I would have answered once upon a time with more questions: “How could helping be overrated? Isn’t helping others a good thing?”
I answer that question differently now: Helping is overrated when it is driven more by my own anxiety than by the real needs of the person I’m “helping.” It’s overrated when it creates unnecessary dependency that disregards the real capacity of the person receiving the help.
Michael Kerr says in his book Bowen Theory’s Secrets, “…anxiety drives overfunctioning-underfunctioning reciprocal interactions. The overfunctioner is not necessarily more capable than the underfunctioner.” (p. 30). This has been a valuable lesson for me both personally and professionally. When I can ramp down my own anxiety and think about what is in everyone’s best interests, I remember that people are more capable than I assume.
I’ve learned this in the hard schools of family life, pastoral ministry, and coaching leaders. I first read about Murray Bowen’s concept of overfunctioning/underfunctioning reciprocity in Harriet Lerner’s book, The Dance of Anger. I read it because I was angry with my husband for not finding his way vocationally. I had to read the book twice before I got it. This line struck me, “We behave as if it is our responsibility to shape up other people or solve their problems, and further, that it is in our power to do so…. And when we realize that our attempts to be helpful are not working, do we stop and do something different? Of course not!” (p. 138)
Finally, I had the aha moment. This is a dance. It’s something we are both taking part in. I have a role in it, too. It’s not simply his fault. That was a moment of truth. It was humbling and freeing. I didn’t have to spend all my energy blaming him or trying to “help” him find his way. I could do something different: think about myself and how I wanted to relate to him. I had choices. It gave me more freedom, and him as well. It was a relief for both of us when I finally got off his back.
Some 25 years later, it’s a lesson I have to remember over and over. I still get anxious and want to give helpful advice and reminders. I think of my mother, who understood this in her role as a parent. She was a brilliant speller. Yet every time I asked her, “How do you spell___________?” she answered, “Look it up in the dictionary.” It was a small illustration of not doing for others what they can do for themselves. At the same time, she overfunctioned for my father, including taking over the household finances after he bounced a check early in their marriage. She managed everything about the money until she couldn’t do it any longer. Growing up I learned something of both lessons.
I still get anxious when someone is struggling. I want to solve their problem. My own first coach, Lee Gruber, said she tried to remember, “Feel the back of your chair.” Sometimes I literally lean back a little which reminds me to give the other person the space they need to figure it out for themselves.
It’s hard and important to remember that functioning is relational. It’s better for everyone when I can stay in my own lane. Now, if I feel a little guilty when I step back on principle from helping someone, I figure I’m probably on the right track.
Margaret Marcuson, M.Div.
Margaret Marcuson works with leaders who want to bring their best to their work without giving it all away, so they can have a greater impact and find more satisfaction, through the Marcuson Leadership Circle.
For more intriguing examples of systems thinking as applied to family and societal dilemmas, be sure to register for the June 18th online conference: Moving Beyond the Pandemic: Systems Thinking and Adaptation. Click here to register and for more information.