15 September 2015

Are You an Automatic Helper?


Nadia (not her real name) was a client of mine, and she was an automatic helper. She is innately attuned to other people’s needs. She’s enhanced her natural abilities with training and experience and become a very successful consultant. Both in her personal and business life, Nadia often not only knows what the other person needs, she can also often deliver what the other person needs.

When a prospective client contacted her at the outset of a business emergency, Nadia could see immediately what was needed — and dropped everything she was doing in order to help this new client through the emergency. She did not stop to think about the costs she would incur by doing this.

Similarly, when the high school senior who lived next door was applying to college, Nadia could see that the girl’s mother, a casual friend, needed help with the financial aid application process, so she rolled up her sleeves and jumped in, helping the mother wrestle the forms to the ground. Again, she gave no thought to what this would cost her.  (And in this case, the help wasn’t asked for and wasn’t entirely appreciated!)  She just jumped in. Nadia is an automatic helper.

Nadia’s pattern of automatically and unconsciously jumping in to help often leads to her feeling drained, exhausted, and resentful that the person she’s helping doesn’t show more appreciation and sometimes even has the nerve to ask for more help. And that’s not all. Frequently there are other costs as well, such as:

  • In order to still meet her other professional deadlines while helping the client with the business crisis, she worked nights and weekends, cancelling plans with her family, which displeased everyone in her family (including herself).
  • To handle the extra work, she stayed up late and got up early, making her an unhappy camper.
  • This pattern sometimes leads to her getting sick.
  • She skips going to the gym (no time!), resorts to eating fast food (who has time to shop or cook?), gains weight and loses energy.
  • The overload experience stresses her and puts her into crisis mode.
  • In crisis mode she’s much less present when she is with her young son.
  • Even pulling out all the stops, she sometimes just can’t do it all, which gets her into hot water with other clients, undermines her self-confidence, and makes her downright miserable.

In short, helping other people at her own expense wreaks havoc in her life.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? Do you have some automatic helping tendencies? Many effective people do — it’s been part of their success formula, to date. But left unconscious and unchecked, it can create real problems for the helper, including a constant sense of having a ball and chain around one’s leg.

The truth is it’s up to Nadia and each of us to monitor our own boundaries around helping: whether, how often, how much and whom we helps. WE actually hold the power here.  But Nadia didn’t know that yet.

When she started coaching, her pattern was automatic. She would go directly from seeing what was needed into delivering what was needed. This was as automatic and unconscious to her as stopping at a red light. The pattern interrupt she learned to implement was to stop immediately upon seeing what was needed and recognize that she had a choice. And then to evaluate, and make a conscious decision about what she wanted to offer.  Once she started doing this, her sense of overload began to diminish.

Coaching Tips
Nadia learned to ask herself this series of questions at that choice point, and you can too:

  1. What is my current situation?
  2. Do I have the bandwidth (time, energy, resources) to help now?
  3. Do I want to do the action that will help the person?
  4. Is there anyone else who could help this person, and/or is there anyone who could help me?
  5. What will it cost me (in time, money, dropped commitments, lost momentum, abandoned self-care, etc) if I do it, and what is the potential gain?
  6. What will it cost me if I don’t do it (or offer to do it), and what are the benefits from not offering to do it?
  7. If I do it, where will it take me? (burned out and resentful? pleased and happy? neutral?)

If you share Nadia’s automatic helping reflex, you stand to benefit greatly from learning to stop at the choice point and ask yourself questions like these before deciding, consciously, whether and how to help and on what terms.

And of course, there’s this related issue: when you are asked to do something that’s more than you can take on right now, how do you say no, or how can you negotiate something manageable?  Here’s a previous post with more on this topic.

If any of this strikes a chord for you, you might benefit from some short term coaching to address your own particular patterns of being an automatic helper, how and when to say no, or setting boundaries in general. Contact me if you want to set up an initial consultation. You’ll know by the end of it if you want to work with me or not.