Helping is a noble cause and can be a vital part of your recovery journey. However, when helping others interferes with sobriety or your own personal goals, it can become a real burden. How can you be helpful when you are just trying to stay afloat? Here are five tips to helping others without hurting yourself.
1. Know Who Needs Help and Who Wants Help
Years ago, a local television news crew in North Carolina did a story on a man who begged for money outside the shopping mall. They followed him from his typical begging spot to his car, where he changed out of his rags and into nicer clothes. Then they followed him to an apartment, where they stopped and asked him what he was doing.
It turned out that the apartment was his. He willingly told them about his “career as a beggar.” He explained that he made about $500 a week, “working” about 40 hours each week like everybody else. He succeeded because, when he dressed the part and acted like a beggar, people gave him money. After all, they believed that he needed their help.
The lesson learned here is that the first step in helping others when you don't have much to give determines who really needs your help--and who doesn't.
Many who ask for help are truly in need. Some are in need because they consistently make the same mistakes and never learn their lesson. Some are not in need but rather in "want." When someone comes to you for assistance, the first question you need to ask is not, “What can I do to help?” but rather, “Does this person really need my help?”
When you focus on those who truly need help, you can better manage your limited resources. There is a greater sense of accomplishment or satisfaction that follows helping someone who needs and appreciates the help.
Conversely, when you try to help everyone, even those who don't truly need your help, it tires you out and can make the recipient dependent.
2. Give What You Have, Not What You Can Get
Have you ever watched a TV court show? Many programs like Judge Judy have plaintiffs who routinely complain about helping someone with a loan and never getting reimbursed.
What is amazing is how many of the plaintiffs take out a loan themselves to help someone else. They often report taking out payday loans, title loans, or credit card cash advances at extraordinary interest rates to loan money to another person. These plaintiffs are stressed and overwhelmed because they gave what they did not have.
When someone asks for help, offer only what you can afford to give. For example, if someone is unemployed and needs money to pay the bills, do not extend assistance if you are also unemployed and out of cash yourself. Instead, offer what you do have--time. Suggest free babysitting so your friend can job hunt. Or show her or him how to use the internet to find employment. That way, you can feel good about helping out without feeling stressed.
3. Delegate, Delegate, Delegate
The pies you made for last year's school bake sale were awesome. Now it's a year later, and everyone is bugging you to make another batch. You want to help the school, but this year you do not have the time or the funds to do so. When this happens, it's time to delegate.
Call your neighbor who makes the blueberry crumble or your aunt who makes the best apple pies and recruit some help. Often we struggle to say “no” to a good cause--even when we're strapped--because we feel it is worthy of our time and attention. However, this can leave us overwhelmed and unable to take care of other responsibilities. Sometimes it's as simple as asking someone else to do it. You are not ignoring the request but allowing someone who can handle the task to help. Besides, there's always next year's bake sale.
4. Focus on the Need, Not the Request
Your sister has relapsed, and it has been months since you've talked to her. She calls, sounding desperate, and asks you for money so her children can have food and diapers. You are concerned that she will waste any money you give her on alcohol.
While your sister is requesting your presence and money, the need here is really food and diapers. With that established, you can order the materials online and have them delivered to her house.
Many times those asking for help are struggling and hurting so deeply that they cannot accurately express what they need. In our example, the sister needs help to provide for her children, but she is also in need of substance use treatment.
Additionally, she needs either vocational assistance to get a job that provides for her family or financial education so she can better budget her finances. By focusing on the need rather than the request, we can be more helpful with less effort.
5. Be a Great Cheerleader
When someone comes to you for help even though you are already drained, it says something about the person's support network. If a strong, healthy support network surrounds us, we will ask only those who have resources for assistance. If we are asking someone without resources for assistance, the support network is weak. As a cheerleader, you can help build up the support network by getting others excited about the cause.
Consider the following example. Amy has gotten way behind on her reports at work and confides in Cathy that she needs help. Cathy knows how to do the reports but does not have the time to assist. She also cannot delegate the responsibility to others as she is not a supervisor. What she can do, with Amy's permission, is mention the pile of work on Amy's desk to the rest of the team and how Amy has helped out others in the past. By doing this, Cathy is developing Amy's support network.
Helping others when one is tired, stressed, or just plain overwhelmed is not easy. It is possible to help, though, if we are mindful of approaching the situation and taking the needed steps so we do not take on more than we can handle.