In my last blog, I complained about the times people have punished me because I tried to help them. And, yes, I’ve contributed to that outcome. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I haven’t always listened to cues to back off.
Alicia Smith suffers from bipolar disorder. She’s not my friend, but someone I’ve interviewed about how friends can be most useful. “I have a friend in town who wants to be helpful and she irritates me,” she says. “Most people don’t want to be told what to do. I’m an adult. And it’s more important to show concern for my health than dictate what I need to do to be healthy.”
Her don’ts: “Don’t ask ‘Have you taken your meds today?’ implying that my behavior is strange. Don’t ask ‘Have you been sleeping?’”
Do “choose your moment to discuss hard issues. Don’t do it when they’re already anxious or depressed. Think of baby steps.”
Jim Klein, who also suffers from bipolar disorder, agrees strongly that he doesn’t want people to check in on him. “Just treat me normally. I might be ashamed and depressed, so I don’t want you to bring it up. Don’t turn me into a patient,” he says.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the author of “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” thought hard about helpfulness during her bout with breast cancer. During her long waits at the hospital, she began asking the other patients what they wished their friends knew about how to help them. She urges absolute honesty on all sides.
“Type-A personalities can be fantastic problem-solvers, high-achievers, super-organized, energetic, get-it-done friends who eagerly ‘share’ their ideas about what you should do or take to get better faster. But they can also be overbearing, suffocating, exhausting, controlling, and insufferable,” she writes.
Too much attention can be as bad as too little. You want to feel useful, needed, important, and you’re impatient to solve problems. But you risk making the other person feel useless, unimportant, and rushed. They begin to resent you, and also feel guilty at failing to be grateful.
The Lady Bountiful role can be a power trip. Ironically, if you work too hard to prove your value, people may appreciate you less. Helping too much doesn’t inspire gratitude — or actually help.
Maybe you like advice — but they don’t. Maybe you wish someone would check in to see if you’ve followed through on your latest goal, but they don’t. It’s also possible that you think you like advice and being checked up on, but if the roles were switched, you’d actually hate being helped.
The solution is to tune in, ask people point-blank what they want and don't want, and do things their way.
Sometimes the answer will be “Leave me alone.” Sometimes you back off, hoping they’ll help themselves, and they don’t. You get to watch them fall apart, and it hurts. But you really have no other choice. I have been the too pushy one. I’ve also backed off. I’ve watched people die. I’ve watched people recover. In the end, I realize all I can do is my best, which may mean doing less.