The Narcotic of Help
A willingness to help others is a laudable personal quality. We value it in friends and family. We want to develop it in children. It makes us feel better about ourselves. But, it can be like a narcotic for someone who is blind or visually impaired; that is, beneficial under the right circumstances, but profoundly damaging if not used appropriately.
So, how can we know when offering help is right? At the risk of oversimplification, I think the narcotic analogy is a useful way of answering that question for the following reasons.
- There will be times it is necessary. All of us have certain tasks which, try as we might, we can’t accomplish ourselves. As Americans, we put a high premium on independence (or, at least, we say we do). However, insisting that we will never need assistance is like the patient who needlessly suffers extreme pain because of an unwillingness to accept a palliative, even on a very limited basis.
- It is usually only appropriate infrequently and under specific circumstances. There is a difference between, for example, assisting with one particular part of a task and jumping in to perform the entire job.
- Both the “User” and the person administering should be aware of the potential for abuse. Explaining to the child how to make the bed once or twice and assisting a couple of times as they are learning can be helpful help, but, if you’re not careful, the next thing you know, you’re making the bed every day while the child is standing by watching.
- Help can be addictive. In the above example, the child, being no fool, has trained you to make the bed for them. All the while, you may feel good about being so helpful.
- The addiction to help can, and almost always is, done with the best of intentions. At the end of the day, however, the recipient is just as addicted.
- The point at which addiction occurs is never clear. When does help begin to promote helplessness? It’s extremely difficult to know the tipping point. In the absence of a clear, easy to understand rule of thumb, it’s critical to be aware of the risk and not come to close to that line, but, ultimately it’s a subjective decision.
- Once dependent on routine help, it’s hard to kick the habit. Avoiding dependence in the first place is vastly easier than withdrawal.
- The “addict” tends to gravitate to people who are enablers.
- Enablers tend to gravitate to potential “addicts.”
- “Addicts almost never think they are addicts, and enablers almost never think they are enabling. Almost every single “addict” I’ve ever known believed they were “independent,” and every enabler honestly thought they were promoting independence.
In sum, it’s a balancing act. There is a place for help; we all need it at times. But when done inappropriately, regardless how well-intentioned, it can be highly destructive, and the consequences can last far longer than the short-term benefit of the help.
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