When “Get Help” Isn’t What Someone Means

Beware of people who misuse the word “help.”

They will say, “You need to get help.” What they really mean, in most cases, is, “I want you to change.” Instead of taking responsibility for telling you what they think you objectively need to change, they simply resort to the vague (and rude),  “You need help.”

The more honest thing to say would be: “I don’t like this quality or behavior about you. I believe you should change it, and this is why. I think you should consider hiring a psychotherapist to help you.”

The error I’m talking about is called the argument from intimidation. I got this term from Ayn Rand, a novelist and philosopher. She used this term in an intellectual context, and I’m applying it here to everyday encounters. To intimidate someone means to apply something other than reason, facts, logic and proof to try and advance your point.

Criminals use violence, or the threat of violence, to intimidate. Many other people use emotional manipulation. There are numerous ways to emotionally manipulate. One is the abusive use of guilt. “That’s OK. I don’t mind suffering. Do what you want to do. I’ll be just fine.” A rational person will shrug and say, “OK. I’m glad you don’t mind suffering.” Of course, most people fall prey to the guilt and say, “No, I’ll do what you want.” This is why emotionally manipulative people keep using guilt: Because it works for them.

Another way to emotionally manipulate is to tell someone they should “get help,” as I indicated. It’s an attempt to slip in a conclusion without offering proof, and to emotionally immobilize another by suggesting they’re insane. Instead of saying, “This behavior of yours is self-destructive, and I can prove why. Are you interested in hearing my explanation?” the manipulator says, in essence, “I don’t like what you’re doing. Instead of explaining why, and attempting to prove it, I’m going to tell you that you need a professional to change you. The professional will know, because of course I’m right and you’re wrong.” This explains the phenomenon of the reluctant client going to the professional psychotherapist and saying, in essence, “I don’t think anything is wrong with me. But so-and-so does. So that’s why I’m here.”

The arrogance of the manipulator is noteworthy. The person who tells you to “get help” is so confident in being right, and so confident that the professional will see the truth of his or her unarticulated conclusion, that no conflict will arise. To the manipulator, the professional is wise and competent if he makes the same diagnosis and assessment that the layperson did. If the professional concurs, then this is the reaction: “I’m not the professional. But the professional is wise and, of course, right. You should listen to him.” However, if the professional doesn’t see it the same way, then, to the manipulator, the professional is unwise and incompetent. “He’s a quack. Don’t listen to him.” This begs the question: If a professional is competent only if you agree with him, then why do you need professional input at all?

The core issue here is objectivity. The person who manipulates is attempting to bypass objectivity. Note that dictators, in places like Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, utilized the psychiatric profession to do their bidding. They intimidated state-hired psychiatrists to intimidate politically incorrect people by accusing them of “mental illness” if they didn’t agree. Now, there’s nothing wrong with claiming there’s such a thing as objectively right and wrong, rational or irrational, because this is in fact the case. But that’s not what the dictator is seeking. The dictator is seeking control, not accuracy; and his method (along with his psychiatrist’s method, in that case) is intimidation, not objectivity.

It’s no different with a family member, friend or loved one who tells another to “get help.” If someone tells you to “get help,” then don’t get hostile or defensive. Psychological help can be a valuable thing for potentially anyone. An objective perspective from someone you trust who talks with people about their problems all the time is a potentially very valuable thing. There’s no need for defensiveness when someone says, “Get help.” Instead, calmly reply, “It sounds like you have a disagreement with something I’m thinking or doing. Could you please explain to me what you think I’m doing wrong, what course of action would be better, and why? I’m all ears.”

The reasonable person will eagerly reply to this question with extensive and objective answers. You might agree or disagree with the answers, but you’ll comprehend them either way. The manipulative person will sneer, become angry or simply back away. At that point, you will realize that “help” wasn’t their goal for you. Control was.