How to Break an Unhealthy Helping and Giving Cycle

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While it may seem beneficial on the surface, dysfunctional help isn’t good for anyone.

Lending a helping hand is a common pro-social part of being ingrained in a community. Not only does it benefit others—whether it’s running an errand for an elderly neighbor or donating to a local charity—we feel good about ourselves, too. Such behavior reinforces basic psychological needs like our sense of connection and belongingness. While such actions are often beneficial, for some it can lead to dysfunctional helping and giving, resulting in damaged emotional health.

Where healthy helping and giving promotes other people’s growth, independence and positive potential, unhealthy helping and giving does the opposite. Rather than stop helping, examine your thoughts and behaviors before moving forward.

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Here are four ways to help you pull back from dysfunctional giving and helping.

1. Examine your emotions around helping and giving. Those who obsessively help others often experience high levels of distress, alarm and empathy when hearing about other’s predicaments. Ask yourself these key questions: “Can I say with certainty that my emotional reactions to other’s predicaments are always or even mostly right?” “Am I catastrophizing by jumping to the worst possible conclusion about another’s predicament?” “Is this person asking for my help, or do I just feel this way?”


2. Soften your inner critic. Dysfunctional giving and helping sometimes leads to feelings of selfishness if you don’t help since such individuals tend to hold themselves to higher standards. Soften your inner critic by replacing “should,” “must,” and “ought to” with phrases like, “Although it’s generally good to help others, there are times when it’s all OK not to.” Or “Being a helpful person is a part of what makes me a good person, but there are times when being a good person may mean not intervening to solve another’s problems.”


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3. Let go of your desire to control. We don’t have control over other people’s decisions and behaviors. Practicing radical acceptance can help with letting go of situations that are beyond our control, such as other people’s behaviors and responses to their predicaments.


4. Seek help from a mental health professional. Dysfunctional helping and giving can stem from a set of behaviors and beliefs about oneself and others that formed in early childhood. Talking with a professional offers understanding of one’s reasons for developing dysfunctional helping and giving behaviors and increasing your chances of having mutually satisfying and healthy relationships in the future.

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