The “Illusion of Help” Is Not Actually Helping You

It is very likely you will stay stuck where you are.

Posted May 23, 2020

 Miriam Doerr/Dreamstime
Source: Miriam Doerr/Dreamstime

I am often called in to situations with family members, or teams that don’t get along, or couples trying to negotiate solutions. The place to start is to focus on the success outcome—what will it look like when success is reached? What does each person want to accomplish, and how will they measure success? When this is ill-defined, it gets very hard to move people past the hurt and upset, and into a better, more productive place. Many times a person responds that they don’t know what they really want, they just know what they don’t want—and then they might go on to get angry, or irritated, or focused on some past mistake or injury, and stay stuck in that place.

On many occasions, I become frustrated by the inability to move past the stuck places, and on to the process of simply visioning the positive outcomes. This is an indicator for me that someone wants the illusion of help, but they don’t really want to move past their stuck place. They would prefer to stay upset and negative, rather than move toward a more positive future state.

What is the “illusion of help”? It’s when you reach out or agree to participate in a process with someone else, or on your own, to fix something or negotiate or build bridges, but you aren’t really ready or able or willing to help yourself or the other person identify what the successful outcome could be. A successful outcome often has two pieces: quantitative and qualitative. Quantitatives are measurable outcomes. If you are now fighting several times a day, maybe a quantitative success outcome is that in two weeks after you engage with an outside professional to learn coping concepts, you find yourselves fighting twice a week instead. You can actually track the progress and know that progress has been made. A qualitative outcome would be “softer”—if you are a married couple, it might be that the kids will comment there is more peace in the house, or they will not be hesitant to come to the dinner table for fear you will engage in an argument. It is not measurable, so to speak, but it is an outcome you could identify.

The success outcomes are important because if you don’t know where you are going, it is very likely you will stay stuck where you are. If the ticket to fly doesn’t have a destination printed on it, you will go to the airport and wander aimlessly, wondering which flight is the right one for you to board. And if there is another party involved with your quest to improve something—a partner, family members, or a broader team. Without agreed-upon success outcomes, you won’t all be headed in the same direction.

Unfortunately, many people like to engage in the “illusion of help” whereby they claim they want to get somewhere else, they moan about their existing condition, they point the finger at others saying they need to fix themselves before anything can happen, and on and on. The truth is that the person who does this does not have a true desire to make change happen. They can walk away from a failed situation saying they tried—after all, the illusion of help allows them to point to what they’ve done, or said or invested in, and how it “just simply didn’t work.” Many times you could blame the outside party—maybe it is the therapist, or the coach, or a counselor who didn’t allow you to move forward and didn’t want the situation to improve. But ultimately, the illusion of help allows you to stay stuck and convince yourself it really isn’t you, it is someone else or the circumstances that made you this way.

Before you agree to embark on any self-help or change effort, be sure you are willing to clearly identify what you hope to see happen as a result of the process. What does success look like, and how will you know that you have arrived? Human relationships are always changing and always challenging, so you don’t even need to have a firm destination from which you will never move! You just need to have a place to aim for and then a willingness to walk forward and take the necessary steps to do your part. If you want to convince yourself that the problem is “out there,” don’t bother embarking on the effort. The illusion of help doesn’t help anyone, least of all yourself.