“You’re No Help”: When Not Helping is Helpful

Personal credibility is the currency of trust, and genuine trust is crucial to effective helping.

Boundaries are really hard to maintain when you’re supposed to be helpful. Helpers are usually good-hearted and more than willing to do anything they can to provide assistance. The fact is, personal, professional, physical, and all kinds of other -al boundaries have to be maintained and need to be respected. We set ourselves up for success or failure with the boundaries we keep.

I attended a training on suicide prevention in which the participants were polled on their attitudes toward suicide. One of the questions was, on a 1-10 scale, how far would you go to prevent a person from committing suicide? A number of people rated their willingness much lower than a 10 (everything possible to prevent suicide). I answered 10. During the discussion I clarified my answer- as a father, I would do absolutely anything to keep my son from killing himself. As a professional, while the extent of my role may not allow me to spend the night supervising a client who is suicidal, I would go to the farthest extent within my role to prevent a suicide. That might mean spending hours seeking a hospital bed, assisting with a safety sweep, or signing an involuntary commitment. The frustration for helpers is, even when you are doing all you can do within your given role, you may be perceived as unhelpful by not doing more. But doing more than you should, in the end, will not be helpful. And then your credibility and long-term ability to be of service is compromised.

Not helping in a given situation is not a judgment on what the other person needs- it is a judgment on whether or not you are able to provide what they need in your particular role.

Finding common ground and returning to that common ground often throughout the process of helping should help you maintain the level of trust needed for effective helping while building respect for your boundaries:

  • Establish limits of what you can provide early and reference those limits when confusion about your role arises.
  • Establish goals and focus on how decisions made during the helping process impact those goals. When there is unclear whether or not your actions or recommendations are helpful, refer back to how you are helping to reach those goals.
  • Establish the roles of other parties involved and what they are reasonably able to do. When someone feels you aren’t taking responsibility because you are staying within your boundaries, reference the roles that other supports (personal and professional) are able and willing to take, and do all you can to make sure those supports are clear about how they will be involved in helping.
  • The majority of people in need that you find yourself trying to help are not malicious in their intent if they say you aren’t being helpful.
    Usually it is frustration, fear, or trauma doing the talking. There are always a minority of people who are simply unwilling to be involved in helping themselves and want to put all of the burden of their situation on someone else. Remember that helping is about adding value to a person, not being that person or doing the work that they should do for themselves. Never feel bad about your good-faith contributions and remember that people must choose if they truly want your help. Feel confident that you have done all you can do and know that you can’t do it all for everyone.


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