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When People Want to Help but Just Make Things Worse

When I was fourteen years old, my family spent a week of vacation in the northwoods of Minnesota. We rode horses, sailed on the lake, sang songs around a campfire, and all the other things most teenagers tell their parents is lame. Even if they are having fun.

After this week of boring, according to me, my family loaded up into our van and began what should have been a five-hour drive home.

Except it wasn’t five hours.

Thirty minutes into the drive we were in a head-on car collision. Triaged and transported to different hospitals around the area, it wasn’t until a few hours later—when my question, “What happened to my dad?” was met with silence from nurses, physicians, and my extended family who found me in the ER—that I knew he didn’t make it out. Not alive, at least.

Two weeks later, I started high school.

While I would have liked everything that had suddenly made my life “not normal” to fly under the radar, that was easier said than done. I was walking with crutches. I had crunching, paper bandages around my neck from the seat belt, and the whole story had been on the front page of the newspaper.

What I was going through was my business, and yet I became surrounded by people offering this and bringing me that and giving me hugs when I just wanted to get back to normal.

A few weeks later, my uncle showed up at our house and wanted to take us apple picking, something my dad had taken us to do at the local orchard every year.

This time, when my uncle said apple orchard, he meant the Mecca of all apple orchards near Pepin, Wisconsin.

As instructed by my mom, I pulled open the door to the garage and loaded into the car, suddenly finding myself sitting behind the driver’s seat. The exact same spot I was sitting during our crash. And not only was I sitting in the driver’s seat for the first time since the crash, I was sitting behind someone who, from behind, looked just like my dad, and who was trying to help by taking me to the apple orchard just like my dad.

My heart was pounding. I focused on the seat back pocket in front of me, tried my best to breathe and sit facing forward while not looking any longer at the driver and his seat in front of me.

The longer we drove, the angrier I became.

My uncle was trying to help, but this, this was not helpful.

I was tense the entire ride, wrought with worry the car might explode in front of me again, and when we returned home a few hours later, I shot out of the car, slammed the door behind me, muttered, “Thank you,” ran to my room, closed the door, and burst into tears.

Going to the apple orchard with Dad was our business. Not my uncle’s. Driving that car was Dad’s job, not his.

While he thought he was doing something so helpful to keep my dad’s memory alive, his one time trip to the Mecca of apple orchards, for me, was the opposite of helpful.

That’s the thing about any business that’s important to you.

Whether it’s someone you’ve lost or something you’ve loved and now lost, when things are special to you and other people see those things causing you hardship, they want to help.

It’s a natural human reaction to want to help. But when you’re the one who’s receiving the help, there are so many times when something that was meant to be helpful turns out the be… the opposite of helpful.

The truth is just because someone meant well with their actions that does not mean you have to feel good about their actions.

In fact, most of the time, if someone does something that does make you feel good, it’s because they’ve taken the time to know you really, really well (like asking you if you prefer a compliment during a team meeting or a thank you card in your mailbox), or it’s just luck.

And all the times when someone means well but it doesn’t feel well are so very normal.

That’s okay.

Instead of feeling bitter and angry about what someone did, whatever their intentions, and instead of becoming disillusioned about whether you can do anything to help someone else, it’s important to know the one thing you can know for certain in any interaction: you. Your thoughts, feelings, intentions, and expectations.

So the next time someone is trying to help with something that is your business. Try this:

1. Take a time out.

We tend to use this as a tool for disciplining kids, but honestly, it works just as well, if not better, on ourselves as adults. And it’s not about giving yourself a time out from something you want to be part of. What you do is notice when you are feeling a growing sense of anger, frustration, overwhelm, and use your words to say something like, “I’m going to need some time to think this through. Let’s pick up this conversation at another time.”

And then take the time away from the situation.

2. Remind yourself of the intentions in the room.

Why are you doing what you are doing?

Why do you think they are doing what they are doing?

Most of the time, people are doing something because they think it is a good thing or a helpful thing or something that will make the situation better. So, know that the people who are wanting to help are doing so because they care. There is something in it for them to help you and they want to help you.

Even if the way they are helping now is the opposite of helpful, you can use this reminder about their intention as a key to making the situation helpful for you again.

3. Speak out. Ask. Use your words.

You have a person that wants to help you. So use your words. Tell them what would be helpful (or if you don’t know, tell them what is not helpful, and why).

Say something like, “When you came to take me to the apple orchard, I felt like you were replacing my dad. I already feel worried that I am going to forget him, and I felt even more scared when we did something that made it feel like we were trying to replace him.”

Notice the “When _______ happened, I felt ________.”

This is intentional language.

When you speak this way, you keep the focus on the goal: helping you to feel better, because you have identified a specific situation when that did not happen.

Then say, “To make this feel better to me, I would need ________.” And say what you would need.

Is it any apology? Is it that you want them to talk about things more? Do you not want to talk about it more? Do you want to do something you’ve never done before instead?

It’s your business. So make it your call. And help them help you by showing why unhelpful things are unhelpful and suggesting what would have made the unhelpful things… well, helpful. Because at the root of every relationship is love.

So, even during times when things aren’t as good, it’s important to separate the actions other people do to help with the intention that’s behind it all: love for you.

About Kirsten Schowalter

Kirsten Schowalter is the founder of Aging Courageously and the author of In My Own Skin.

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