When Help is a Hindrance: Rules for Giving and Receiving Help

“What’s your name again?” my friend’s daughter, Marley, asks me for about the dozenth time that day.  She is five years old.

“It’s Megan,” I reply, studying her face for a clue about this strange, seeming amnesia.  “Don’t your remember?”

“Oh, I forgot.”  We fall back into the game we’re playing.  Marley’s current obsession: play working out.  We prance around the living room floor, wielding mini Pilates weights and making exaggerated huffing sounds, which for me are real but for her are only pretend.

She is sharp as a tack, but I’m starting to wonder if she suffers a memory encoding defect of some kind.  So I finally ask her dad about it.

He laughs.  “She knows your name,” he assures me.  “She just asks you that as a way of starting conversation.  She is still unsure how to begin conversation with adults, so she asks your name.”  Of course!  What a funny, clever little idiosyncrasy.

The more I think about it, the more I know we are not so different as adults.  We, too, ask questions we do not mean. We dance around the real issues.  We avoid and deflect and procrastinate.  And often, we do it under the code word help.

Helping is a safe, virtuous, and meritorious concept.  It is a way of being close to someone.  It counteracts feelings of fear and stuckness, of guilt and worry.  And like anything that packs such positive potential, helping can go woefully wrong.

It can be abused, misused, distorted.  Sometimes helping, both the giving and receiving of it, can actually be a strategy for avoiding taking action in our own lives.

Think back on your recent experiences of offering or receiving help.  Have you been guilty of offering help at a time when you needed to be focused on the execution of your own vision?  Did you call a friend with a lame question, one which could be rapidly answered on the internet, and derail both of you with a lengthy phone call?

I’m going to wager that every one of us has been guilty of this ploy, probably even within the last six months.  Steven Pressfield calls these faux helping strategies resistance, and he doesn’t mince words about the impact of such behavior on our own higher purpose, our work:

Any support we get from persons of flesh and blood is like Monopoly money; it’s not legal tender in that sphere where we have to do our work.  In fact, the more energy we spend stoking up on support from colleagues and loved ones, the weaker we become and the less capable of handling our business…The awakening artist must be ruthless, not only with herself but with others.  The best and only thing that one artist can do for another is to serve as an example and an inspiration.

I wouldn’t go so far as to dismiss all acts of giving and receiving help as resistance, but I think an honest introspection from time to time is a must.

Having some rules and boundaries for yourself in the department of help, might enable you to cut to the core of the issue, streamline your pursuit of help, and reign you in from using the needs of others as an excuse for dodging your own challenges.

Rules for Giving and Receiving Help

1. Clarify the nature of the problem

It’s important to find out right up front what kind of help is needed.  Often times when in crisis, people tend to speak in vague or generalized terms about what is wrong or what they need.  Anxiety can make things feel larger than life.  As frustration builds, logical streams of thought unravel.

Sometimes when facing an obstacle in my work I find it useful to begin with the following questions:

  • Do I know what I want to accomplish/change?
  • Do I know which tools/resources/websites/individuals I will employ to assist me in bringing change?
  • Do I know how to use the tools/contact the individual I plan to employ?

It is my experience that most obstacles hinge on one or more of the above.  In most cases I know the answer to at least one of the questions.  Just affirming that one piece of knowledge is sometimes enough to help me structure a rational, actionable plan for answering the remaining question(s).

2. Own the problem

Several years ago I was upset, emotionally spiraling, and fairly vomiting my troubles onto a friend.  Being a wise woman, she listened patiently and then very calmly replied, “What can I do for you?”  It’s a clever question, because it brings trouble to an internal locus, while remaining present and compassionate.

Of course, when I considered what my friend had said I realized I had to act.  Not her, but me.  It was going to be hard, but I knew what needed to be done.  I had probably needed a sounding board, and she had been that to me.  The question she asked made me accountable to myself.

“You’ve done all you can,”  I replied honestly and a little taken aback by the realization.  “I need to fix this problem myself.  Thanks for listening.”

3. Be honest with what you really need

Sometimes what we’re asking for is not what we really need.  You can usually tell when someone is doing this, because there are much more direct means to satisfy their problem than phoning or emailing you.

