Caring for others: Why do we do it?

When a friend is going through a hard time, we often think about how we can lend a hand and provide emotional support. But are we always aware of the reasons why we want to help? Is it because we feel obliged? Or perhaps because we just want to help – to be there for someone who has been around for us when we needed?

We’d like to say, “It doesn’t matter what unresolved issues are hiding in your mind. As long as you mean well, you’ll be a smash hit!” We’d like to say that, but unfortunately it isn’t always true. “Where you’re coming from” makes all the difference in where you get to when lending emotional and psychological support to someone. This isn’t merely a theory. It is a universal observation about human behaviour. As human beings, we all have needs, and how we come into relationship with others to get those needs met determines much about the quality of the experience both they and we ultimately have.

In this 2-part article series (click here to read Part 2), we’ll look at some typical motivations for providing emotional and psychological (or social) support to others, and identify common traps the “unwary helper” may fall into during the process – including narcissism, transference and countertransference, enmeshment, rescuing, co-dependency and burnout. In this article we explore each need or motivation that a support person may have for helping, and alert you to the possible “hidden” motivation (often, hidden from even the helper) that may lie within the more obvious need.

You need to care for other people

You may be a natural counsellor-type. You may have the experience that, since your pre-teen years, people have come to you to unburden themselves of life’s problems. They may find in you a compassionate heart, a fabulous listener, and a genuinely non-judgmental friend.

Congratulations! Those are wonderful qualities you bring to the helping situation. What is also possible is that, from well before your pre-teen years, your family was teaching you how to be a helper, because the family dynamic required someone (and you were somehow “elected”) to stabilise the family system. And therein lies the problem of needing to care for other people. There is nothing wrong with being a natural carer. It is a special and valuable calling, but beware of rescuing (read part 2 of this series for more detailed information).

If caring for other people is not just something you like to do, but a compulsion, a “have-to-do”, ask yourself: are there people in your life whom you can turn to when you need help? Or is it all just one-way caring? If you just like to help out, but are well-connected with people who can reflect your helping attitude back to you, providing emotional support when you need it, then you don’t need to read the rest of this paragraph. We are not talking about you. But if your worth is dependent on you being able to help another, and you find you generally don’t get cared for much in return, you might want to read next edition’s section talk about balancing care for others with self-care.

You need to move on from old hurts

Some helpees naively believe that their helper will have perfect mental health, with all emotional wounds completely healed. That would be great. All too often, however, people are drawn to the fields of mental health helping not in spite of their own hurt places, but because of them. Like Chiron, the wounded healer, they are fascinated by how someone goes from “hurt” to “healed”, and they want it, badly. Such people may have genuine natural healer tendencies, but their unconscious motivation stems more from the desire to understand and heal their own pain, so they should beware of trying to heal through the helpees.

Sometimes a troubled individual may be studying to become a helper (e.g. counsellor), but will be less effective because of not realising social support work with others triggers more of their own deep pain: pain which they are unprepared to examine. If you suspect you are in this boat, take note of next edition’s sections relating to the personal development aspects of self-care.

You need to be needed

Most helpers probably have to own some of this motivation. For many helping professionals, the material returns are not great. But we continue to offer helping services, partly because of strong altruistic urges, and also because the feeling of being appreciated/needed/valued is such a top-level reward. Imagine. You are sitting there with Sarah, a newly disabled young woman to whom you have been giving emotional and career support, and she looks up at you with immense gratitude in her eyes and says, “You have helped me so much. I don’t know where I’d be without you!” There are few who wouldn’t find that to be a heart-melting moment. There is nothing wrong with being appreciated, but as helpers we must all beware of creating dependency in the helpee.

Helpees can, without realising it, become too dependent on the helper. It is one thing to give a hungry person a fish (and much of social support may be about that), but if we get too ambitious about continuing to secure fish, we end up only helping the helpee to forget how to fish for themselves. Sarah at some stage needs to work out for herself how to plan her next career moves, and comfort herself when things don’t go to plan. Apart from that, needing those continual “pats on the back” from others (including helpees) is not a rewarding way to live!

