When helping others isn’t really helping

Kristi Daniels McNab When Helping Others Isn't Really Helping

“Here, let me help you.” The last time I said those words, my niece was a toddler and I was trying to quickly solve one of her conundrums. A puzzle piece wasn’t fitting in her mermaid/sea creature creation. But she wouldn’t have it. She’d look up at me with a scowl of annoyance and brushed my hand away. She didn’t want my help. She wanted me to watch or join, and cheer her on. And when I made the switch, the scowl vanished into a big smile and a high-five.

How often do you jump in to help someone … and do they really want help or are you being seduced by idiot compassion?

Compassion has many layers and can take many forms. You can draw distinctions between supporting and enabling, caring and coddling, and serving and rescuing. Actions that elicit warm hearts and cradling arms.

But idiot compassion? It smacks you like a splash of ice water. Compassion isn’t always gentle.

The term originated from Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who defined it as the tendency to give people what they want (or what you think they want) because you can’t bear to see them suffer.

And that’s not compassion. It’s not about the person you’re “helping.” It’s about YOU. And that’s selfishness. YOU don’t want to feel uncomfortable, YOU don’t want to look or feel bad and YOU are manipulating the situation to look good or feel better.

Idiot compassion is a often the go-to default in our workplaces, eroding the culture. Here’s what it looks like and how to choose a more powerful action instead:

  • Lying to avoid seeing someone suffer. I recently overheard a conversation about a company letting a worker go. The truth was this team member didn’t (and couldn’t) make the numbers and wasn’t a good fit. Cut and dry? No. The manager who had to fire this worker lied about the reason softening the blow, saying it was part of a larger layoff and not mentioning the performance issues. Getting laid off is a blow no matter if you’re the only one or one of many. The compassionate thing to do is tell the truth. In this case, the truth could have been received as a masterful motivator to empower this worker to do things differently next time.

When you’re tempted to lie, skirt the truth and talk around it … DON’T.

CATCH YOURSELF and ask if it’s idiot compassion. Your only responsibility is to tell the facts (which you can do in a caring and compassionate way). However, you are not responsible for how the other person reacts or responds to the information.

  • Being a martyr. I see so many women shift gears to the over-care drive. Situations where you give away too much of yourself because you feel like you have to be the savior. You cheer yourself on with the following mantras: “They need me,” or “I just care too much.” No they don’t, and no you don’t. It’s not compassion when you sacrifice yourself and make the other person a thief. Don’t mistake service for rescue. Service comes from the heart and empowers you and others. Rescue is just your ego making up a story, needing to be needed, trying to fix others and wasting your energy. Learn to see others as capable beings.
  • Coddling others. A business owner was recently sharing her challenges with engaging the millennials in her office. “They get bored so easily and all they want is more money. And they don’t want to put in the time before they’re promoted to the next level. We have introduced every perk we can – comp time, casual Fridays, social outings, and they’re just not appreciating it.” This company is not engaging, they’re coddling. They’re trying to re-engineer a workplace that doesn’t reflect the business values or resonate with its people. They need to be sharing and living their core values and aspiring the 20-somethings to a greater purpose and mission. Until they do this, they’ll continue to be frustrated and fragmented.

A strategy to shift out of idiot compassion to a place of strength and power – one that benefits you and the person you want to serve – is to simply be the cure. When you want to “help” someone, ask instead, “How can I be the cure? What example can I be setting, what energy can I bring to the situation and how do I need to show up to best serve this person?”

Take a look at your own relationships and interactions, both work and personal.

  • Where are you confusing helping someone else for idiot compassion?
  • Is there a more powerful experience you can be having for yourself and the other party?
  • How can you be the cure?

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