On the other hand, after years of struggle (and, yes, our own therapy) we finally came up with our own rules of thumb for when to back away from helping someone who seems headed for a “bad end.”
Rule 1: Each competent adult is responsible for taking care of their own needs.
Rule 2: Only help those who help themselves. And help them in proportion to how much they help themselves.
Rule 1 is a rule about how the world works. We talk elsewhere on this site (“Learned Helplessness”) about why it is important that a person take responsibility for themselves. It is simply not possible to save someone who is not willing to accept responsibility for themselves.
If you ever find yourself in a situation where someone you love refuses all responsibility for how their life is turning out, you must focus first on addressing that issue… because nothing that you do to help them will ultimately be enough until they do take back that responsibility.
Rule 2 says that you can help someone, but you cannot do things for them.
When we were first trying to figure out how to raise kids (when our own kids were young) we sought out a wise woman to help us. She had one rule that we have struggled to follow ever since. It works for kids but it is especially true in dealing with adults:“Don’t do anything for someone that they can do for themselves.”
You may need to step back from the moment to make that judgement. At times, in the midst of an intense conversation, we have been convinced that someone who was struggling with depression couldn’t get out of bed. This is really not likely if you think about it calmly.
Also, you should not do more for someone than they are doing for themselves (we are talking about effort, not results). If you are struggling to help someone and they seem calm and relaxed you need to let up.
Another clue that you should reduce your effort is when the other person says that they are completely incompetent to do anything for themselves, but insists that they are competent to control everything around them.
For example, a young woman says she can’t do anything for herself, but she also has detailed conditions for what type of help she will accept – when, how, from whom…
We hope that this post got you thinking, or annoyed you, or you have something to add it. If so follow the link and post a comment… We are hoping that this site becomes more interactive over time.