How to Help Others Without Hurting Yourself

Author’s photo of a yummy Indian meal

A long time ago, my then-teenage daughter insightfully pointed out that I had a HUGE tendency to not only mother her, but WHOLE situations for other people. My inside voice would whisper “Make sure everyone is okay,” and I’d jump into action to caretake and resolve problems.

This came at a cost, though, and it was about the same time I began feeling dead tired and was ultimately diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and adrenal fatigue. And I was still going, y’all. Fortunately, I reversed out of both by taking a much-needed break to rest, nourish, manage my superwoman tendencies, and develop new self-preservation skill sets.

I still choose to help others sometimes because it seems necessary and worthwhile, but it’s very selective.

These days, my boundaries are HUGE and that has brought me so much peace of mind, in addition to time and energy to pursue what really matters TO ME. Here are some tips to help you do the same:

Put Yourself First. It’s natural to lead with your heart and to aid others, but if everyone took care of themselves and at least one other person, which feels like a very realistic goal, that is enough to make the world a better place. Lately, whenever I feel the urge to rescue, I subtract the potential deficit in terms of time, energy and resources. I also consider which of my own projects might suffer. After weighing all of that, I settle down and do some self-care. You might know by now that my top five self-care staples are yoga, nature walks and gardening, writing, tea time and candle-lit bubble baths. Figure out what restores you before you offer help to anyone else and strategize about how you will make time and space to keep tending to yourself.

Don’t Rush In. Ask questions to assess the situation and unless it’s urgent, put off an immediate commitment. Ask yourself whether your particular kind of help is really required because here’s the thing – Every day others are going to want something from you. If you indulge too many distractions, you’ll get spun around in so many different directions you’ll be dizzy and exhausted. Take time to unpack and change your habitual rescue response by pausing. The next time someone asks for non-emergency help, take some moments to imagine how the situation could be resolved without your intervention. Chronic fixing is for fools. I can only say that because I’ve been there, done that. Maybe your role is to empower someone to get what they need by either looking inward or elsewhere.  

Know Your Limits. Put the cape away. Compassion fatigue is a real thing too. It zaps you physically, mentally, spiritually. A golden-nugget of advice I’d have wished for as a young adult would have been: “Do not try to do everything.” I’m not going to lie, it has taken me decades to halfway master this. Often, the single question that is so useful during my pauses is: “Is this mine to do?”  Repeatedly, nine out of ten times, the answer is No. 

Say “No” More – Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you have to. Protect your time and energy. Say “no” more. Start by practicing in your own head because you are the first one you need to sell the idea of unapologetically choosing not to get involved, then say it out loud to others’.   No need to be rude or resentful, but decline. This is going to be uncomfortable at first, but it’s truly one of the best ways to broadcast your general unavailability for unsolicited assignments and set your own priorities.

Establish Rules For Who You Will Help and When – Often, I immediately say no to Excessive Askers. These are people for whom emergencies and drama seem to be a primary lifestyle. Without exception, they have fallen to the background or have switched to brainstorming requests on how they can solve the problem, which I don’t mind helping with occasionally. But if it’s family, a bestie or a child is in danger, I will usually pitch in.

If You Decide to Help, Have an Exit Strategy.   I can do almost anything difficult if I know it has an expiration date. These are really specific time-commitment periods (based on experience and self-awareness), but my reasonable “helper” limits seem to be thirty days or a half-hour a day for a year. Know what is sustainable for you and when to pullback for self-care. Support others, but fortify yourself and figure out when to stop.

4 thoughts on “How to Help Others Without Hurting Yourself

  1. Wise words, Nailah. Too bad it takes us so many years to get these basics down! The last 18 months of semi-isolation has helped define my boundaries, realizing I don’t need to do all the things I used to say yes to. There was a bit of push-back the first time I said no, but mostly, they got it. I often think of the flight analogy of ‘putting the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping another.’

    • Yes, it seems like a waste, but I think I might have shrugged off the idea before I was ready for it. LOL. I hear you on taking the time to redefine boundaries although you had to deal with pushback. Folks don’t like change, but boundaries change the game.

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