous
Illustration: Istvan Banyai
Michelle and I met for coffee not long after her youngest child headed off to college. She said she'd been roaming around her empty nest, assembling care packages for her kids, ironing her husband's socks. I clucked sympathetically and reached for my iced coffee when Michelle beat me to it. She reached across the table, grabbed my glass, lifted it a couple of inches, and handed it to me. A few minutes later, she did it again. Then again. After the third time, I said, "Um, Michelle, could you not do that?"

"Oh, I'm so sorry," she said—and reached across the table to hand me my glass again. Then the two of us laughed, as friends will when one of them appears to be possessed, because we both knew what was happening. Michelle had entered a zone we call overhelping. I know that I do the same thing when I'm stressed-out or upset. Maybe you do, too. We get stuck in help mode, draining our own energy, annoying friends, creating weakness and dependency in family members. If this complex sounds all too familiar to you, the following information may be, uh, helpful.

Variant #1: Hormonal Helpfulness

My friend Michelle began ironing socks and treating me like a toddler because taking care of other people, while taxing, eased her anxiety like a hit of opium. Literally.

When my first baby was born, I knew my body would start secreting oxytocin, which stimulates lactation. This seemed weird but logical. What I hadn't expected was the number oxytocin would do on my emotions. I was desperate to feed, pat, carry, diaper, caress, and rock anything that seemed to need help—my baby, certainly, but also my hamster, my local TV news anchorperson, and my broken toaster. When I wasn't doing something helpful, I'd get almost frantic.

These reactions probably evolved so that mothers would care for their babies even at risk to themselves. But all women, not just mothers, secrete oxytocin under pressure. For decades, the famous fight-or-flight response (mediated by hormones like adrenaline) was primarily studied in men. Only in the past six years have researchers found that in women the fight-or-flight response is tempered by a rush of oxytocin, the "tend and befriend" hormone. When things go wrong, we may fight or flee, but also feel strong urges to support and comfort others.

When we actually can help, by rocking the baby, cheering a friend, fixing the ailing toaster, we get a hit of "endogenous opioids," internally produced chemicals that affect our brains like opium. These create a fine, floaty, glowy feeling, one of the main reasons I enjoy being a girl. It's also why I do life coaching (I get paid to get high!), and why Michelle couldn't stop picking up my 12-ounce glass of coffee. Both of us like to self-medicate with the helper hormone.

The Fix: Turning Helper Hormones on Yourself
Therapists and self-help books constantly advise us to get manicures, pedicures, massages, and spa treatments. This advice has a solid biological basis. Any nurturing we direct toward ourselves, especially if it involves physical touch, triggers the same endogenous-opioid surge we get from doing things for others. If you're a hormonal overhelper, schedule a foot rub from a reflexologist, lure your mate into bed, pet the cat until it purrs in your lap. Get touched.

Be especially diligent about this in times of stress. Overhelpers may offer assistance to get a "fix" when they themselves need comfort. This is a quick trip to exhaustion and resentment. The next time you're upset, instead of focusing on trying to help others, pat your own hand and tell yourself kind things ("It's okay, sweetie, the hamster doesn't hate you. He bit you only because he didn't need you to diaper him"). The more you place your full attention on giving yourself comfort, the less you'll help others who don't want it.

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.

More Martha Beck Advice


Next Story