Helping without hurting

There has been a lot written lately about when helping hurts.   There are so many people who want to meet the needs of others. They are well-meaning, but they don’t realize that there are times when our desire to help hurts the other person. As a social worker, I have seen this first hand many times, and I have been guilty of the same.

Christmas is people’s favorite time to give. People love even more when they can be part of the gift-giving process. I remember how excited one group was to help provide Christmas for some children. I was overwhelmed by the response. The children were elated by the gifts. The parent was left appreciating the gesture, but wishing she/he could have helped choose and/or purchase the gifts, even if he/she really couldn’t afford it.

Sometimes these gifts open up doors of expectation for children that the parent cannot meet. Sometimes these gifts hands-216981_1280remind a parent that he/she cannot provide for his/her child. As a society, we are trying to set right for a child the inequality that life has brought, but for the family that inequality continues when the holiday passes.

I have also seen well-meaning people think that a check can fix things. Money goes a long way in meeting people’s needs, but if people are not taught how to manage money the problem continues to arise. Paying to keep utilities on, or for a month’s rent or deposit without knowing the story behind the need can create a cycle of dependence. Sometimes people fall on hard times unexpectedly. A layoff, an illness in the family, or an accident can derail a family who lives paycheck to paycheck. Helping someone who has an unforeseen problem so they don’t fall behind on their bills can keep a cycle from starting.

However, a poor decision can lead to lasting consequences that weren’t counted – like the man with felony battery who fought with his wife after one to many drinks. His crime was decades ago. Long after the wife forgave him, the felony was still attached when employers ran his background check. The type of employment that provided for his life prior to the felony is much different from the life he has when he finishes paying for his crime. A check may help for a moment, but ultimately the family is going to have to be retrained about living on less. The need will not go away after one month. He needs job training for something that could earn him a comparable wage despite a felony record. He needs someone to look at the circumstances and give him a second chance.

There are also people who live in a poverty mentality. They don’t know what it is like to have enough, so they take anything they can get their hands on, even if they don’t need it. They will take every resource you can give them, but will do very little to get themselves out of the bad situation. Someone can give to them this month, and a month or two down the road they will have the same need. Someone can get them in to housing, but they can not maintain it. They really don’t know how to get themselves out of a bad situation, even if someone explains the process. These people are the ones that appear to take advantage of help. People in this mentality take a lot of work. They need someone to come alongside them, show them the way, and hold them accountable as they learn an alternate mindset.

There are also times that as we give, we give out of what we think we would want in a situation. We do not consider what the person really needs. I have met countless families who lived in a manner that I would not choose to live. Yet, if asked to define their needs, the answer is rarely tied to what I think it should be. I think they need more habitable housing; they see a need for a fan. I think they need a reliable car; they need a bike because it’s cheaper to maintain. People do not have to live like I think they should, they need to be given the opportunity to live as they choose and define their own need.

Unfortunately there is not just one story, not just one way to meet a need, and not one way to know if helping is really helping and not hurting. People in need rarely look beyond their need. People who want to give rarely look beyond the current need. We often see what is in front of us and look for the quickest solution. We patch holes instead of turning off the water at its source, or worse making new holes through our attempts.

So what is the answer?


  1. Talk to God about places you want to help. Then listen to what He says and obey.
  2. Get to know the needs in your community. Chances are there is probably an organization meeting a need you see already. United Way is a great place to start. They may not know all, but they can probably get you in the vicinity of someone who knows about an organization that meets a need your interested in helping address.
  3. Get involved. We are called to be the hands and feet of Christ. Hands and feet don’t operate independently. Get connected to a group or organization already addressing the need.
  4. Take time to build relationships, not just with the organization. Listen to the stories of those you’re interested in helping. Truly listen to those with the need.
  5. Work from empathy, not sympathy. Learn how they got where they are now, where they want to go, and how they see themselves getting there. Sympathy will move you to tears, empathy will help you meet them where they are.
  6. Never do something for someone they can do themselves. Again, you can walk with them, but if you do for them they will expect you or someone else to do it next time. That is not helping, it is enabling.
  7. You have to set clear boundaries. This goes back to the poverty mentality. If you don’t define things, takers will take everything you have to give, and then want more. It’s not intentional, usually. Clear boundaries will allow you to work in the joy versus frustration.
  8. Remember you are not a savior. As much as you may want to, you cannot fix someone’s situation. You can  understand it, you can walk alongside them, but you have to let them learn how to get and stay out of the situation for themselves or you build an unhealthy dependency.

We are called to help others.  It is intrinsic to our design to meet the needs of others.  Meeting people where they are, setting clear boundaries, not enabling, and staying connected are key steps to ensuring that our actions don’t hurt those we are helping.

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