The Catch-22 of Offering Help

I see you.  You matter.  You are not alone.

I was elated that dropping my daughter off at her first day of Pre-K went smoothly. She’d been “acting out” so much for the past few weeks. I guess I was distracted by my relief.

I went to a Starbucks to write, and when the woman in front of my held up her phone to the cashier and asked, “How do I get the bar code to show up?” I blurted out, “You can just shake it.” She didn’t look at me, but she said, “I don’t LIKE to shake it. That’s why I’m asking!” I stood in stunned silence then mumbled, “sorry.” She said, “it’s okay,” but still didn’t look at me.

Twenty minutes later I still feel stunned, but most of all I feel ashamed. I imagine other people can brush off these things, but immediately I feel my self-hatred flare up and start shouting in my head, “Who the hell do you think you are, you obtrusive fuck? No one asked you! No one gives a damn what you think!”

The thing is, it seems like most people want it both ways. I see on Facebook all the time people complaining they don’t get enough support and simultaneously how dare people stick their noses in their business!

I do worry about butting in where I’m not wanted, but I’m more afraid of being apathetic. I, not surprisingly, have serious baggage about feeling abandoned by my parents and also guilty for not being able to stop my father from engaging in illegal activities or to cure his depression and anxiety, which ultimately resulted in his suicide. The next time you’re irritated when someone offers to help, consider that they might share my “rescuing complex” or “compulsive need to help.” It doesn’t excuse it, but it might shed some light.

Blurting out an answer to a question directed to someone else, I can see I came off as meddling, and maybe the woman thought I was judging her for not knowing how to get the bar code to come up. Maybe she was already having a crappy morning, and I just made it a little worse.

I’m tempted to stop offering to help altogether. It would save me the pain of these confrontations. If people needed help, they’d just ask for it, right? Who DO I think I am anyway?

I am a mother, a friend, and a neighbor. I couldn’t survive without all of the people in my life who help me get through parenthood, and honestly, who help me just make it to the end of the day. Isn’t it still a good idea to “pay it forward” once in awhile?

I realize that a lot of it has to do with timing and approach. Things go better when I pause to assess whether this is an appropriate situation to offer help. I’m a Sagittarius though, so thinking before speaking is not my strong suit.

When I see someone juggling a bunch of stuff and usually a couple of kids, I ask, “Can I give you a hand?” or “Would you like some help?” Sometimes they say, “yes, please!” with gratitude mixed with relief. Sometimes they say, “That’s okay, I got it.” Either way, I’m grateful to be in community with that person for just a brief moment.

I have this Margaret Mead quote on my About page, and I really do believe it: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

So even if I get a metaphorical door slammed in my face once in a while, I’m still going to offer a helping hand now and then, even if it’s just looking a person in the eyes, smiling, and expressing, “I see you. You matter. You are not alone.”

How do you balance offering help without butting in?

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7 thoughts on “The Catch-22 of Offering Help

  1. Frankie Laursen August 4, 2014 at 11:14 am Reply

    Incidentally, still sitting at the Starbucks, I saw a woman pulling two roller bags yell at a man for offering to hold the door open for her. She forced him to go in ahead of her, and scowled as the next guy coming in held the door open. Some people like to be helped, some don’t. Fair enough.

  2. ks August 4, 2014 at 11:20 am Reply

    I feel bad to when a stranger acts like that towards me. It really does make me question, “what did I do?”. But really nothing. There is something in our culture that is overboard on stranger weariness. Walking in the door to my corporate office I thought I knew the woman in front of me and said “oh good morning!” as if I knew her. The look on her face when she turned around to find that it was a stranger cheerily greeting her, you’d think I were man following her through a dark alley!

    Also, that woman was ANGRY about something else in her life already – doesn’t like to shake her phone?

    • Frankie Laursen August 4, 2014 at 11:37 am Reply

      That’s a good point. I was thinking we have such a culture of “you should be able to do it by yourself!” but there’s also, “what does this stranger want from me?” There are ads everywhere demanding our money, time, and attention.

      Maybe the woman is worried that her phone will break if she shakes it too often. The contacts on my SIM card are unreliable. Or maybe she’s dropped it a few times.

  3. mary brown August 4, 2014 at 11:23 am Reply

    Actuallt I was that lady a few months back. I has a squeak in my fanbelt on my car which was quite noticable when I first started my car. I had tried several remedies but did not have the time to fix it correctly. I was actually quite embarrased and annoyed at myself for not fixing it quickly. Long story short, a well intentioned man at Starbucks tried several mornings in a row to flag me down to tell me about the squeek…I tried to ignore him because I was already quite annoyed by the squeek. One morning he waited by my car, I’m sure with good intentions to inform me. I was so irritated I shot back”I know, I know, I have a squeek…I will get it fixed!”. He was stunned and walked away. I still feel bad, he was just trying to help, but I was sooo annoyed by my current situation I could not see through my own stubborn self.

    • Frankie Laursen August 4, 2014 at 11:42 am Reply

      Thanks for sharing this. It’s a good reminder that sometimes pointing out things can make someone feel embarrassed, if they don’t already.

      I sometimes feel like we should put up signs to answer the obvious questions before they can be asked.

  4. usingourwords August 4, 2014 at 12:41 pm Reply

    Oh, I have the same problem. People’s words etch so deeply on my heart. The mean ones dig a bit deeper than the kind ones, I hate to admit. I just try, try, try to remember the people who thanked me for my kindness and smile rather than the ones who tried to rob me of it. You’re a good, kind person and the world is better because you’re in it. Even if some people are too grumpy to see that.

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