Is Helping Overrated?

  • May 06, 2021
  • Margaret Marcuson, M.Div.

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.


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10 Replies to “Is Helping Overrated?”

  1. Thank you, Ms. Marcuson, for describing this relationship dynamic so well. It has been an essential understanding for me as a social worker, an continual exercise in clarifying my own role and respecting the other.

  2. Thank you, Margaret, and so good to read your contribution. A good reminder for me as I am in the midst of family caretaking responsibilities. I hope to see you again soon at another WPFC conference.

  3. Rev. Marcuson, your piece captures the powerful pull to take on the emotional weight of carrying others and ensuring their well-being by functioning for them. Thanks for it.

    I got curious about your example of your mother taking over money matters for your father. What do you think are the signs that indicate a decision to shift roles or responsibilities in a relationship has happened reactively vs. as a move for adaptive flexibility. For instance, I could imagine a grounded young wife, even decades ago, sayin, “I assumed you, the male, would be doing the finances, because that’s how the world says this is supposed to work, but it turns out, you’re not so good at that, and I am, so how about I take it over. What do you think? Also, how are your laundry skills?”

    1. Excellent question! A division of labor makes sense sometimes. I can imagine the scenario you describe, too. Perhaps the difference is whether the distribution of responsibility is made in a thoughtful, principled way by both partners or an anxious way where one partner just steps in. (My dad didn’t do laundry, either, btw…)

  4. Margaret, I also have offered help when it was not asked for or needed. I appreciate the description of your journey over time to focus on managing yourself instead of over-functioning through helpfulness. It highlights how staying with an effort to change is an essential part of achieving change.

  5. Rev. Marcuson, what a useful and practical tip “Feel the back of your chair.” Thanks. I’ll make use of it. It’s possible to do this even if standing.
    The idea of staying within one’s own skin came from Bowen’s research in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was at Menninger and exploring assumptions such as seriously ill people in a psychiatric facility could not form transferences. He set up his own way to see if this was so discovering that they formed intense transferences. Then, as a true researcher would do, he explored the opposite, how to avoid a transference. He found people could find within self solutions and his giving advice, direction, or suggestions interfered with their innate ability. What did help was to be present, a resource, the person could utilize at their own initiative. Something about a neutral environment helped. This understanding came from direct observation of what was effective treatment.

    1. Ms. Rakow, Thank you for this background from Bowen’s research. That deepens my understanding. I like that phrase “utilize at their own initiative.” And I’ll practice leaning back (a little bit) while standing.

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