How to Get Over Your Helping Hang-Up

Photo: Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

“We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.”

- Ronald Reagan

Helping professions are often regarded as noble professions, and while they entice some people, others are repelled from their pursuit. Why are some people drawn to helping professions? Perhaps the enticement is associated with the recognition bestowed upon the helper by society. The assumption of selflessness, the feeling of wanting to help others after receiving help, or the perceived innate reward of personal fulfillment from helping others.

Society promotes helping with phrases such as, “Doing good feels good,” and “What goes around comes around.” I’ve had countless clients who self-identify as being caught in a life-sucking vortex of the corporate hustle announcing with great resolve that they want to “help others.” To realize this, they will pursue a helping profession such as teaching, social work, or something in healthcare.  Those aren’t the only occupations that help others, but unfortunately. they are often the first ones that come to mind.

Buyer beware! There are more ways to help than the most obvious professions. Also, a word of caution: having a job title in line with a stereotypical helping profession, doesn’t automatically bestow upon you a saintly status or what you are necessarily looking for. Nor does it mean that you will actually be able to help others in the way you had hoped. I’ve seen many “helping roles” interact with things and data versus people to a greater degree than one would expect. And let’s be honest, not everyone likes other people, never mind helping them. I hear many clients say they would enjoy their work more if they could eliminate or reduce the human interaction all together.

Here are some common helping hang-ups and what you can do if you are caught having them:

You are prone to make decisions based on the implied helpfulness of the particular job title or the anticipated reaction of announcing your new helping role.

If you really want to be pedantic about it, one could argue that every career, in one way or another, helps someone directly or indirectly. For example, cleaning someone’s house, helping others style outfits, serving coffee, inventing technology, building a house, etc. I think most of us can recall having a bad teacher, doctor, psychologist or nurse who left us feeling anything but helped. A title alone is insufficient for facilitating helpfulness if indeed you are a terrible helper. So don’t rely on one data point to make a decision. 

Your decision to enter a helping profession is driven mainly by your self-identified passion of wanting to help others.

Passion is great, but keep in mind that specialized skills and knowledge are often required to help people. Without proper skills and training you may be doing more damage than good. I often hear people say that they want to be helpers because all their friends come to them to talk about their problems. The reality is that people may seek you out for reasons other than your ability to help them, such as their trust in you to maintain confidentiality or the fact that you are more likely to answer your phone. Instead of just chalking it up to a passion, think about your specific purpose in wanting to help others. A clear purpose and understanding of why you want to do something can be more motivating than a passion. Passions can be fleeting, and subject to change.

When asked why you want to help others, you come up with little more than, “Because helping others feels good.” 

While there is much emphasis on creating business plans, there is less emphasis on creating a purpose plan. It’s important to know why you are making certain career choices and having a clear purpose is helpful.  You can use the Golden Circle from Simon Sinek’s work to help you do just that.

Know your WHY: Why do you want to do what you want to do. What do you believe?

Articulate the HOW: How will you achieve your why? What are the specific actions?

Define the WHAT: What do you do? This is the result of your why?

Also consider if leaving a paid job is the only way to help others. Many chose to stay in a job and leverage the income and/or flexibility to help others versus becoming a paid helping professional. A sense of caring, helpfulness, understanding and compassion are admirable, but it’s equally important to apply these qualities to yourself and your career, not just others. Much like happiness and success, helping too can be subjectively defined. So, if you feel compelled to help others in your career journey, spend the time to first help yourself in identifying what helping looks like for you.