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When Help Hurts

A Personal Perspective: Unsolicited help can harm.

Key points

  • Helpers can hurt when they intend to help.
  • The way to discern help from harm is listening for requests.
  • People healing from PTSD may help, like clean and cook, to distract themselves from intimate interactions.
  • No one wants heavy-handed help, so wait for people to ask for assistance.
Wasabi Publicity/Adobe, used with permission
Wasabi Publicity/Adobe, used with permission

In a personal development course, I mustered courage and stood up to announce I was embarking on a body-building mission and that I would come to the last session, which was on Halloween, as Wonder Woman. There was laughter and cheering, underscoring the idea. I showed up in a Wonder Woman bathing suit, having met my health goals. The bold pursuit netted an array of curious responses from people in my life—and it has me considering whether helpers in groups harm and hurt instead of heal and help.

That self-challenge wasn't the only pivotal point in what I have come to see as a healing journey. I've met really interesting people who are helping people with PTSD, such as me, as a result.

You, too, will meet interesting people when you step into something new. But it's been challenging for me to discern the helpers from those who harm. So let me clue you in to you the one question I always ask now. I ask it of myself and when others try to help me.

As an eight-year-old, I developed a mental injury when the neighborhood pedophile molested me at gunpoint. Mental injury is distinct from mental illness. My brain was injured, or scarred, by an overwhelming experience for my nervous system, leaving me to freeze to survive. My body literally shut itself down to endure years of abuse. As a survival tool, my body learned how to disassociate pain and overwhelming emotions.

As I grew up, these scars affected my development and health. Think of it like a scar to the shin. Your leg still works. You just have some skin build-up so that your leg can work in spite of the injury.

One way I healed the injury was to learn to move body and mind. Meeting new people, writing about those experiences, and moving my body to experience emotions when they're transpiring are all parts of my healing process.

When Helping Harms

Wasabi Publicity/Adobe, used with permission
Source: Wasabi Publicity/Adobe, used with permission

At the same time, I was always helping others. I was always the one in the kitchen cleaning and cooking. My friends liked that—I did it even if it wasn't my kitchen. I didn't realize this was unsolicited help, and it was a way to avoid having real and intimate conversations with people in the house. When I told my friends that I would no longer help without first hearing a request, they were confused.

Here's how I now tell whether helping is a distraction to intimacy or a real effort in assisting another human being.

I ask myself, "Is this person requesting help?" Or if someone is trying to help me, I ask, "Am I requesting help from this person?"

If not, I move on. It's really that simple. However, you'd be surprised how many people are driven to help without being asked. For example, after I stood up and declared I was going to do bodybuilding and present myself as Wonder Woman, four people called me out of the blue, offering unsolicited diet and exercise advice. It got to be so much that I called the group seminar leader and informed her that in the next session, it would be best to let people know I had a personal trainer, doctor, and program that I was following and that I didn't need any help with that goal.

Following that announcement, I then got tons of calls apologizing for the unwanted help. It was ridiculous and made a lasting impression on me. The behavior that irked me was something I was doing myself, albeit in other areas of my life, like kitchen cleaning and cooking.

Waiting for Requests

Now, years later, I wait for requests. I don't clean or cook without a request from family and friends. I shut my mouth when I catch myself dishing out advice someone hasn't asked for. Instead, now I write it down and often transform the information into a blog post. If you're reading this, you've made a request to learn more about how helping can harm and how we all need to wait for others to speak up and step up for the journey they are creating for themselves. Heavy-handed advice and help no one wants or needs, especially if we're healing trauma.

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