Why actually helping can beat offering help

My friend Anne and I were comparing notes about what generally happens when people around you realise that you’re having a hard time of things.

Often they truly want to help, but nine times out of ten this gets translated into them asking what they can do for you, one of the most frustrating offers in the world.


Yes, you want help (sometimes desperately) but no – you’ve nowhere near enough strength to organise your thoughts sufficiently to ‘brief’ them.

As Anne said, ‘Don’t ask me how you can help, just tell me what you’re going to do, and do it’.

When times are tough, it may feel you’re using every ounce of your meagre resources simply to keep the plates spinning.

When a well-meaning friend asks how they can help, you’ve literally no capacity to work out a strategy. Better by far if they assume responsibility for a couple of plates. ‘I’ll look after these two’ – they’re likely to be the words you want to hear.

However, what happens if you agree with this principle but don’t know how to suggest it to others?

Two ideas spring to mind.

You could always lead by example – help others as you’d like to be helped yourself.

But if the need’s more urgent, why not let me do the seed-sowing? Just forward this email to a friend or two.

Almost certainly they’ll be only too pleased to know that the best way to help you is to simply roll up their sleeves and make a start on something, anything.

7 thoughts on “Why actually helping can beat offering help

  1. I wonder if people don’t do this because we want to help but not interfere. There is a thin line there. When I am feeling like this I want someone to just pick up a plate or two but they seem to pick up the wrong plate and I feel more frustrated! I don’t want to upset a well meaning person because let’s face it, if someone is offering to help I don’t want to be rude to them in case they don’t offer again. I think we have to take on board we can’t have it both ways and accept that others are not mind-readers – if I can’t articulate which plates needed spinning then I have to accept that any plates being looked after is a start, maybe not the start I had planned (which is why I probably haven’t started!) but a start offered by someone who genuinely cares. Having someone who cares being there in any capacity is surely something we can not just accept, but appreciate, however numb we might feel. In the back of our minds we know this to be true so we must reach back and hold on to it, even if our plates are being spun in the wrong order, better than than not spinning at all.
    Thanks Jon – this really hit a nerve with me 🙂

  2. thank you JON, I’ll always be grateful to the friend who signed me up for a weekend singing course and gave me a lift, soon after my dad had died andI was feeling really low.

  3. As one of the people who irritatingly offer to help, making any start on something is not necessarily helpful as I feel I am treading on eggshells and don’t want to make anything worse – plates are helpful if there is obviously something like the washing up that needs to be done. Might it be helpful when someone is feeling better that they could put a list together of things they think might have helped so they can tell their nearest friends and family what might be helpful if the circumstances arise again?

  4. Hi I loved this Nudge comment, only because I have a fried going through a life changing event. It happened two months ago. It’s been a really tough time and it is very hard to know what to do and what is crossing over the line. I got my head bitten off more than once for taking things into my own hands, I felt hurt that I couldn’t just take over, after all I’m her friend. I think people going through a crisis feel like they have no power anymore and we need to be careful as care givers that we don’t take away what little power over life they have. They couldn’t stop what happened to them and are forced to take on a lifestyle they didn’t see coming. I just wanted to help so badly and then I asked myself who am I doing this for? Am I trying to make myself feel good? We all do things for selfish reasons, even when it’s doing good, it makes us feel better about ourselves. It’s hard to be totally unselfish, so now I question my motives. Now I suggest things that I think are actually useful especially around her children, taking them to activities and trying to give her some space. I do her banking and run errands, I bring her lunch of berries and yogurt, her favorite. I don’t try to take over, and I just remind her that I’m here and available. So moral of the story, don’t try to take over just be available.

  5. When I offer someone my help I usually say:
    I am here for you no matter what you need, whenever you need… What do you want me to do? Clean, shop, take the kids, listen, cook or something else? I do not offer help if I do not intend to help. How I offer help is based on my wishes when I am on the dark side of the moon… I do NOT want someone to come in to my home and just take over… is this not one of those things that differences between people?

  6. I am a 53 year old guy now. But when I was 13 my father died. At the funeral so many people said that I was now the man of the house and “if there is any thing I can do?”

    I spent the greater part of my life trying to be the adult the young boy had lost, and resenting the words “can I help” as vacuous words of people that are uncomfortable with my pain.

    At 34 my mum died and I acquired diabetes 1. A good friend saw me close to breaking and picked up a phone making an appointment for me to visit his masseur.
    That one action, lead me to getting help and an amazing 12 year journey of letting go.

    It is as if I got touched by an angle at the moment. Since then I go out my way when I see I can make a difference. It is a selfish act since giving has made me the emotionally wealthy person I am today

  7. This is a difficult one, often doing things for someone who feels they can’t cope can reenforce their feelings of being useless/powerless.

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