J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Helping People — A Realization

Rescue: specific, well-defined, limited help

Rescue: specific, well-defined, limited help

Yesterday I received an angry email from a reader that gave me pause for thought. The reader asked me to do something I wasn’t comfortable doing and I declined. The reader became frustrated and let me know in no uncertain terms. Their argument went something like this: Why was I presenting myself as someone helpful if I wasn’t willing to help them?

It wasn’t a terrible interaction — just a frustrated person venting — but it did get me thinking about what I’m trying to do here. This blog is subtitled “Systems for Living Well” and that’s mostly what it’s about. I share my own experiences, insights, and knowledge, and hope this blog benefits others. In the past I’ve framed that as “helping people.”

But I’m wondering if “helping” people often leads to dysfunction and codependence. How much responsibility should the “helper” take for the circumstances of the “helped”? Is there a danger of the person being helped surrendering their own power and agency to the helper?

“Helping people” has been a core value of mine since grade school. To reevaluate and possibly jettison this guiding principle is a big deal for me. It’s not that I want to become less altruistic or less giving (especially in relation to friends and family), but I think the old language doesn’t work anymore. I need to replace “helping” with more specific verbs, in both my thinking process and in terms of real life actions.

Some thoughts re: the future direction of this blog:

What I Want to Retain or Move Towards

  • writing posts that educate, inspire, and/or entertain readers
  • sharing personal experiences that might benefit others
  • providing specific, clearly defined assistance to others when I am moved to do so, when it is mutually beneficial, or when I am being compensated

What I Want to Move Away From

  • helping others out of a general sense of obligation, because I have a “helper” identity
  • writing blog posts (or anything) that prescribe or recommend a particular course of action (“you should” or even “how to”)
  • presenting myself as an expert or authority
  • taking responsibility for other people’s actions or choices

I’m thinking out loud here. I don’t want to be less generous just because a few people feel overly entitled. I have no problem setting limits. Still, I may need to be clearer about what I’m offering, and where those limits are.

I hope you found this post educational, inspiring, or at least mildly entertaining!

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15 Comments

  1. yes! well put. Its good to reflect on our boundaries and intentions.

  2. I’ve been an avid reader of your blog for many years. Now that I think of it, your blog is the only one I’m subscribed to. I find it useful, thought provoking and interesting.

    I think there will always be people who try to lean on to someone else to make the big decisions, do the important changes they have to do for themselves.

    Raising my two daughters, I often think of this subject. “Am I guiding them to solve their own problems and learn from their mistakes or am I trying to solve those problems for them?”

    I guess my point is, please keep on sharing your thoughts and findings with us, you are very good at it. If someone needs further help, just point them in the right direction.

    I’m an IT consultant, and I often get help requests from people who don’t have the money or are not willing to pay for my time, and unless they are close family or friends, I just point them to shops or tech guys who do that type of stuff. It doesn’t make me less generous or less helpful to my fellow humans, I think I’m doing good to them, even if they feel they had the right to get a freebie from me.

    Just wanted to share my thoughts with you and say thanks once more for the time you take to create this amazing, informative, helpful blog.

  3. Love it! I too, want to help if I am moved to do so – and not from an entrenched sense of obligation. Or, for me, even a worry that not doing so would offend.

  4. I wonder if what you’re saying here might be extended to charitable giving. More & more I’m gravitating away from large scale organizations who expect donations because of the great virtue in what their doing. Not to say they are not doing good things but the impersonal quality of this type of giving is less satisfying to my basic helping nature. Plus, all the clever advertising/marketing leaves me feeling obligated/guilty if I don’t contribute regularly. I much prefer giving to my local community soup kitchen these days, in fact I have lunch there myself some days, and get to see all the people involved!

  5. AK

    I would add to the thinking out loud–it’s because of your blog that I found Dan’s Plan and that has made a huge difference to my health and general well-being. Of course, I stumbled on to your blog via I can’t even remember where, but I think it’s likely just as co-dependent to try to not do what you think is a good idea (or even act according to what you think is the best thing to do) in order to avoid an unpleasant encounter with someone. In other words, changing your helper MO out of your helper MO doesn’t seem to me to be either logical or particularly helpful.

    Anyway, for my part I hope you keep doing what you’re doing, and let people make their own decisions about how to react to your content. My $.01.5.

  6. Thank you everyone for the kind words and thoughtful comments. The boundaries/limits quandary is always with us “givers” (and that includes most people I think).

  7. Tamra Vonblankenburg

    I tot all understand what you are saying.
    “Teaching” instead of “Helping”
    Use “Could” instead of “should” when suguesting a course of action.
    I appreciate what I learn from you. Thank you:)

  8. I’ve always really enjoyed your columns and don’t find them a bit “preachy” or full of “shoulds”. I agree with Tamra about making use of “could” – nice distinction. I’ve especially appreciated some of your how-to’s – they often lead me to look into something a little deeper. I think you strike a very good tone sharing information that may be helpful without hammering. I’ve learned a lot from your columns/blog posts and find your readers’ comments to be thoughtful, educated and articulate. I’ve commented here before about running a non-profit for people affected by chronic viral hepatitis. I’ve had to learn many of the same lessons you’re discussing and have had to learn to set limits. People will push the envelope if you give them the opportunity – there’s always someone out there who would love it if you would just do everything for them (while taking issue with how you’re doing those things!). You’ll get no complaints from me…;-)

  9. jezjohn

    Good article as ever and I think you have the balance just right. It is odd that someone thought you were in some way ‘responsible’ but then some people need the help and the helper as a package. Or is it that they don’t really want to take responsibility for their own actions? Keep up the the brilliant writings

  10. Rose

    Your brainstorming points are clear and defining. I could even use them…so, alas, you are helping, or I am “benefiting” from your thinking on paper.

  11. J.D. I was just thinking that one downfall of having a popular blog (I don’t but I can imagine!) is that you face increase criticism. I enjoy your blog. I also agree that people who are inclined to be generous and helpful also have to be careful to set personal boundaries. I want to live my life as a kind and giving person. But I do NOT want to feel coerced or pressured into anything. So I’ve personally been setting boundaries in my own personal life. But life is just so much better when you do what you love and live as a ‘helpful’ person. Don’t let the negatives keep you down.

  12. Once again thank you all for the additional comments and feedback … I am reading and appreciating!

  13. NB

    I’m going to guess this email was in relation to your posts on hair-loss? I can understand the frustration.

  14. John K

    Give a man a fish (advice) he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish (show your principals in a way that’s possible to learn) and he eats for life.

  15. Carol W.

    The problem is a combination of lack of clear boundaries on your own part, combined with a sense entitlement on the part of the reader, who may expect you to do something that might normally be done at an hourly rate in a professional context. The reader needs to understand and appreciate the quality of the help already set forth in the blog post, and can view that as a gift plus an introduction to how the author thinks. The reader also needs to estimate and appreciate the value of someone else’s time, energy, and expertise, and to approach them in a spirit of reciprocity, such as by asking, “Do you consult privately? And if so, how much would you charge per hour?” or something along those lines. The reader needs to estimate value and assume an attitude of reciprocity, rather than not. There are a lot of naïve readers out there, even some manipulators who figure “nothing ventured, nothing gained” so they ask to see how much they can get for free, with the worst thing that can happen being that the expert says “no,” does not respond, or invites the reader to schedule a professional consultation. Better for the author to assume ignorance (vs. malice). Make the distinction between your blog post having helpful information vs. you being identified as a “helper,” especially as a helper without further clarification.

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