When Trying to Be Helpful Is a Mental Trap

A therapist explains how solving other people’s problems can become an unhealthy form of stress relief

Kathleen Smith
Forge
Published in
2 min readMay 17, 2021

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Photo: Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

Pretty much everyone’s heard that famous Mr. Rogers quote: “Look for the helpers.” But when you’re a therapist, you quickly learn that the helpers are not always what they appear to be.

In our relationships, as I tell my therapy clients, there are two kinds of helping: anxious helping and thoughtful helping. Anxious helping is more about our own inability to tolerate stress than it is about serving or leading others. This is because being over-responsible for others, sometimes called over-functioning, is one of the quickest ways to calm yourself down.

Over-functioning can look like:

  • Directing people because they seem anxious
  • Taking over because you can do something better
  • Giving advice before anyone asks for it
  • Assuming you know what people need

Over-functioners are often the oldest child in a family. They’re the ones who feel comfortable in leadership positions, but struggle to let others stumble through a task. They might seem calm on the outside, but that calmness is dependent on being able to diagnose or direct the people around them. They often encourage others to go to therapy but are unable to see how their own behaviors reinforce the helplessness, or under-functioning, in others.

The good news: If any of that struck a chord, there are a million ways you can begin to step back and let people be more responsible for themselves. You can stop reminding your partner about their parents’ birthdays or start asking your friends questions to spark reflection instead of jumping in to fix their lives. You can let people finish their sentences or let your kids learn that failure is a manageable thing. You can begin to let people surprise you with their resilience and also take more joy in helping when it’s really needed.

Stepping back also means stepping up and learning to self-regulate anxiety — to calm yourself instead of using your relationships to manage stress. Sometimes that can look like going to therapy or meditating, but often it’s simply taking a deep breath in the moment, reminding yourself that others are capable, and sitting with your discomfort.

If you’d like to cut back on the over-functioning, you can ask yourself, “How would I like to be less responsible for others and more responsible for my own distress?” Because if you really want to be a helper, there’s no greater gift than treating others like they are capable and walking with them as they navigate life’s challenges.

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Kathleen Smith
Forge
Writer for

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.