We all want to help others. Well, most of us anyway. Altruism is often said to be a quality that has evolved in us in order to live together as a society. But when we want to help others, when are we truly being helpful and when are we making things worse?
For example, say you are going out on a social occasion with a friend. If before the occasion, your friend tries on an outfit which does not suit them, and they ask you what you think, what do you say? Most of us would diplomatically refrain from saying comments like “It makes you look too fat” or “It makes you look too thin” or “You look horrible in that”. Then again, if we want to help the friend, most of us might say something like “How about the grey top instead, I think it would be nicer with those trousers” or “Why don’t you try on the black dress there?”.
If a friend is physically or mentally challenged in some way, it is good to consider how they might feel if we said something that challenged them too much. For example, John may love running and wants his friend Greg to join him in a long run, but Greg has a damaged knee and has ben told by the physiotherapist to avoid running. It is not fair for John to keep saying to Greg that it is all mind over matter, and that Greg should run anyway. Greg is doing his best to look after his health and take responsibility for it. John can ask Greg if he is OK to cycle, and maybe they can go cycling together instead. Just because running makes John feel good does not mean he has to impose it on Greg.
The same happens sometimes with people who are starting to learn a therapy. Even a medical student can make the mistake of mis-diagnosing someone and making them appointments with a list of specialists, because the would-be doctor is too eager to help. This is totally wrong, because the medical student is not allowed to diagnose as yet, and with good reason. Just because a friend of theirs says something in passing about how they feel does not mean giving the friend a diagnosis and sending them to various specialists. They can instead ask if the friend wanted an opinion based on the limited knowledge the medical student has to date. Then if the friend says yes, then maybe the would-be doctor can stress that they are not as yet qualified and therefore this is just a friendly opinion, but maybe they can ask their doctor if they have a particular condition. If the friend says no, it is best to respect their wishes.
And of course, mothers and fathers are all too often eager to help their children in the way they know best. But it may not be best for the child. For example, I have met many a struggling entrepreneur who was limited by their parents’ repeated statements that being self-employed is the road to ruin and financial disaster. Words of advice, no matter how loving or well-meant, can be very damaging.
I can give many more examples, but I guess you get the picture. It is good to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and ask “How would I feel if I were this person and heard this advice?”. After all, if we really want to help, we should help the other person, not our own ego, conscience, or our own feelings. It is not always easy. We all err sometimes. When we do, we can forgive ourselves, apologize where appropriate, and learn from the experience. It is good to care anyway, and I am sure you are reading this because you care.