You like to make a difference

You may have seen helpers with this need. If this motivation applies to you, you gain much satisfaction from seeing that you are having a positive influence on people’s lives. Knowing that you are making an impact keeps you going. Having this need can serve you in mounting the necessary energy to begin and maintain a helping campaign, but do beware of disillusionment.

If the intended recipients of your care don’t respond or improve in the way that you hope, your disappointment may cause you to become impatient, or even question your purpose in helping. If this relates at all to you, don’t be discouraged. But do pay attention to next edition’s comments on how to create meaning in your life.

You need variety and want flexibility

The real world contains many cultures, issues, types of people calling out for help, and helping circumstances in which to work. If you genuinely desire to help, the possibilities for loaning your energy and skills are limitless. So, too, is the variety of ways in which you can gain meaning from your work. As a volunteer, for example, you can sometimes choose your hours – and also your disasters! Social intimate helpers may feel channelled into a particular type of helping routine, but even in this case, you can sometimes choose the services you give, and the ones you give away to others to do. You may still be able to choose how you organise your helping schedule. And you can always choose what this very personal work means to you: what purpose it meets in your helpee’s life, and in yours.

Otherwise, if you get stuck in an inflexible, unvarying routine, you may be vulnerable to meaningless, automatic helping. The risk with this is not managing boredom and lack of stimulation so that you go out of real relationship with your helpee and become a resentful helper, who would also be out of relationship with yourself. If you relate to this at all, don’t worry; there is a fix. Please see the section on burnout (next edition).

The need to give back

Maybe you acknowledge how much help others have given you in the past. Perhaps you have been positively influenced by a mentor, teacher, therapist, favourite aunt or uncle, or some other helper in your life. Now it is your turn to help; you want to do your share to make your community a better place. “Surely there is no problem associated with this very pure motivation?” you ask. And that is almost true. The desire to inspire and assist others just as one has been inspired and assisted, is a high-minded, generous aspiration. There is no intent here to make it wrong, but you might like to take note of idealising transference.

We’ll be exploring what transference is about in the next part of this series, but suffice to say, if you feel compelled to respond exactly as your role model Coach Jackman would have done, you may be serving your helpee adequately. After all, Coach Jackman had winning ways with his athletes. But remember: they were his ways; they are not yours. While imitation may be the highest form of flattery, it also can be limiting. By idealising and then imitating someone else in order to give back as they did, you are missing the opportunity to be in unique relationship with this person right in front of you: you being you, and the helpee being themselves.

Putting even a “great” person on a pedestal may keep you from developing your own individual brand of helping. And your helpee could miss out on unique contributions that you might have been able to offer, if you had been able to be yourself.

Reflecting: Needs and motivations

Reflect on the needs and motivations discussed above. Which of these needs or motivations seem to be prominent for you? How do you know? Choose one of the needs to work with, and identify:

  • How does this unmet need of yours show up in your helping efforts?
  • How does it serve your helpee? How does it serve you?
  • What aspects of this motivation to help might be limiting: to your helpee? To you?
  • Do you have any sense of how or where this need might have originated in your life?
  • What steps, however small, might you take today to begin meeting this need for yourself, rather than attempting to have it met through your helping relationship?

Challenge yourself to go through this process with another identified motivation. Hint: If you cannot identify any needs or motivations at all, your task is to spend some time musing on why it may be difficult for you to connect with your needs.

In Part 2 of this series we’ll identify common traps the “unwary helper” may fall into during the process of proving emotional and psychological support. The concepts we’ll be working with are narcissism, transference and countertransference, enmeshment, rescuing, co-dependency, and burnout.

This article series was adapted from AIPC’s “Mental Health Social Support” e-course. For more information, visit www.mhss.net.au.