Dealing with someone else’s problems is the most heroic form of procrastination. You feel like you’re saving the world, but you’re really just avoiding your own.
I’m not talking about volunteering or advocating or protesting. Those are things we should all be doing.
What I am talking about is exerting oodles of your time and energy into problems where the following apply:
- You’re dealing with a lost cause.
- Your help isn’t requested or desired.
- Your opinion isn’t taken seriously.
- You have fires burning at home.
This list could keep growing, but you get the idea. The average person won’t give five dollars to a stranger on the street, but we’ll spend hours coming up with plans to save our companies that nobody wants to hear. We’ll give unsolicited advice to that friend on Facebook.
Why is that?
Doing favors makes us feel important
You might wonder why we keep diving into everyone’s chaos if it doesn’t do us any good. It’s all about the dopamine, baby.
Helping someone gives you a short high.
This is the reason we build houses for humanity and donate to charities. We’re wired to give — some of us more than others.
Giving is good.
Over-giving is bad, especially when it doesn’t accomplish anything. But if we think we helped, we still experience the boost.
That’s why the Ben Franklin effect works so well. If you haven’t heard, the Ben Franklin effect says you should ask your adversaries for favors. It makes them feel good about themselves. They’ll like you more. That’s because they’re associating the dopamine hit with you.
That sensation is addictive.
Avoid charity therapy syndrome
There’s a dark side to the Ben Franklin effect. If you’re facing some serious crags in your own life, then going out of your way for everyone else gives you a little break from that. You might do tons of favors just to feel better about yourself. It boosts your self-esteem.
- You might take on extra projects that don’t matter.
- You might try to do someone else’s job.
- You might try to “save” someone from themselves.
- You might try to take charge of a failing company.
- You might go around offering unsolicited advice.
- You might try to fix things that aren’t broken.
- You might try to mentor someone who doesn’t need it.
These are all examples of displacement. We feel compelled to help everyone else when we can’t help ourselves.
If you spend most of your day doing favors, then you’re scavenging for a sense of purpose and control. You might even start imposing yourself where you’re not even wanted — just as a distraction.
In the long run, you’re running from problems you think you can’t handle. You’re putting off changes you don’t want to make.
Maybe you’ve heard of retail therapy, a form of self-soothing people perform by shopping and buying gifts for everyone they know. The same idea applies here. You’re engaging in charity therapy. This won’t make your life better — just deplete you.
Treating yourself well isn’t selfish
There’s nothing wrong with the occasional favor. But at some point you have to start doing them for yourself.
You’re not abandoning anyone if you go to bed at a decent hour, sleep in, take a weekend off, or spend an afternoon doing something you enjoy. You have a battery that has to be recharged.
Our brains pull a trick on us:
- Tackling your own projects and problems requires a level of self-awareness. You have to admit you have problems.
- It’s easier to admit everyone else has a problem.
- By helping everyone else all the time, you feel good without confronting or admitting any of your own issues.
- You allow yourself to feel superior to everyone around you.
So it turns out that helping everyone all the time isn’t selfless at all. It’s actually one of the most selfish, egotistical things someone can do. Plus, it completely sidetracks you from your life.
Your job or family will consume you entirely — if you let them. There’s no end to the amount of stuff you can do for everybody. You can always find some way to “help” someone else.
But you can’t help anyone if you’re sleep-deprived, caffeine-addled, and emotionally burned out. You can’t help anyone if you’re still falling into the same bad habits, and don’t even see them because you’re too busy offering advice. All you’re doing is grasping at the fumes of your last charity high. Get some sleep. Clean your apartment. Chill.
Learn when to say no
Make one simple rule for yourself: Never do a favor for anyone just to make yourself feel good. That’s easy, and destructive. You have to figure out where you’ll make the biggest impact.
You have to pay attention to who actually needs your help, and whether you’re in a place to offer it. You’re allowed to say no.
