Ep. 64 – The Hidden Cost of Helping: 8 Questions to Ask Before Saying ‘Yes’

We are good people. We’re the type of person someone can count out. People come to us for support and advice. We’re always willing to help someone out, when needed. Most likely. Well, most of the time. Honestly, it depends. 

Of course it depends. We’re good people, but we’re also busy people. There’s only so much we can do in a day and beyond our own list of things. So when it comes to helping others, there’s a psychological calculation that goes into how much of ourselves we have left over to give. 

This episode explores some of the conscious and unconscious elements behind the decision to help, or not. Asking others for help for ourselves is a whole different topic. This conversation is about the decision points behind being the helper and some strategic questions to ask when you find yourself in situations where you are resisting lending a hand or where you find your hand is being lent a little too much. 

The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that doing good can make us feel good, but doing good for the right reasons is the best way to help ourselves. 

Let’s start behind the scenes of the decision-making process in the brain. According to research, the decision of whether or not to help has both cognitive and emotional components. There is even a field of study called neuroeconomics that explores the integration of brain science, psychology, and economics. In the case of helping, each of these areas contribute to our consideration of how, when, and how much to help in different situations. 

By starting with this framing, we can then look at the different decision points that extend from our basic view (“Hey, I’m a good person!”) to our response when facing the reality of the requests in front of us. The quick decision tree process in our brain will likely include what we see as the anticipated cost (meaning how much effort is necessary to help), social evaluation (how badly is help needed?), the anticipated benefits (is there a future payoff for helping?), and any emotional consequences (will I feel better or worse after doing something here?). 

And let’s add a dash of recognition to the mix as research also shows that we are more likely to help if others learn of our good deeds than if it’s anonymous-that’s the human in us. 

Okay, so a lot is going on in the brain, but each circumstance is unique. So here are a few self-prompts to consider when you find yourself thinking through your role as a helper.

First ask yourself: Is my help needed? There are the flash times when helping is an instinct. You see someone fall near you, you hear a call for help, etc. We spring into action almost immediately or look to see if action is being taken. But other times, we may be jumping in to help before it’s even clear that our help is needed. Is our desire to be helpful driving our decision to jump in? 

Sometimes this shows up in small ways that often follow the logic of: “I’ll do this just in case.” That could be copying more people on a note than necessary, running around reminding people of things, or priding yourself on anticipating needs in advance. If you see this as a pattern, it’s likely an indicator that you are finding ways to be viewed as valuable and calling it being helpful. 

Another question to consider is: Was help specifically asked for? This follows the previous sentiment in that our natural response may be overshadowing another person’s opportunity to solve something on their own. This also shows up in communication challenges when what is needed may be someone to listen instead of someone to do something. By taking the time to pause and listen, we allow more room to see what is actually being asked.  

Next question is: Is this still my role? There are ages and stages where we play certain roles like student, employee, caregiver, etc. Sometimes as things evolve, we hang on to our outdated job descriptions. Our intentions are good and often innate. We may not realize that we’re still doing what is no longer needed. Or perhaps we have the same role but someone else’s role has changed. That’s a special nudge to all you managers and parents that the people we support are supposed to eventually outgrow that support-that’s a good thing.  

Another important assessment is: Do I have the time, skills, and desire to help in the best way? Each of those elements is important. After all, we’re good people! We may have the desire but not the skills. Or have the skills but not the time. In our drive to help, we may compromise on one or more of these pieces and, in doing so, we aren’t able to help in the right way. 

Part of helping in the right away is being honest about what we are hoping for in return. So the question here is: What do I hope to get out of this? We can be altruistic and still be on the lookout for reciprocity. Gut-check yourself to see if there is a transactional element to your willingness to help. Are you collecting extra credit? Looking for recognition? Adding to the scoreboard for your future ask? Does this action help offset another negative emotion you might have been feeling like guilt or loneliness? These are all normal thoughts of us normal humans. One way to check your impulse is to ask: Would you do this even if no one knew you did it?

Another way to help evaluate is through a two-part question, starting with: Am I the right one to help? Sometimes our role may be to provide a quick step or to simply get out of the way so the right help can get to where it’s needed. A similar and important follow-up question can be: What might happen if I don’t step in here?

I’ll give a recent example of this. A few days ago, I was in my yard and was moving around some of my large trash bins. As I did, I discovered a baby bird on the ground. It was still alive but not in good shape. It was a nestling, which means it wasn’t old enough to stand or move on its own. I had no idea what to do in the moment and I didn’t want to do the wrong thing, but I was also very conscious that I may not have a lot of time to figure it out. After some quick internet searching, I was faced with those questions. 

“Am I the right one to help?” Clearly not. I had the desire and time but didn’t have the critical and specialized skills to help. After consulting with a vet and then a wildlife rescue center, I checked for a nearby nest and for any signs of a mama bird. Which led me to “What might happen if I don’t step in here?” 

I struggled with this. I didn’t want to make the wrong decision but, again, I didn’t feel like I had a lot of time. So I gently scooped up the bird and brought it to the wildlife center, they took it from there. We can’t always control the outcome of our help either, and that’s tough especially when you feel invested. 

And doing good is an investment. So is not helping, in some situations. There is no formula for what is right every time. Not everything we will do will matter so invest the time to know what matters – first to you, and then to the situation. Sometimes the best way we can take good care of ourselves and others is to give space for the right help to happen in the right way. 

Your brain is hungry. Give it some intellectual snacks in the
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I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.