Monday, June 13, 2011

Compulsive Helping Revisited

I see this in forums all the time and it's been particularly noticeable in gotVirtual and Second Citizen MKII lately, so I decided to copy this over from my Psi Shrinkers blog.

Compulsive Helping

Compulsive helping.  We see it in life, on the internet, in virtual worlds and forums all the time.  It's hard to stop a compulsive helper because helping is a good thing, right?

When does helping become interfering?  When does helping become a compulsion?  Why do people sometimes resist help?  Why do some people get angry at someone offering help? Why do some people seem completely unable to stop helping?

There is an interesting blog website called Recovery Is  The person who writes the posts on the site goes by the name of "Sparrow" and says that the site is "a work of gratitude for 27 years of sobriety and fellowship."

Sparrow wrote what I think is an excellent post called "Compulsive Helping" in which Sparrow says...

Of all the behaviours compulsive or addicted to helping can be the most difficult to understand.
Where helping becomes harmful it steps over the dividing line between caring (which is healthy) and caretaking (which is unhealthy).
...helpful is where we care for others in our life – but we do not step over into taking on their responsibilities for them, which is what happens when we compulsively help.
When I compulsively help, it is in order to run another’s life for him or her and to take the focus off running my own life. When I feel good because I am focusing on someone else and I am unaware of anything else except what I am trying to do for the other person in my life, whether family member or friend, whether addict or not, then that is compulsive helping.
I can try to compulsively help anyone, regardless of whether they have a problem or not. As it usually turns out, those people who do not have an addiction will probably become irritated if I turn my compulsive helping onto them, as it will diminish their own responsibilities, and someone who is leading a balanced life will not wish to have those responsibilities taken over, unless of course there are extenuating circumstances such as acute illness and so on.
We need compulsive helping both in ourselves and in others around us like we need a hole in the head. Of course we can help others, in a caring, non-intrusive way – but compulsive helping is not the way to go about it. It gets in the way of a good, healthy relationship between the two people, and hence is destructive.
But if I don’t do it, who will? ...maybe the person you are trying to help will take responsibility for him or herself, which would be the best option.
Caretaking however, is over-caring for someone, taking on the other person’s responsibilities for themselves and not allowing the other person to have the consequences of his or her behaviour.
Compulsive helping is destructive of both self and the other person. That is not what I would call a loving action.
How can I stand by and watch? Watch what?
Why should I not help when I know what to do? This is the ultimate arrogance of the compulsive helper. Who am I to know what is best for another person? What is so special about the way that I would run another person’s life as opposed to the choice that that person would make for him or herself?

I am often...I will say... maybe not as charitable and gentle... as some people I admire for their generosity of spirit.  So while I agree with everything Sparrow says here, I particularly agree with the idea that there is a kind of arrogance to compulsive helping.  Maybe that perspective is due to the ignorance of a layperson, not fully appreciating the nature of  "compulsion."  And maybe not.

There are times when I check myself for my own arrogance when being helpful...assumptive, arrogant, intrusive, extraneous...and ironically... unhelpful... when I stop and think about what it is I am doing, these are some of the things that cross my mind as I analyze my own behavior, motivation and potential results.

I also think compulsive helping is a sign of poor boundary maintenance and the older I get the more I become aware of the importance of boundary maintenance.  It takes a bull-headed crossing over into someone else's psychological space to compulsively help those that don't want or need help.

Behavior boils down to need.  So the question becomes, "what need am I serving by behaving this way?"  The more time I spend in the amazingly concentrated petri dish of humanity that is the sounds oxymoronic given the scope of the international internet, but if you are a regular visitor, you know it is true...the more I see how everything points back to attention.

I am not often around people who are starving from lack of oxygen, food or water.  Even the guy working the corner down the street for handouts is pretty well fed, as is his dog.  I do see a lot of people who seem to be starving for attention, validation, acknowledgement of their existence and of their value.  And really, many, if not most of them, are not really starving, they're more like attention gluttons, bing(e)ing on attention, black holes that can never truly be filled.