You’re allowed to ignore someone who keeps causing trouble for themselves. You might even have to. That’s hard. Deciding who and what deserves your attention requires a little discipline.
Offering your help to everyone indiscriminately, that’s easy.
It’s reactive, not proactive.
If your boss keeps ignoring your ideas, then stop offering them — even when he asks. Focus on your own career.
If your friends keep getting stuck in the same jams, place some buffers around them. You’re not the police, fire brigade, or therapist they need. You’re not being selfish. You’re protecting yourself.
You have a particular set of skills
We seem to think that the worse a problem gets, the more we’re needed. That’s just not true. To paraphrase Liam Neeson, every single one of us has a particular set of skills.
We’re good at certain things.
It doesn’t matter how “bad” something is. You might not be the person to fix it. That takes a certain amount of humility.
You have to admit you don’t control everything.
We need to apply our talents where they’re needed most — at the right place and time. That’s how you maximize your impact on the world. There’s lots of reasons you might not want to help:
- You don’t have the time.
- Someone else needs your help more.
- You don’t have the skills.
- You don’t have the patience.
- You’ve got your own problems to address.
We shouldn’t try to solve problems we’re not positioned to handle. One of the smartest things we can do is figure out what problems we can solve, and put our skills there.
It’s simpler than you think. Take something like climate change. It’s easy to tweet about that. It’s harder to take a deep look at all the plastic you consume and start making changes in your own life. But that’s how we beat the big problems, by examining our own habits and attitudes, and making small changes over time— not by playing super hero.
Get real with yourself
All of us just want to feel needed somewhere. When we don’t, that’s when we’re vulnerable to charity therapy. We’ll keep loaning our brains out to anyone. It doesn’t matter if they need our help, or want it.
We’ll obsess over one kind of person in particular — the kind who does need our help, but doesn’t want it.
That just enrages us.
There’s no bigger assault on your pride or sense of self worth than someone ignoring your smart advice.
This has the ironic effect of making you want to give them even more advice. You have to restore your ego. You have to be right.
But are you actually trying to help them?
Here’s a common situation:
You see a friend making the same bad decisions over and over. Your boss keeps screwing everything up at work. You actually have the experience or skills they need. But they don’t see it. They pretend to listen to you and then go right back to the same bad habits.
This is the biggest test of your resolve. If you’re not careful, you can wind up playing this kind of person like a slot machine. You’ll keep feeding yourself into them, waiting for that one euphoric moment when they actually listen to you. It’ll feel like a jackpot.
Don’t gamble with people.
It’s even worse than gambling with money.
Sometimes you have to walk away from the ones who don’t really want your help, even if they need it. You have to stop trying to tell them what to do, and just let them make a mess. It’s only a problem if the mess hits you, or people you truly care about.
Figure out what matters
Sit down and think about what you want to get done, and why. Make a list of who and what matters most in your life. When someone seems to need your help, run through this little list:
- How much help do they need?
- Are they asking for you help?
- What are you qualified to do?
- Will they listen to your advice?
- Why is this important to you?
- If you help them, what will happen next?
- Are you willing to keep helping them?
- Is there something else you need to be doing?
- Could someone else help them better?
The last item here is one of the most important. You’re almost never the only person who can help someone. That’s your ego talking. It’s easy to get distracted by the world of things gone wrong. These questions help redirect you back to your core.
Keep your priorities straight
You’ll keep coming across incompetence. You’ll see things and people that need to be fixed. The stronger your compulsion to fix them, the more you need to sit down and think first. In a nutshell:
- Helping people feels good.
- But it can distract you from your own problems.
- You can get lost in charity therapy.
- Helping the right people means making tough choices.
- It also means having a realistic attitude about yourself.
We have a nasty habit of offering our services to people who don’t want or appreciate them, while ignoring the ones who need us most. There’s a lot of people out there who need your help, but don’t want it. Let them go. Spend your time on the ones who do.
Usually, they’re so close you don’t even see them at first.