Of all the behaviours compulsive or addicted to helping can be the most difficult to understand. This is further hindered by the confusing terminology used to describe it.
Just as addiction means as many different things to as many people so do terms like co-dependency. We have tried to help clarify the situation by using different terms for different behaviours.
Where people are addicted to someone they have a relationship with we call it relationship addiction, where people are addicted to helping others with their problems we call it compulsive helping.
Giving these behaviours titles that are more clearly descriptive helps identify the specific behaviour involved and also more clearly identifies that the responsibility lies with the relationship addict or the compulsive helper and has nothing to do with the other party in just the same way that addiction is the responsibility of the addict and has nothing to do with the availability of drugs.
Having said all of that the concepts of compulsive helping can be particularly difficult to get one’s head around and so we created this document to help people look at the issues around compulsive helping.
Compulsive helping: Who, Me?
- How can helping be harmful?
Not all helping is harmful. In the right place, at the right time, helping is lovely. Where helping becomes harmful it steps over the dividing line between caring (which is healthy) and caretaking (which is unhealthy).
- What is the difference between helpful helping and compulsive helping?
As above, 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.
- How will I know when I am compulsively helping?
By being aware of my own self, my own feelings, wishes, needs, I will know as and when I take that focus off myself and onto someone else.
- But I don’t have an addict in my life.
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.
I would regard as unhealthy someone who allows someone else to compulsively help.
- I only help people who need it.
The plain fact is that no one, but no one needs someone to compulsively help him or her. 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?
The short answer is, maybe another compulsive helper will show up on the scene, or maybe the person you are trying to help will take responsibility for him or herself, which would be the best option. Either way, as far as you are concerned, keep out of it and look after yourself if you can’t keep on the caring side of the compulsive helping boundary.
- What is the difference between caring and caretaking?
Caring is lovely and healthy. I would never wish to change that characteristic in anyone. 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.
- Helping is loving, isn’t it?
Helping is loving. Compulsive helping is destructive of both self and the other person. It is destructive of my own life and destructive of the person whom I am trying to compulsively help. That is not what I would call a loving action.
- Isn’t it good to put others first?
Sometimes it is. If the whole family comes back from a wet, cold walk, I would agree that getting the children out of wet clothes, perhaps into a hot bath, putting the kettle on for tea and so on is what I personally would consider to be part of my role as a caring mother. However, if I always put my needs last, if I never put my point of view in a family discussion but go with the flow of what everyone else wants, then that is destructive of my own life, and a bad example to my family.
- How do I stop saying yes?
For a compulsive helper, this is one of the most difficult things to do. I like to say yes because if I say yes, then the other people in my life will like me. I find it difficult to say no and know that the other person will be cross with me. I would rather put up with the consequences for me of saying yes and make sure that everyone else is happy, even if I am not happy inside with the way things are going. It gets more and more difficult to start to say no, because those I am in family and working relationships with will expect over the years that I will always be there for them, to say yes to almost everything they want.
- But wait, what about what I want? What happens to me? This is the equivalent of emotional suicide.
So I have to learn to start to say no, to be prepared to weather the inevitable storms which will arise in the short-term, and know that the relationship will gradually move to a healthier balance between the wants and needs of us all.
- How can I stand by and watch?
Watch what? Presumably this is quoting the worst-case scenario of watching someone who is an addict destroy themselves because the compulsive helper in his or her life has stopped his or her compulsion to help and is standing back, leaving the addict to take the full consequences of his or her actions.
We don’t have to stand by and watch. We can go to meetings, meet friends, talk about any subject on earth except that of addiction, go to the cinema, an art gallery and generally take responsibilities for ourselves to lead a full and healthy life in spite of unsolved problems.
When I am concerned about someone whom I cannot help, I turn to my own recovery programme. I remind myself that I am powerless over my own compulsive helping and over the lives of others around me, and I turn my life and my will over to the care of my Higher Power. As I do that, I also ask my Higher Power to watch over the person I love and for whom I am concerned. I detach and ask God to look after him or her. I love AND I live my own life. Just because I detach does not mean that I am uncaring. On the contrary, it is one of the most caring things I can do for another person, to leave them with the responsibility for their own on-going life and to get on with my own life.
- 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’m their friend, why shouldn’t I help?
As a friend, I can show love, concern, say how I feel myself about people, places and things – but compulsive helping is a no-no as far as a healthy relationship is concerned.