Alliance/Shutterstock
Source: Alliance/Shutterstock

Helping and giving are character strengths, as far as I’m concerned. But sometimes our helpful intentions give way to dysfunctional helping and giving. The solution isn’t to stop helping altogether; it’s to set helping boundaries when telltale signs of unhealthy helping appear.

I call these signs the “Twelve Red Flags of Dysfunctional Helping and Giving":

  1. It’s increasingly obvious that your help and giving fosters dependence, irresponsibility, incompetence, or poor character.

    Sometimes we have to face the fact that our good intentions have gone bad. Continuing to help and give under these conditions is a waste of our resources and isn’t really helpful. Remember healthy helping promotes other people’s growth, independence, and the development of their positive potential. Unhealthy (dysfunctional) helping does the opposite. Use your helping energies and resources to help people and causes that will truly benefit from your help.
     

  2. The other person has violated numerous agreements, required many bailouts, and hasn’t used the help to do as promised.

    At this point, it’s time to stop believing them and giving them chances, at least for now (once you get strong evidence that they are ready to use your help to progress in life, you might try helping them again). When people use your help to escape responsibility over and over again, it’s best to summon the strength to terminate your helping. Continuing to give to people who don’t uphold their end of the deal is a waste of your time and resources. If you continue, you’ll become increasingly angry and resentful.
     

  3. The help or giving helps someone to stagnate, or become stuck in an age-inappropriate earlier stage of development, or prevents them from developing needed life or professional skills.

    You can be too helpful and in the process create people that can’t take care of themselves or do their jobs well. Unhealthy helping can doom others to be less than they’re capable of. Healthy helping promotes others’ independence and life progress; it doesn’t retard it.
     

  4. Your helping or giving requires your dishonesty or somehow compromises your integrity.

    For example, making bogus excuses for another or covering for another, are almost never forms of healthy helping and giving. Healthy helping doesn’t typically involve deception, secrets, nor does it require that we violate our moral code.
     

  5. You have the distinct impression you’re being manipulated into helping or giving.

    Sometimes it’s obvious, such as when the other says things to trigger your guilt feelings, and then conveniently offers a giving opportunity that will reduce your guilt. Sometimes it’s only a feeling in your gut warning you that someone and their requests for your assistance are “off.” Manipulation is a sign of someone who is willing to be deceitful and take advantage of others and you should pay attention to your early warning system (your gut). The odds of your giving being short-term and having a positive outcome are probably close to zero.
     

  6. Your help is increasingly unsustainable given your resources.

    Look for that positive helping sweet spot where you can help without sacrificing your own physical or mental health, your self-respect, or your financial wellbeing. Be willing to back out of negative helping arrangements that sap your resources. Decline rescuing and helping opportunities you really can’t afford. Healthy helping means helping within your means.
     

  7. Since helping or giving to someone, the relationship with them has deteriorated due to bad feelings having to do with the helping or giving relationship.

    Healthy helping and giving have long-lasting positive effects on a relationship. Unlike unhealthy helping and giving, it strengthens a relationship and isn’t fraught with relationship imbalance, conflict, hurt, and resentment.
     

  8. Your helpful accommodations make it easier for someone to remain physically unhealthy, put off getting professional help, avoid taking their medication or working their program, etc.

    Admit when someone’s problems or challenges are bigger than you and require professional assistance. Withdraw help and giving that makes it easier for someone to avoid empowering themselves and managing their own condition. Recognize when your help sands down another’s discomfort just enough that they’re unmotivated to seek the professional help they really need. Instead, help by connecting them to relevant resources and appropriate professionals, and supporting their going into treatment, working their treatment program, doing their physical therapy exercises, sticking to their medically prescribed diet, taking their medication, using the strategies they have been taught to manage their condition, etc. However, accept that they might not manage their condition as you think they should and that this is their choice and their life.
     

  9. Your help or giving in a group setting fails to inspire a cooperative group culture where everyone helps one another; instead, it leads others to slack and leaves you feeling taken advantage of.

    When you see this, pleasantly announce that you are pulling back and making room for others to step up, assist with skill development (show them how to do things they may not have learned due to your helpfulness), and then get out of the way.
     

  10. You find that what you intended as a one-time, modest offer of help or giving has morphed into an unintended long-term obligation that you resent or find burdensome.

    This is a sign of helping and giving entrapment. Remind yourself that your past helping does not serve as a commitment to help forever. You didn’t commit to this. Had you known it was going to go this way, you would not have agreed, so you are not violating your commitment or being a bad person if you back out.
     

  11. You’re in a self-sacrificing relationship that reeks of “codependence.

    It’s one-sided and closeness is based on one person being a giver and the other an under-functioning taker. Much of the love and intimacy in the relationship is experienced in the context of the one person’s distress or poor functioning and the other’s rescuing or enabling. Or the relationship is mostly about one person’s excessive giving and the other person’s excessive taking.
     

  12. You’re willing to overlook the ill effects of your helping and giving because it makes you feel or look like a “good” person.

    You should pull back from “helping” that isn’t truly helpful to the recipient and is more about you proving to yourself or others what a good person or family member you are, how selfless you are, or how nice you are. 

Shawn Meghan Burn
Source: Shawn Meghan Burn

Based on ideas from my book, Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Overcoming Codependence, Enabling, and Other Dysfunctional Giving, available in paperback from Amazon and for Kindle, ibook, Nook, and Kobu e-readers.

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