We have all encountered people who are trying to help but end up causing more trouble than they are solving (we’ve likely been that person ourselves on occasion).
Sometimes this is truly because they are well-meaning but just incompetent. Meaning that while they may be mistaken about what is helpful they are at least thinking about what is best for the person they are trying to help rather than being motivated out of some personal drive, unconsciously or explicitly.
I would argue that this truly altruistic but incompetent helper is unfortunately not that common.
What is usually going on is that there is some ego involved: a lot of times it is not compassion that drives us to help other people, it is that we like to think of ourselves as good people. We are not focused on the other person, we are focused on our own sense of (sometimes smug) self-congratulatory self-importance: “Look what a good person I am.”
There are two problems with this.
The first is that the reason our help is ineffective is that since we are not focused on the other person, we are not giving them what they really need because we are not even thinking about what they really need. The person we are ostensibly trying to help is merely a means to the end of us feeling good about ourselves. In fact we may get frustrated with them because their failure to succeed feels like an attack on our own self esteem.
This is a problem for them but not necessarily for us. We are, after all, still getting that self-congratulatory glow.
The second problem does effect us: we end up stressing ourselves out because we are reinforcing the attachment of our self-worth to this idea of being a “good person”. Instead of valuing ourselves inherently we are attaching our fundamental self-worth to our actions.
Actions can be effective or non-effective but there is a continuum, rarely are their effects either all good or all bad. Self-worth, on the other hand, tends to be a black and white thing. Either we have self-worth or we don’t, either we think we are fundamentally good or we think we are fundamentally bad.
Once our self-worth gets attached to our actions then if our actions cause harm that is not because we made a mistake, it becomes evidence that we are bad people. While the effect this has on our happiness is bad enough, what’s worse is that this linkage inevitably drives us to a habit of lowering our standards to the point of meaninglessness.
This is because once we have attached our actions to our fundamental self-worth, we somehow need to translate the shades of grey of the former to the black and white of the latter. We seek an external standard to measure our actions against so we can determine if they, and by extension ourselves, are good or bad.
But the insecurity that prevents us from accepting our fundamental self-worth in the first place begins to whisper doubts in our ear so that we don’t trust our judgement about anything, including whether we’ve met that external standard sufficiently well to be able to consider ourselves good people.
This means that we have to make sure we hit the standard 100% because we don’t trust ourselves to say that 90% is good enough. Only meeting it perfectly removes our untrustworthy judgement from the equation. The standards we use to measure ourselves become weapons we use to beat ourselves up with.
The trouble is that “perfection” in general is not really a standard, it is a childish black and white idea of quality that has as its main benefit the fact that it is easy to understand.
But this simplicity is actually very brittle. It ends up making us feel uneasy because it is a knife edge: perfection is by definition all or nothing. If your worth as a human being depends on being 100% right, then being 1% off is just as bad as 99% off. Both are not perfect. We get obsessed with this idea of 100% meeting this arbitrary standard.
Meeting something 100% is very difficult and since we can’t back away from that (99.999999% is still not 100%) the only recourse is to adjust the yardstick far down enough that our actions exceed it. We dumb down our standard of comparison to the point where it is easy to meet and thus doesn’t threaten our self-esteem.
We begin to collapse down to a model of reality which we fool ourselves into believing captures everything about how to be a good person but is actually merely a childish set of simplistic rules.
After all, recall that we are not trying to do good per se, we are trying to maintain our concept of ourselves as good people. This dumbed down standard of comparison meets that goal ideally by giving us that high of meeting the rules perfectly.
In fact, we inevitably take this a step further and flip things around so that instead of paying any attention at all to the effect of our actions we begin to define good behavior as behavior which we do. We build a structure of values around our core insecurity, reinforcing this contradiction with all this “evidence” of how our actions are good: we are good people because we do actions that are good and our actions are good because we are good people.
Our standard goes from being childish to entirely self-referential, divorced from actual reality. It exists only in our own head, further pulling our attention away from the actual impact of our actions in the real world to instead focus only on whether we are meeting this simplistic, arbitrary, meaningless standard in our own head. Our driver becomes the perfection of execution against this reduced standard not the actual effect of our actions.
The inevitable result of this is even more than seeing other people as merely a means to the end of getting high off our pride in our own goodness, it actively encourages us to ignore other people because we have no control over the rules they follow and trying to meet their rules could effect the our ability to perfectly meet our own rules.
We become the sole judge of our own effectiveness and as a result disconnect from reality when it inconveniently contradicts that judgement. We become further trapped within a reality that only exists in our own heads.
However, all is not lost. Our focus on ourselves over other people is how we got trapped in this fake universe. And as a result a renewed focus on other people over ourselves provides a way out.
If we shift our focus to what is good for other people, we provide ourselves a way to be less hard on ourselves and as a result to do more actual good. When we start actually caring about other people, about what they think is good for them, then we no longer have to depend on our insecure judgement to decide whether we are good people or not.
Once we start doing this, we no longer have to be stressed out by needing to trust our own judgement. Our own judgement, tarnished as it is by our insecurities, is much more able to nitpick and be critical about what are doing. The judgement of the other person we are helping only sees the effect, not necessarily the process. In fact, most people are grateful for any help, they don’t care if it’s not 100% beneficial so long as it’s sincere and focused on what they want not on what we think they want.
Once we’ve delinked our actions from this sense of perfectly following a set of arbitrary rules, we are able to actually help in more complex, subtle, and effective ways because it doesn’t have to be prefect, and as a result we no longer have to worry about meeting an artificial standard of comparison. We can still use that standard as a guide but by delinking the need for relying on our own judgement our self-esteem becomes delinked from our actions and we have the space to start to value ourselves foundationally.
By truly focusing on the other person and what will help them, we give ourselves the room to not be stressed out by relying on our own judgement and actually end up having higher standards and higher self-worth as a result.