Sometimes a simple question like, “Are you needing some emotional support?” or “Are you struggling to find motivation?” can cut to the chase and bring forth honest answers.

There is nothing wrong with needing emotional support and asking for it, but masking a request for emotional support as a request for tech support or a how-to, isn’t fair to either party.  It wastes time and blurs the issue at hand.

In my experience, most requests for help with motivation signal that an individual is not yet ready to apply herself.  Pointing that friend in the direction of a good self-help book (I would recommend Steven Pressfield’s War of Art) might alert them to their unreadiness and start them on the path of the personal growth they need to be ready.

You can also offer an accountability partnership.  Be cautious here, though, as such partnerships are often clinical exercises in whining, excuse-making and group-wide procrastination.

4. Set a time for helping that won’t detract from your work

If you’re a big bleeding heart like me, all it takes to make you drop your work and become your despairing friend’s hotline is a few tears, a less-than-cheery tone, or those fear-inspiring words “I’m not okay.”

But before dropping your obligations to yourself, your family or your business and inviting a friend-to-friend phone therapy session, take a deep breath.  Consider the promises you have made to yourself or your family.  Decide what compromises you are willing to make, if any.

And remember, it is okay to say, “Hey (insert despairing friend’s name here), I can hear that you’re really upset, and I’d like to talk about it.  I will have some time to talk at 6 tonight.  Can I call you then?”

This principle also applies to email, FB and live chat.  In my experience, holding a firm boundary with a friend and suggesting a later time to talk, usually means the conversation is that much better when we have it.

The other party feels heard, but has time to calm down and reflect before discussing their trouble in depth.  Also, I think most of us tend to externalize help; sometimes a gentle reminder of boundaries is enough to direct us inward with our troubles, which is where we will find our best advocacy.

I have found that whether conscious or not, others respect my time and efforts more, when I maintain solid boundaries.  Exercising boundaries can sometimes feel inconsiderate or unyielding, but in fact in honoring ourselves and our life work we assure others we will honor them as well.

5. Go directly to the source

I saw a lot of avoidance variety help-seeking in college.  Students would wait thirty minutes outside a professor’s office without pen or notebook in hand and when it was their turn, ask a question like, “Where did you say I could look up that article you mentioned in class?”

The professor would pull down the required text, point to a page in that week’s assigned reading and send the student on their way.  Everyone (except possibly the student himself) knew that the whole exchange was an exercise in futility, because if that student was really ready to learn he would show it by taking initiative and going to the source.

After college I was most unpleasantly surprised to realize that this sort of behavior isn’t at all limited to college campuses and immature co-eds.  When working as a strategy consultant to major multinational companies, my husband used to describe his job as “sitting down with people in meeting rooms and holding their hands while they do what they get paid to do.”

As entrepreneurs we can fall into the same trap.  For instance, who better to address a user-error on MailChimp than MailChimp’s support chat…?  I can tell you from personal experience that their online support chat is immediate, effective and frankly just awesome.

 So, why did I spend half an hour a week or so ago emailing back and forth with a fellow entrepreneur about MailChimp functions?  Call it what you will: resistance, procrastination, maybe even a lack of self-respect.

At the end of the day, our integrity and the success of our respective visions are on the line.  Let’s not call it help, if in fact it’s a hindrance.  And if it’s help we seek, let’s be honest and direct.  We all have households to be maintained, children and spouses to be held and enjoyed, and entrepreneurial visions to be birthed.  Let’s not get bogged down in help when our opus, our life work, is still in the wings.  Let’s buckle down and do the work so we can fly.

Has “help” been acting as a hindrance in your home or business?  What techniques have helped you shore up good boundaries?  Tell us about it in the comments.

Megan Barnes

Megan Barnes is the former owner of The Mogul Mom. She is a creative writer residing happily in Mississippi with her beloved husband and two dogs.




  1. Megan Barnes

    Thank you, Kailee! That means so much to me that you came to the site. 🙂 Glad you found it helpful. You are such an impressive young woman. xoxo

  2. Kailee

    Megan, the timing that I saw this post was perfect! This is the first chance I’ve had to get on here. I’ve been struggling to pull myself together and get on top of all the things I need to get done, especially these past few days, and this was so encouraging! The way that you portray issues makes them so much easier to understand and conquer. Thank you:)


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