I used to be a corporate trainer.  I facilitated classes in, among other things, soft skills like communication, negotiation, leadership, management, etc.  One of the skills you learn as a trainer is classroom management.  You learn to handle certain personality types and one of the most dangerous to any class is the compulsive helper.  I've been in situations, projects or puzzles laid out on desks, looking into the wide-eyed, earnest face of someone over at another person's desk "helping" with the puzzle and appearing to have no avenue whatsoever to the realization that he or she was actually sabotaging the learning and development of the person he or she was "helping."  We're taught that helping is good so it is an addictively sweet rationalization for ultimately toxic behavior.  A classroom is a hothouse for attention-seekers...helping fellow participants, answering questions, volunteering to assist the trainer, arriving before class and staying after to get one-on-one time with the trainer.    Trainers have to be good not only at classroom management, but also at personal boundary maintenance in order to successfully handle these dynamics in a way that will not negatively impact participants or the trainer.

The internet compresses everything, including dynamics like that, and turns the virtual world into a kind of lever for humans to press like rats in a lab seeking drugs or sugar.  Type.  Receive.  Type.  Receive.  Type.  Receive.

There is an article by Dr Robert Lefever, director of the Promis Recovery Centre, called "Human Condition: So that's what's wrong with Harriet." Excerpts from the article:

Compulsive helping, as opposed to helpful helping, is not always welcomed by the helpee, the compulsive helper is acting as much for themselves as for the other person, and it is damaging to both.
Cases of professional burnout are also likely to involve the syndrome. "Why would anyone go to that extreme if not? Stress is universal - it is how we respond to it that makes the difference between those who manage and those who don't." Compulsive helpers tend to gravitate to "caring" professions like doctor, politician, therapist or counsellor. "The doctor who is a compulsive helper expects their patients to be grateful," explains Dr Lefever. "They want to feel they are doing good work, but they end up exhausted and resentful. Then there's the politician who takes every issue raised by a constituent as a personal crusade rather than spotting when it is a personal problem that the constituent should work out for themselves."
When people are compulsive they don't want to see it. Denial is normal for the addictive personality, and this seems so justifiable - people say 'I'm only helping!' but that's the same as the alcoholic saying they only drink beer or the heroin addict saying they can give up any time."
Treating compulsive helpers is done by introducing them to others in the same boat - along the same principle as Alcoholics Anonymous. But curing them is not easy, says Dr Lefever. "We have a good success rate in getting people to acknowledge they are compulsive helpers, but it is much more difficult to get them to acknowledge that they should do something about it."

And article at points out that

...if a gift is overused in a compulsive manner it is no longer a gift. Used in this way a gift becomes inappropriate and begins to be a burden. There is a proverb that says, " If the only tool you have is a hammer then everything is a nail." Some things do not benefit from being beat upon just as not everyone needs to be helped, perfected, controlled, or told to lighten up.
For a Helper sometimes the best way to help someone is not to help.
It may be seen that the true need is not of help in the form of rescue but help in the form of allowing the person "responsibility" so that through a difficult time with their own effort they become independent. Not helping may help at a deeper level.

This is a vlog of a compulsive helper talking about his compulsion.

■  When does helping become interfering?

When you take responsibility from someone who can and should be managing himself.

■  When does helping become a compulsion?

When you can't stop yourself. When you find yourself saying or thinking things like, "well, just one more..." When you find that people are telling you to "shut the fuck up" in complete and utter exasperation at your constant interruptions into their thoughts and actions.

■  Why do people sometimes resist help?

Because the "help" has become an intrusion, an insult, an interference and is unwanted and unnecessary and assumptive and arrogant.

■  Why do some people get angry at someone offering help?

Because it is annoying when it is an unwanted intrusion.

■  Why do some people seem completely unable to stop helping?

Lack of self-awareness? Lack of discipline? The need is so great it overrides reason, sense and self-control?  You tell me.

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