Caring for others need not be a stranglehold


They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I believe it. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I have earned my own hard hat and orange safety vest.

Many sensitive, lovely people are genuinely committed in their hearts to making the world a better place. Unfortunately, this noblest of goals can set up them up for a nasty trap. The messes that can be made by stepping in to resolve a problem are often far greater than might result from being hands-off.

The drive to care for others is a noble one, but the drive can be so strong that it can override perspective and cloud better judgment. In the attempt to be of service, the most well-meaning person can become a font of trouble. The line between wanting to care about others and care-taking others is so fine that sure-footed dexterity is sometimes required to avoid crossing it.

The stereotypical caricature of this is the busybody, the bossy aunty or the high-handed neighbor who seems to think she knows what is for everyone else’s “own good,” and is willing to make it happen whether others like it or not. Most of us don’t see ourselves in that way, and few actually behave in such an overtly interfering fashion, but that doesn’t mean that the most subtle, well-intentioned statements and actions don’t carry the same charge.

Have you ever absolutely insisted that someone must order a particular item on the menu, just has to try your hair stylist, or buy something you think they really should have? The menu item may be fabulous, and very much the sort of thing that person would enjoy, but that doesn’t mean she’s in the mood for it.

What happens in these cases is that others feel like their choices are being threatened, or even taken away. Imagine making those sorts of recommendations and pay attention to the feeling you experience. Notice how strident and keyed up you feel. Consider how that translates to the person you’re speaking to. Now, notice what happens when the presentation changes: “I really recommend the salmon.” “I am really happy with my stylist; would you like her number?” “That really does look nice on you, and it is a great wardrobe basic.” These are all ways of being helpful without leaving the other person feeling threatened. Making recommendations with an insistence that implies knowing best also implies criticism of the other’s choices.

Criticism is a key way that we find our better nature manifesting into our worst behaviors. Critical behavior can be the result of a variety of motivations. Finding fault with others’ choices and decisions can result from a low self-esteem as a technique to build up oneself by diminishing another. But there is sometimes a more altruistic reason for appraising others. When casting a critical eye, the frame of mind of the critic may be that the object of their criticism has some untapped potential. The subconscious intent may actually be to be the cheerleader for that person, the coach that pushes him to live up to the promise of who he can be. Of course, it doesn’t come out that way. It is very difficult to see your choices be criticized without seeing it as an indictment of your intelligence, your taste, or you. Seeing past the faultfinding to the well-intentioned boost is a very hard thing to do when you feel wounded and diminished.

Do you see yourself as the person who is caring and well-intentioned, but misunderstood? Or are you the victim of the interfering, over-bearing critic? The truth is that at different times, each of us is capable of being one or the other.

When your passion to help others and make their lives better drives you to a place where you might insert yourself inappropriately, remember that just being with someone, totally and completely, is the most helpful that you can possibly be.

When someone in your life is making you crazy with interference and commentary, remember that deep inside, they may be trying to show you how much they care about you, so soften your heart, go to a place of love — and hand them a hard hat and an orange vest.

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