How to Help By Not Helping - Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

So often in my office I’ve heard the story of a guy who’s really upset that their help is being rejected or responded to with derision. They are angry, confused, and judgmental–often at the same time. They can clearly see what their partner, their kid, their friend, their parents should do to feel better and to get something done more efficiently and can’t understand why their solution is rebuffed. They know how to help and no one is listening.

The remedy for this is what some people call The Platinum Rule. It pushes against the oft quoted Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.

This way of being in the world, though sounding selfless, ends up backfiring in most relationships.

The Platinum Rule says to do unto others how they want to be done unto. Well, some of the language gets weird, but basically, the idea is stop acting on what you would want and consider what kind of help they want.

People Think Differently

The first shift you have to make is recognizing that different people want and need different things–even if what they want sounds insane to you.

Let’s take a low-stakes example: It’s raining and I have an umbrella and you don’t. My instinct is to hold the umbrella over both of us. But you’re fine. you’ve got a hood and really, it’s warm out, and you don’t mind the rain. But I insist. What kind of a person doesn’t want an umbrella in the rain. You must be being nice or coy–but I know what you really want–you want to be dry. Maybe you’re embarrassed that you forgot your umbrella. Don’t worry–I don’t need you to get all vulnerable–I’ll take care of you. I know better.

The thing is, some people, for whatever reason, don’t want you to hold the umbrella. (I told you this was pretty low stakes.)

Still, whether it’s about someone who’s trying hard to develop a new habit (eating better, reading more, meditating regularly), is in the midst of a big decision, or is maneuvering through a family/friend quarrel–what they need and what they want to do is unique to them.

No matter how clear cut and simple it seems to you.

Recognizing that other people can see things in different ways can be life altering. Whether it’s setting boundaries with a mother-in-law, navigating office politics, or toilet paper (well, in truth, anyone who thinks that the roll should hang from the back is clearly a monster)–people see things differently.

I’m not saying you have to agree with them, you don’t even have to understand their point of view–I’m suggesting that they simply get to have one.

Interrogate Your Feeling First

One of the first things that we have to deal with is to recognize what is pushing us to offer help in the way we are doing it. Are you feeling like you should do something (I have the umbrella, it’s raining–I must hold it over them. Maybe add gender pressures to the mix: this is what the guy is supposed to do?)

But what’s really going on inside you? Are you wondering whether people will judge you? Are you just so tired of hearing your partner/friend/teenager complain about something without taking the steps to make change? Is it a reflex–someone is upset: I must change that. That is my role.

That last one is a sticky wicket. Sure, who wants to see someone they care about be sad or anxious? But are we swooping in because we are so uncomfortable with the display of feeling that we just want to make it stop? That’s about us and may not be what the person needs. Handing someone tissues or telling them not to cry because their dead father is in a better place is not usually what someone in the rawness of grief needs to hear.

When you’re trying to know how to help, start by asking yourself, “Are my actions for my sake or for someone else’s?”

And before you say “Oh, yes, I’m a good person, it’s definitely for someone else”….

Ask People What They Need (and Then Believe What They Tell You)

This is a hard one. It puts us in the very uncomfortable place of Not Knowing What To Do.

Do they want us to help with ideas or solutions? Do they want to just be held? Do they want to be left alone for a while? Do they just want to vent?

If you can, ask them. And let them tell you. And then, if you’re willing, do what they want. You are absolutely free to decide that what they want is not something you can reasonably make happen, but now you at least know that you’re not imposing.

What makes this difficult:

“My boyfriend/wife/father/[fill in the blank] says one thing, but I know they really want me to do the other thing.” Ok, well, that’s a relationship dynamic you may want to work on. A lot of people grew up with parents who didn’t say what they wanted, but drop the guilt and anger when their adult child didn’t do what they really wanted. Well, that’s a dynamic you may need to explore. It probably won’t be as easy as just saying: “Dad, I’ve known you for 28 years. For now on, i’m not going to interpret your tone of voice. If you tell me not to come over for your birthday because you want to be on your own, don’t guilt me the next week that I didn’t see through that. It’s not my job to translate your needs anymore.” Ok, there would be nothing easy about saying that, but you’d be well within your rights to set that new limit (using more realistic language, though). You can start with not expecting people you love to follow your breadcrumbs to your real feelings. One good way out of this is to start to be more direct about your needs. It lets people you love trust that when you say something you mean it. In return they may be more likely to be direct with you in the future. It may bring up some worries about being selfish or needy, but that’s for another blog post.

Another stumbling block for this one is that asking someone who is struggling what they need may feel (to them or to you) like you’re placing a burden on them to know what they need. That’s totally valid. It’s also totally valid that you can’t be sure you’re actually being helpful unless someone tells you what kind of help they need. Yeah, it’s great for people who just know each other so well that unspoken needs can be met, but it takes a lot to get there–and it’s still possible to get it wrong. One of the best ways to deal with this is to, as Irvin Yalom says, “Strike when the iron is cold.” If you know that your partner gets into major funks at certain times of the year, or if they are prone to panic attacks or depression, take the time when things are going well to ask them, “When things are going downhill, how can I support you?”

And then listen to and believe them. And let them know if you are willing to do what they want.

  • “Yes, I can hold you while you’re feeling depressed and I won’t say placating things like ‘It’s going to be ok.’ Unless you want me to. I can let you cry without trying to take it away.”
  • But don’t forget that you don’t have to be a martyr or do something that you know is harmful: “No, I’m not going to let you talk to me (or our kids) that way when you’re feeling really anxious. That’s not fair to any of us. Let’s explore some other things. What does your therapist suggest?” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist, but really, if you or your partner are in individual therapy, are you not talking to each other about what you’re learning you need from the other person? Why not??)

Wanting to help others is a great instinct. And I think most people genuinely care about how others are doing. But make sure when you are helping someone else that you are not, inadvertently, doing more harm than good.

If you’d like to explore how to help in a more helpful way, feel free to reach out for a free phone consultation.

Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He is a Brooklyn therapist (as well as also seeing clients online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity and can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion.