Is Helping Overrated?

Is helping overrated? How could it be? Many people, especially those in ministry, social services and education, see helping as a big part of their job description.

Of course, everyone needs help at times. But sometimes helping can get in the way of growth. When our helping leads to dependency, when it keeps others from using and developing their own resources, we’re not truly helping. When we anxiously step in because we can’t tolerate someone else’s pain, chances are we’re not helping, but simply reacting.

How do leaders help in ways that don’t help? We put up with chronic underperformance. We tolerate bad behavior, because someone is going through a bad time (which can last for years). We micromanage. I often encounter clergy who proofread the newsletter. Finding the appropriate balance between our own goals and other people’s needs is a key part of leadership.

In addition, helping too much doesn’t help us. We wear ourselves out. We carry anxieties that don’t belong to us, or don’t belong solely to us. We lose sleep over someone else’s life challenges, maybe more sleep than they are losing.

Unhelpful helping, or overfunctioning, always takes place in a relationship with someone who is underfunctioning. It takes two. Those of us who overfunction, or take too much responsibility, are perfectly matched with the many who underfunction, or don’t take enough responsibility for themselves. This kind of relationship rarely shifts until the overfunctioner can step back from his or her responsibility, at least a bit. Underfunctioners are glad to receive all the help we will dish out, and we are often happy to give it – until we get exhausted, frustrated and worn out.

When we step back and allow others to take responsibility for themselves, their work, and their lives, we do everyone a big favor. We relieve enormous stress in our own lives. And at the same time, we give others the chance to figure out their own dilemmas and to find their own strengths and resources.

This doesn’t mean we never offer ideas or guidance or even overt help. But we can offer our resources lightly, without any expectation that our way is the only way. And we can work to focus on our own purpose and goals, rather than spending a lot of time anxiously considering what others’ goals should be (and then telling them).

Many of us were programmed nearly from birth to be responsible and helpful, and to be anxious about how other people do in life. It’s not easy to make this kind of shift in our functioning, and others do not always thank us for it. I know when I make a thoughtful choice to step back from helping, I often feel guilty or irresponsible. But over time I’ve learned that other people can find solutions I never would have dreamed up. Most people are surprising resourceful, if we give them a chance.

Where in your leadership might you be overfunctioning? How might you step back a bit? What would you do with your energy if you weren’t propping up so many others? What might they be able to do if you gave them room?

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