The Unhelpers: Never out of Style
I’m reposting this blog because, well, the subject never seems to get old. And I’ve revisited this dynamic since I first posted this blog back in 2021. We’ve all had that person who we thought was a friend, who was always so sympathetic, so understanding. Who was supportive because, ultimately, they felt better next to us, while watching us struggle. Who even encouraged us to stop trying, not that it was said like that. Finding excuses for us and seconding the ones we find ourselves.
Unhelper or Helper?
I’ve been wanting to write this blog for a while. There’s an idea that’s been going around in my head–this is the way most blogs start–and I couldn’t let it go until I’d made sense of it. It’s one of those things you think you understand but can’t quite define in a nice theoretical way. In a neat A occurs because of B type of way.
A Job Story
I was sorting through stuff from the move, trying to clear out the filing cabinet (oh the paper!) even though I should’ve done all that before we left. I came across some things from a unit I worked at many, many years ago. We had a civilian boss. A nice lady but a workaholic who had sacrificed her health to her job and in exchange got to wear a medical alert bracelet. She was energetic and she got things done.
I’m not a problematic employee. There’s no drama and a pretty high output; I’m reliable, I show up on time and I don’t air my dirty laundry to my coworkers. One day I had to leave for an appointment that got pushed up following a cancellation. My boss was nowhere to be found so I told one of my coworkers that I was going to be gone for a couple of hours. When I returned she was furious. Why hadn’t I told her? I explained that it popped up at the last minute. I could understand why she was worried but everything was up-to-date. She said I should’ve emailed her, I could leave a note on her desk next time. I had to find her or contact her at all costs and let her know.
She was really angry with me and what bothered me the most was it was as if she thought I’d tried to trick her. As if I’d tried to sneak out for a couple of hours on company time. It wasn’t the case. I would make up for it. But that’s not the issue, or the goal of this blog. You may agree with me, or with her, regardless.
What confused me was I considered myself a pretty good employee, yet I didn’t seem deserving of her trust or her understanding. On the other hand, another person who worked with us and who was, if I could sum it up in one word, fragile, got all her devotion and attention. This person would sometimes cry at her desk. She’d call in sick unexpectedly. She’d been on burn out for several months. She worked slowly and erratically, depending on the day she was having.
There was nothing traumatic going on in her life. Her marriage was intact, her children were fine, her job was secure. Yet routinely she’d meltdown: fatigue, stress, life just overwhelmed her in general. But why this was her lot is not my point either. No judgements. This was her situation and I am explaining it because it related to my confusion.
My point is my boss took her under her wing. She listened, she tried to find solutions. She was more than understanding. Accommodations were made. Again, her choice. But in light of her reaction to my having left for an appointment, it was hard to grasp her severity towards me and her indulgence of someone who was not making the cut. I mean I get wanting to help, but this really was the squeaky wheel getting all the grease.
Why did she never lose patience? Because this employee was in a bad place? But if you’re going to be strict wouldn’t you apply the same rule across the board? If you’re demanding with your people who are making their deadlines, would you not be tightly supervising an employee who is barely getting by? And don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean heaping reproach on someone who isn’t doing well. But I would expect some form of HR intervention to get the person back on track or into a more suitable job.
It took me some time, to understand that the reason she was so indulgent with her fragile team member, was because it fed her ego. I began to see or remember this pattern elsewhere. What made this boss feel good was the comparison. It was seeing someone who obviously had much bigger problems than she did, who wasn’t ever going to climb the corporate ladder as she had. She liked helping, not because it made her feel good, but big.
The Friend Story
I had a friend who always had a man in her life. She married long before me and even when she divorced, she met another great guy. She had a new house, she decorated, she had a family. It was an enviable situation. She was also very pretty and had a great sense of style since she’d studied fashion design. Guys would hit on her no end. From my viewpoint, she pretty much had it all. I’d joke I was the sidekick, but it was hard to deny. Fast forward a few years. She had divorced again and I was in a serious relationship with my then boyfriend/future husband. We’d bought a house together. She came over once and when she walked through the door she said “Wow, I thought a butler was going to answer.” (No it wasn’t that posh).
It was obvious in her mind I had surpassed her, even if in truth there was no competition. Life swings up and down. We all go through cycles. Finally, I had the serious relationship. My house was bigger than hers. I could finally afford a new car. We never got together again. At first it was hard to believe, I kept thinking she really was just very busy. But after a while I stopped trying. I still think of that, even if it was ages ago.
When I look back to that time, I see now she was the star and we, her friends, were all struggling in one way or another. I had been single forever, brief relationships had ended badly. Her other friend was in a relationship with a married man, which often led to sad holidays spent alone. Another failed to control her alcohol consumption when she went out clubbing on week-ends.
As often happens to me, the answers or the closure seems to come out of nowhere. I was reading Jordan Peterson‘s book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos and I got to number 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you. I will take this to include friends, partners and family. Someone with whom there is a bond. It sounds trite. ‘Duh, Jordan, no kidding.’
But as he explains, in this reciprocal arrangement, are both sides supported? Are they good for each other? I’ve talked about the subtle feeling of superiority of my supervisor or of my friend. But what of being that person? Are you choosing to associate with someone who is uplifting you? Or someone who isn’t, who may drag you down, but next to whom you look like a star? These passages spoke to me:
‘It’s a good thing, not a selfish thing, to choose people who are good for you.’
‘If you surround yourself with people who support your upward aim, they will not tolerate your cynicism and destructiveness.’
‘People who are not aiming up will do the opposite (…) They will become jealous when you succeed (…) They will withdraw their presence and support…’
Beware those you surround yourself with. Are they helping you or are they helping themselves? Are they secretly gawking at your misfortune to make themselves feel better? Do they stick close because they feel taller next to you? Are they there just to compare?
An Uneven Alliance
In French they say c’est en se comparant qu’on se console: it’s in comparing ourselves that we console ourselves. Be careful of the unhealthy ‘helpers’, false friends. Are they helping you or indulging you in your situation and your problems? Is it more about their show of devotion/loyalty/sacrifice than getting you out of your plight? It’s a great irony that a true friend will probably run out of patience with you. At some point they might get in your face and say it like it is. Beware those who are too kind for they don’t truly care.
Sometimes I blog on something and wonder if I am the only one understanding what I’m saying. Ideas sometimes come from many small observations over the years that get put together in a clear essay on the topic. It only took a clinical psychologist!
On a final and lighter note, Venus retrograde in Leo In July and August of 2023, had us reviewing relationships and either take them to the next level of leave them in the dust. Let me know in the comments if you relate to any of this? Has there been more lately forcing you to re-evaluate?
I want to thank all of you who like and comment on my blogs. What started out as a way to improve my writing and share my ideas, especially on meditation and manifesting, has become a weekly check-in where I look forward to sharing with you. You’ve probably noticed the orange coffee cup on the right. If you can make a contribution, it’s really appreciated. Everything goes to keeping the site running. That’s the domain provider, site host and the theme (the layout) you see here. If you can’t, no worries, leave a like.
This blog was originally published on December 12th, 2021.