Sometimes, apparent helping can cause more harm than good.


  • Help occurs when people are assisted to achieve the things that are important to them.
  • The goals of the person being helped are crucial in determining whether something is helpful or not.
  • If someone doesn’t find a particular gesture or program helpful, then it is not helpful.

It’s wonderful to live in a world where so many people help others so often. Lots of people devote a great deal of time to providing assistance and support to others.

In many countries, people train to be teachers, nurses, psychologists, coaches, surgeons, hairdressers, volunteer community health workers, dentists, travel agents, and other jobs that entail helping people.

Given how much time we spend helping people, you might expect we would be pretty expert at it by now. Unfortunately, helping efforts do not always have the intended effects. Sometimes, apparent helping can cause more harm than good.

Inappropriate healthcare, for example, wastes billions of dollars each year on the administration of unnecessary treatments and procedures and, paradoxically, the withholding of interventions that could be helpful (Carey, 2017). Perhaps even more serious than the misspent dollars is the damage to individuals and families who are needlessly prevented from enjoying good health.

So what’s the secret? Why is some help marvelously successful while other helping is unsettling, distressing, and most decidedly unhelpful? It turns out that the impact of the helping is determined by the one who is being helped, not the one who is doing the helping.

Helping occurs when a person uses something external to them to achieve their goals, chase their dreams, or meet their targets better than they could previously. If something interrupts or impedes their goal pursuit it will not be helpful.

The difference, then, between helping and interference has to do with the goals of the person receiving the help. If something promotes goal achievement, it will be helpful. Those things that stall the achievement of goals will be unhelpful.

This means that the intentions of the helper are not the crucial factor in determining the success or otherwise of helping efforts. It doesn’t matter how sincerely a helper wants to help or how diligently they persist with their helping strategies. If what they are doing is not experienced as helpful by the person being helped, it is not helping.

Stock photo, Image ID: 140774572, @123RF

Hairdressers who routinely ignore the wishes of their clients and cut and style people’s hair according to what they think looks best will probably not be in business for very long. The best hairdressers attend to the wishes of their clients. They might advise, suggest, and even inspire, but they leave the final decision to the client.

Many businesses offer refunds if customers are not completely satisfied. These are businesses that really get the importance of the preferences of the people they are in the business of serving.

Even if you have devoted a great deal of time, effort, and perhaps money to helping someone else, if they indicate that your offerings are not helping them, then they are right, and you are wrong. When people reject our suggestions and advice, it’s easy to blame them for not being grateful enough or smart enough to understand the opportunity they have before them. The bottom line, though, is that if what they are being given is not changing their world the way they want, it is not helpful.

It might seem silly to put it into words but helping is only helping if someone is helped. 

Sometimes, people can spend more time counteracting or avoiding helping efforts than enjoying an easier and swifter path to obtaining the things that are important to them. Any advice or directions or resources that a person cannot use to move them in the direction they want to go will seem like an annoying and frustrating interference.

So how can you be a better helper? Make sure what you’re doing is what the helpee wants you to do. Get the best idea you can before you even start about what the other person wants and then check in along the way to make sure your helping efforts remain on track. Be sensitive to any indications from the person you’re helping that your current efforts might be brewing some resistance.

Anything like a furrowed brow, a missed appointment, a sustained pause, or hesitation could be a clue that what is coming at them is more stirring than soothing. Even after you’ve finished, it’s often really useful to check in again with the person you’ve been helping.

To ensure our helping efforts are genuinely helpful, we need to be guided by the goals of the people we are seeking to help. Our helping goal must be to assist and support others in their efforts to get what they want.


Carey, T. A. (2017). Patient-perspective care: A new paradigm for health systems and services. London: Routledge.

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