Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

When “Help” Doesn’t Help, We Need to Notice

The urge to help can drive us to steps that don’t help

Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_anatolymas'>anatolymas / 123RF
 Good intentions sometimes make things worse. A common example is the urge to reward bad behavior. You create more bad behavior when you reward it, but we often do that because we want to "help." We can be more conscious of our impacts instead of just feeding our own urge to help. 

I received a request for help from psychologists in Sri Lanka. They want to spread the word about a conference they are organizing to advance the profession in their country. I wanted to help, but started wondering whether it would help.

The goal is quite worthy. Sri Lanka has extremely high rates of violence against women and children, according to official and non-profit sources. A 2005 law gave women the right to seek a protection order, but it did not criminalize domestic violence. Thus, your husband could legally beat you for requesting protection from authorities who are not in fact equipped to provide it. Psychologists want to help, and it’s a good thing.

But I started thinking about the ways this “help” might hurt. So I decided to announce the conference and then express my reservations. The International Conference on Applied Psychology will be held in Colombo, Sri Lanka on October 22– 24 2014. I wish it great success.

When psychological help doesn’t help
In my opinion, psychology feeds some attitudes that can hurt more than they help. For example:

handbasket-ism
I use this word to describe the habit of presuming everything is going to hell in a handbasket. This mentality is so widespread that we take it for granted, and it prevents us from noticing when things improve.

For example, domestic violence was a taboo topic worldwide until recent generations. If you got beaten at home, you didn’t tell anyone. You certainly would not tell statisticians, pollsters and strangers with clipboards. Statistics on domestic violence were thus an impossibility. When things open up a bit, a few people speak up, which motivates more and more people to acknowledge behaviors that were there all along. Skyrocketing rates get reported as if the problem just happened. People blame it on something recent and ignore the long-standing roots. Advocay groups often expanding the definition of abuse to sustain the alarmist statistics. The hell-in-a-handbasket mentality does not help end domestic violence.

the rescue mentality
The urge to help and be helped is natural. But “getting help” is often discussed as if it is the solution to a problem. It is not. Psychological help can only illuminate solutions that individuals must take for themselves. “Getting help” doesn’t help when people expect helpers to fix things for them. When things don't get fixed, the resuce mentality leads people to blame the inadequacy of the help instead of their own inaction.

Psychologist often join in this mindset. Critiquing the help gets attention that distracts from the steps individuals must take on their own behalf. Someone people are rescued over and over and just expect to be resuced again. You could help them more by withholding your urge to “help,” but you may keep rescuing because it makes you feel good. 

blame shifting
We strive to avoid blame, but our minds naturally look for causes when we see a problem. When we see domestic violence, we avoid blaming the perpetrator. We find ways to blame society instead. This doesn’t really help. It subtly excuses the behavior, and shifts attention from the perpetrator’s choices, where the real solution lies. Blaming society gives you the good feeling of “doing something” without the bad feeling of standing up to violent individuals. It’s natural to want to vent at safe targets, like articulating theoretical platitudes about “the system.” But it doesn’t really help. 

Read more on blame, rescuing, and handbasket-ism in my new book, Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is a Zoo Docent and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. 

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