To Help Or Not To Help

Watching someone struggle? Know an easier way? Try to help and   “wham, bang, gol dang – rejection.”

I'd rather do it myself.

Thank you

This post inspired by a Daily Prompt Witness Protection: When you do something scary or stressful — bungee jumping, public speaking, etc. — do you prefer to be surrounded by friends or by strangers? Why?

When I am struggling trying to learn something new, most often I want to be left alone.  I suspect the “Let me do it” gene comes as part of  most people’s DNA. Most studies show that from struggle comes growth and learning. The most effective learning involves doing not listening or reading. So if I am trying to do something and seem to be struggling, leave me alone. At the same time when I succeed, I want applause. That is also built into our DNA

My ideal witness stays silent until I succeed. Then applauds a bit more than the task deserved. Too much applause often feels phony; something most kids learn by the time they enter first grade.

Now as a teacher, I find it painful to watch someone struggling when I know an easier path to success than the one the person is following.  Why so many of us jump in and tell the other what to do.  I rant because the current mantra “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” if fully followed would mean each child had to re-invent the wheel. To help or not to help is always a bit of a dilemma.

Emotional Fitness Thoughts

The “terrible twos”  are partly terrible because the two-year old wants to do things his way.    Applying a bit of emotional intelligence to what is happening when the child wants to do it “My way” applies to every age and stage. It revolves around the need to feel competent, masterful.

Two ideas of Harvard researcher Jerome Kagan help me better understand the preference for figuring things out on your own.  The first idea is that we all crave competency.  Meaning  a two-year old wants to do what the bigger guys  do.

Kagan says this craving can be as strong or stronger than the wish to be loved.  Resiliency studies also show that neglected and abused children are strengthened if they are competent in ways that matter to society. This applies even if they feel unloved.

A two-year old is mastering the world, and at the same time,  s/he lives way down on the ladder of competency.  Being a dwarf in a land of giants (a helpful way to think about toddlers) generates mega doses of uncertainty about one’s competency. Which brings me to the second helpful idea coming my way from Kagan.

That idea?  Uncertainty  as a motivator of behavior. Uncertainty, particularly about one’s self and one’s competencies, is extremely painful.  Kagan thinks that pain shapes behavior almost as much as the need for air, water, food, and the desire for sex.

A grownup testing his or her competence and dealing with feeling he is not handles frustration a bit better than a two-year old, or so one hopes.

Emotional Fitness Tips

Part of  #emotionalintelligence is knowing when to ask for help and when to offer to help. The first seems hardest for men.  Well, that maybe an over generalization. I use asking for directions as my proof. I also know I am often just as reluctant as my husband to stop when and ask when I am lost.
Another sign of men’s reluctance to seek help lies in the tendency not to read directions. I am guilty of that also. What can I tell you?

 There should be no shame in asking for help.  To use your emotional intelligence, see asking for help as a gift; you are giving the helper a chance to show competence and kindness.

What about offering help? The best strategy is to not help unless asked. When your need to help is strong, Don’t jump right in. Wait a minute or two unless there are  issues involving safety or valuable property is being destroyed,

When you decide to offer help,  be gentle, say something like: “Can I tell you how I do that?”  or “Would you like me to help?”

If the response is angry, recognize it is hurt at feeling incompetent and shrug the anger off. Communication is response say a number of sages. You do not know what had been heard until the other person responds.  An angry response is a strong “No.” Back off and if possible remove yourself as a witness.

I used to challenge my graduate students about anger and uncertainty. “If you can describe a situation where anger did not involve uncertainty, I will raise your grade one point. “

  1. Most cited injustice. That, however, can be thought of as uncertainty about the fairness of the world or someone else’s behavior.
  2. Another frequent example was anger at people who were different.  People who are different raise questions about you and your value.
  3. Think of anger against gays.  Gays create uncertainty about not just about what is normal sex, but mostly about the angry person’s normalness.
  4. Think about the thousands of years spent by Christians and Muslim’s hating Jews. Opposing beliefs about God creates uncertainty in some.
  5. Finally, students cited anger between haves and have-nots.  Again this creates uncertainty on both sides.

Kagan points out that Karma is a way to defend against having to help others and can quickly turn to angry blaming the poor for being poor. Part of the very American idea that as Oprah says, “If I made it anyone can” is another way to deal  with the uncertainty about who deserves what. The have-nots suffer multiple uncertainties ranging from uncertainty about survival to uncertainty about personal competency.

Complicated isn’t it. Many things are.  One way to make it less complicated is to think about uncertainty as motivator..


Learning to use a rating scale makes all decision-making easier and can be applied to whether asking for help or offering to help another.  Not familiar with rating scales?  A rating scale is a way to encourage thinking about how good or bad something is.  Practically everything can be rated.  Here are three quick examples:

  1.  How motivated are you to save some money?   10 is you will give up eating; 1 is not motivated at all.
  2. How much does it bother you that you don’t exercise the way you  should?  10 you feel totally terrible, 1 is doesn’t bother you at all.
  3. How happy you  are  EFTI’s blog post?  10 is to you’d pay top dollar to read this material. 1 you are never reading an Emotional Fitness Training Blog post again.

Here is this post’s free Poster Coach.

Rating scale poster

As always thank you for all you do to Practice Kindness, a major emotional intelligence boosting practice. Liking, commenting, or sharing any social media you find helpful is one way to be kind to me. It may seem like a little, however, doing a little matters a lot.


EFTI’s poster coaches are free digital downloads designed to  improve Emotional Intelligence. Best printed up in color on card stock. they can be posted almost anywhere.  Their intended audience? Anyone who wants to improve their emotional fitness or anyone else’s emotional intelligence.  Parents, teachers, therapists, coaches, fitness trainers, school guidance counselors, preachers, and non-preachers.


Agree or disagree, comments are always welcomed.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.