When Is It Selfish to Help Others?

April 3, 2012

UmmZ on Flickr

The most significant lesson I ever learned in trust-based relationships is that all anybody asks for is respect. If you give them that, you have extended the greatest sign of love and compassion there is. If you don’t give them respect, you’re not really loving them. You’re simply looking after them, attached to them, or maybe even taking advantage of them in some way.

Perhaps you think this is obvious, but consider how many times we ‘love’ without giving respect: parents taking care of their children with no concern for what the child wants; codependent couples using each other to bolster their own self-esteem; men and women with a need to rescue their partner or be a hero; friends who hang out together because they look better in comparison to each other.

True respect, true compassion, involves the recognition that the other person is a complete, functional, human being. Even if they need help in some things, they are still complete beings.

I’ve learned this living with my girlfriend, A. She has a lot of really amazing artistic talents, and sometimes when she starts a new project, I want to give her advice to help her. I used to voice my opinions and suggestions without thinking. I thought that I was just helping her make her project that much better, and that of course she should be grateful.

I would be hurt when she responded negatively to my suggestions, no matter how gently I made them. I thought she was just stubborn, but I decided to take a closer look at myself first.

What I discovered wasn’t all that shocking, but it was enlightening. I wasn’t trying to help her for her own sake. I was doing it to feel more important. I wanted to be an important part of everything she did, so by offering my suggestions, I was looking for validation that my contribution was valuable.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I stopped.

Lo and behold, her artwork did not suffer, and in fact became even more expressive and unique.

The Selfish Need to Help Other People

Charity in our society is sometimes seen as an obligation. In many schools, children are required to get a certain number of hours doing volunteer work or community service to qualify for graduation. Colleges are always looking for that sort of thing, and it is a great resume item. You’re supposed to help, and those who help are ‘better’ people, according to the standards of university admissions and human resources. So, while we may resent the burden to be of service, we also associate it with our own moral superiority.

We may think, “I am a good person, because I help others.”

When we see someone, we immediately look for some way to help them, even if they don’t really need help. We basically become vampires, using other people to try and bolster our own sense of self-worth.

Of course, we should always be willing to help other people, but there is a right way and a wrong way to help people.

The right way is to only help when necessary. Sometimes we may be asked directly, but not always. We cannot always assume we are the right person to help, and sometimes staying uninvolved is a better way to help someone. Being helpful is a skill. We must develop the ability to understand when someone needs our help; sometimes they need it but won’t ask, and sometimes they don’t need it but will ask.

The wrong way to help is to force it upon others when they don’t need it. This is helping for our own sake, so that we feel important and good.

Another way we may help without actually being helpful is by offering aid in a way that makes the other person reliant on us. This happens a lot with NGOs and international charities. In order to make sure their continued existence is required (and therefore to justify continued grants), they provide aid that does not help communities become self-sufficient. Instead, they may actually force a transformation that makes the community even more dependent on the charity. The organization can tell itself and the world that it is doing good work, while the community receiving aid becomes more and more desperate and reliant.

Individuals can do this too. One of the strongest motivators for getting into a relationship is to have a sense of being needed. It makes us feel important. We then learn the behaviors that make our partner even more dependent on us over time, looking to us for emotional support, decision-making, money, or sex.

If we try to do everything for our partner, it can imply that they can’t or shouldn’t do things for themselves, and this implies a lack of respect of the person’s autonomy. We end up treating the people we love like children, hog-tying them instead of empowering them.

Helping other people out of genuine concern for their needs is a wonderful thing, but I think that when we really look closely, we will find that people need our help far less often than we think.