“Our help is usually not very helpful. Our help is often toxic. And help is the sunny side of control. Stop helping so much. Don’t get your help and goodness all over everybody.”
— Anne Lamott
I heard something last week, and I can’t get it out of my head. It was one of those moments when you are told an ugly truth about yourself, one had denied so long you weren’t aware of anymore, one you are embarrassed to find you hadn’t concealed at all as well as you thought. Everyone knows your ugly truth but thought it better not to tell you and to let you go on making a fool of yourself.
That was something like that feeling that I felt in the middle of Anne Lamott’s 2017 Ted Talk, 12 Truths, in which she casually advises us all to stop helping so much. Our help, she says, isn’t as helpful as we think it is and our help is often toxic and nothing but a nicer way of controlling the world around us.
As soon as she said it I knew I was one of those chronic helpers Lamott is talking about. I want to help everyone all the time with everything. The more I love you, the more I want to help you. I tell myself I’m helping, but maybe, probably, I just want to control the people around me.
Looking back I can see that there have been many times when I forced my help on others, even when it wasn’t needed, wanted, or constructive. There were many times when my help may have been toxic and all I was doing was controlling the lives of others. I told myself I was doing the right thing, the best thing, the helpful thing, but I wasn’t.
Helping is a form of manipulation and, here is the real secret, manipulating people is a thing I struggle not to do.
I’m ashamed to have written that line. It feels like admitting a truth I am trying to convince myself is a lie. It’s admitting that I am a bad person. I swear I have the best intentions, but I also have little patience for people learning their own lessons and failing on their own. I know better than them and if only they would do things the way I say they would be better. We would be better. I would be needed, wanted, appreciated, helpful.
I would be good.
And that’s it, I just want to feel like a good person. I want to feel like a better, smarter, and more powerful person. I want to be good enough to be in charge. I want people to look to me when they don’t know what to do. I want to be wanted and respected, and this is the way I have chosen to get that and to live with myself too, by helping.
I feel bad for wanting that, and for some of the actions I have taken to feel it but here’s the thing, at the same time Anne Lamott was placing a mirror in front of me, she was also letting me know that I was not the only one who needed to hear this. I’m not the only one who needs to stop and examine what they were doing. She hadn’t said, “Lisa, you need to stop helping because you are toxic.” She said we all needed to stop helping because we were all too controlling and toxic. We all have a problem with manipulation.
It’s human to want to control the world around us and all the people in it. Being in control is comforting and being needed gives us purpose. But at the same time, we feel bad for wanting those things. We know it’s wrong, and futile, to try to control others. We also know that we have to give people space to live their lives and learn their own lessons. But we want what we want, so, we do what humans are good at, we play a few mental gymnastics, make a few good excuses, and tell ourselves that for this reason or that whatever we’re doing is the right thing to do.
We split ourselves off from what who we want to be and who we really are. We disconnect and deny the distance the two. We can’t see that we are not always good and we are not always doing the right thing.
I can be controlling, and I sometimes nag, and whine, and manipulate people into doing what I want the way I want it done but who doesn’t? Who hasn’t tried to keep people close and safe by making ourselves indispensable? Who hasn’t tried to make sense of the world by forcing our beliefs and our way of life on others? Who hasn’t, out of love and fear, employed less than honorable tactics to “help.”
Being a person is scary. Caring about people is scary. Feeling unimportant and unneeded scary. It is normal to try to keep people safe and close and to control the way they see us, but it isn’t always right. That is a truth that has to be confronted if you want to get better.
So this week, try not helping so much or try helping in ways that don’t put you at the center of the problem. Just listen. Just learn. Try taking a step back and letting people be the solution in their own lives. Let people walk their own paths, and you just focus on walking yours.
It’s why we are all here after all.
P.S. Here is Anne Lamott’s entire beautiful, inspirational, bittersweet Ted Talk:
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