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The Unhelpful Helper

As we know maladaptive social signals are behaviors that can be witnessed by others in such a way that they keep us out of the tribe.   In RO DBT social signals are posited as a unique and powerful mechanism of change.  Social signaling targets are often habits, something we have done for a long time in our relationships or social situations, that can be off-putting to others or, worse, unintentionally harmful.  Sometimes we have an awareness of the signal, such as not making eye contact, and it is easy to understand how this impacts others and our connection to them. But what about the not-so-obvious signals?  I’ve recently begun to recognize a much more insidious and stubborn social signal – one where the signaler actually thinks they are doing something good or helpful for other people.

This habitual signal doesn’t come in the form of what we would typically think as damaging to relationships; such as raised voices or eye rolls, the silent treatment or critical comments.  This signal comes in the form of helping – over-helping in fact. Eureka! Can there really be such a thing as too much helping?

The ‘unhelpful helper’ may be best defined as the excessive offering of help, soothing, or assistance to others without the explicit communication that help is needed, wanted or what type of help may even be helpful for the recipient.

You may have noticed this insidious signal seeping into your life or the life of your clients in the form of advice giving, frequent reminding, and repeatedly asking others ‘are you ok?’  Often times the signaler is deeply invested ‘helping’ others and firmly believes that these actions are helpful.  The story they tell themselves that keeps them stuck is: “I am a helper, a very good helper in fact. And if the people in my life would only start accepting my help, everything will be ok.”

In their actions the signaler is making at least three assumptions:

  • The recipient needs help (They are about to make a grave mistake and must be rescued.)
  • The recipient wants help (Why wouldn’t they? I’m so good at it!)
  • The signaler knows exactly the what kind of help is necessary (My type of help is the best, of course!)

The ‘unhelpful helper’ may receive disconfirming feedback from others regarding these signals – you’re smothering me, you don’t trust me, you’re always nagging, etc.  However, this feedback is easily dismissed by the signaler when they lean on their good intentions – “But can’t you see, I’m only trying to help!”   And yet, do intentions really matter if the consequence of the signal is one that pushes people away?

The ‘unhelpful helper’ reminds me of the cartoon character Elmyra Duff from the animated television series Tiny Toon Adventures. A main character of the show, Elmyra is a cheerful young girl with red hair, kind-hearted, energetic and always willing to help others. She has a deep love for animals and offering help to any friend she deems in need.  However, anyone who is the recipient of her help is sure courting with disaster. Elmyra is so infatuated with caring for and giving affection to her animals, that she unknowingly causes them great discomfort.  She chases them and squeezes them; she bathes them and diapers them.  She is so over-zealous in her affection and care for her pets, in ways that are off-putting and at times harmful, her pets are often trying to escape. She does not really mean to mistreat her pets; she simply doesn’t understand the negative effects of her behavior.  Elmyra always means well, but she is oblivious to the trouble she causes.  When the consequence of her behavior is a pet running away or a friend being disgruntled at her for providing misguided help, Elmyra bursts into sobs.  If this pattern sounds familiar to you, the ‘unhelpful helper’ may be lurking about.

Examples of social signals by an ‘unhelpful helper’ may include:

  • Unsolicited advice giving, offering suggestions, or problem solving for someone else
  • Frequent checking up on others ‘Are you ok? Are you sure? Are you really, really sure?’
  • Frequent or excessive soothing signals – verbal reassurance, physical touch, prolonged concern faces
  • Offering to fix or taking over for someone else – ‘I can fix that’ or ‘I can do it for you.’
  • Frequent or excessive reminders to others – ‘Did you___? Have you___?’

When ‘unhelpful helping’ happens, it sends the following message:

I must help/soothe/rescue you because you are _________________ (weak, fragile, incapable, unintelligent, disorganized, ill, untrustworthy, inexperienced) and I am _____________ (experienced, wiser, smarter, organized, stronger, trustworthy, capable, healthier, stronger).  Don’t worry if you haven’t recognized that you want or need help yet.  The help I offer you will be so amazing that you will thank me when it is all over. 🙂

Thus, the receiver of this signal may feel inferior, infantilized, invalidated or unfairly labeled incapable; and who wants to feel this way?  Here’s the kicker – the signaler may have no idea that their behaviors are sending this message!! After all their intentions are good, aren’t they? This is what can make it so stinking hard to accept the maladaptive nature of ‘unhelpful helping.’ Try giving Elmyra feedback that she is causing discomfort in her animals and friends, without her disputing, denying, explaining or falling apart.  She would have to open to the idea that just because she thinks her behaviors are helpful, doesn’t mean they actually are.  In fact, the signaler may not believe (or only secretly so) that others are weak or incapable, or that they themselves are superior – enter self-enquiry practice. But that doesn’t change the fact that being excessively helpful as a social signal isn’t so helpful to relationships after all!

Now, the irony of writing a blog on ‘unhelpful helping’ with the intention of being helpful to helpers has not escaped me. Perhaps you didn’t find these observations helpful at all! So cheers to helping helpers help unhelpful helpers in a potentially unhelpful way!


About the Author: Heidi Petracco, MSW, LCSW

Heidi is an intensively trained Radically Open DBT therapist in Tampa, FL.  She specializes in treating adolescents and adults with temperaments of over-control struggling with chronic depression, anxiety, perfectionism, poor social connectedness, and other social signaling deficits.  Heidi facilitates both adult and adolescent RO-DBT skills classes, as well as, leads a family program specifically designed to support and provide education for the loved-ones of those receiving RO-DBT treatment.