Dear Dr. Hurd:
I wonder if you could help me explain the difference between being kind and being everyone’s keeper. Is kindness “looking after others?” And, is this way of relating to others contagious, as many people believe?
Kindness refers to non-sacrificial benevolence to others. It doesn’t have to be forced. It comes naturally and logically from the result of being in a generally good mood. You don’t get into that ‘generally good mood’ by going through life acting and feeling as if you’re everyone’s keeper.
People who actually think this way get into all kinds of problems. They butt in where they’re not invited. They do so in the name of ‘doing good.’ When that do-gooding isn’t appreciated, they tend to become bitter, angry or hurt. As a result of being less in a good mood than one would otherwise be, there’s less kindness.
It may seem like a contradiction, but it’s true. Those who are doing what they want in life—within reason, meaning not deceiving or actively/physically harming others—are much more likely to be kind than those who are resentful, hurt and constantly trying to do the impossible.
In a nutshell: If you’re kind to yourself, you’re much more likely to be kind to others. Moods as such cannot spread, but the thinking and ideas giving rise to the moods can.
What is a person who constantly looks to solve other people’s problems really trying to achieve?
One possibility: ‘I’m a good person.’ Most people actually want to be good people. The prevailing definition of ‘good’ is being a do-gooder—running around and helping others out, whether they need that help (or not); whether they want that help (or not); or whether they created their own mess (or not).
Another possibility: Control. Instead of openly admitting that one wants to control others, one looks for others in need—or perhaps convinces them they’re more in need than they really are—’so I can help you.’ The Marie Barone character on the television series ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ was a great example of this. ‘I’m not trying to control your life, dear. I just love you.’ Love is not control. Some people mistakenly think it is, while others simply hijack the deservedly popular concept of ‘love’ in order to make their mark.
Why would someone want to control others? To feel important, visible, or that their lives are in some way meaningful. These are entirely valid and necessary human motivations. But they’re never an excuse for imposing your will on others.
Would such a person create conflict in their personal and professional relationships with this approach?
Yes—unless the object of the control wants to be controlled. There are many human relationships, families or organizations where there’s an unspoken, unwritten rule. It goes like this: ‘I will pretend that you’re helping me even though I know I should be doing this myself.’ Controlling do-gooderism stifles self-confidence, self-respect and self-esteem. Picture a parent of a little kid doing everything for the child, all the way into adulthood. Picture a teacher giving assignments to a student and then saying, ‘I’ll do them for you.’ In more subtle forms, this is what many people do in the name of ‘helping.’
No, I’m not suggesting that help is always wrong. Sometimes helping is welcome, sometimes the helper is perfectly able and willing to do it, and sometimes it gives the person a ‘hand up’ to independence rather than a handout. But, quite frankly, helping is very often about insidious control. Be careful with your helping, and whom you help, and make sure you’re supporting what you value—not what you oppose—when you help someone.
And, would this attitude cause them to miss the real needs of the people in their lives?
This happens when the compulsive helper is wrapped up in the public visibility of helping. “Public” can refer to the household, the world, or anything in between. When the desire to be seen as helping is more important than advancing your own personal values and principles (sometimes by being very helpful to another), then it really becomes a game of manipulation and showmanship. This is how you end up with public ‘humanitarians’ who are lousy parents or spouses. This is how you end up with Hollywood celebrities, for example, who trash their personal lives and treat their spouses or children poorly while demanding relief for poverty in Africa.
Whenever the motivation to do something (helping or anything else) becomes more about perception in the eyes of others rather than actual, factual reality you can be sure ‘ there’s trouble ahead.
How would one go about making someone who acts this way aware of their behaviors and how they affect other people?
Mainly by asserting yourself. If someone is giving you unwarranted help, you’re always free to reject it. You can range in your response from, ‘No thank you. I appreciate your concern, but I can handle this fine, thank you,’ to, ‘Get the hell out of my way.’ Nobody is entitled to control your life. If their motivation of helping is genuine benevolence, then they will not want to force themselves on you.
If someone you care about is helping too much, ask if you can give an honest opinion and if they consent, tell them what you think and why. But remember, you can’t impose unwanted psychological perspective on others, even if it’s true. Often it’s best to leave people to experience the consequences of their errors, and the learning will occur on its own. That’s my whole point in the first place.
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