Friday Counseling Issues: But I was Just Trying to Help

I got some questions on my “helicopter mom” post, many of them centered on this statement:  But I’m just trying to help!  I mentioned it as one indicator that perhaps a parent–or anyone else, really, –is being intrusive, even with the best of intentions.  Let me try to illustrate what I’m talking about with a  story from many years ago. Names have been changed to protect —–well, me 🙂

Sam and Sally had lived next door to Sharon for at least 30 years.  They had a pretty good relationship with her, watching her property when she was away, taking her mail and newspapers and keeping them until she returned.  There was mutual care and concern when any of them were ill.  She had been interested in their children, as she was a widow and had no children of her own.

Sam and Sally were very meticulous people.  Their yard was always as neat as a pin, The neighbors on the other side weren’t so careful, and it bothered Sam and Sally to the place that Sally started taking valium to calm her nerves. (This was back in the ’60’s, and we didn’t have zanax and all its relatives yet.)  Both Sam and Sally were extremely aware of what other people said and thought about them or anyone near them, and it bothered them no end that the other neighbors weren’t as fussy as they were about the appearance of their house and yard.

There came a time when Sharon decided to go on an extended vacation. She asked Sam and Sally to keep an eye on the house, take in her mail, and so on. And then she asked them very clearly to please leave her flower garden alone. She was emphatic and specific. Do not deadhead the petunias. Leave the weeds alone.  She preferred to do all that herself when she returned in a month’s time.

Sam and Sally watched the drooping blooms on the petunias.  They shook their heads over the weeds that started to crop up.  They waited for three weeks, and then they just couldn’t take it any more. One day, Sam went over with the best intentions in the world and pinched off all the dead petunias; then he carefully weeded the whole area, thinking that Sharon would be pleased when she got home not to have to deal with all that.  Sam and Sally felt they had been the best of neighbors.

Sharon came home.  When she stepped out into the back yard and saw how immaculate her flower beds were, she did not jump for joy.  She did not rush over to thank Sam and Sally. She, in fact, never spoke to them again. She avoided them. If they came out to work in their yard, she went inside.  There were no more exchanges of cookies and coffee. No more contact at all.

Sam and Sally were bewildered.It did not occur to them that Sharon was furious that they had disregarded her specific request that they leave her flowers alone. They puzzled over her behavior for weeks, feeling hurt and confused. Finally, a third party went to Sharon and asked her if she would mind saying why she was so cold toward Sam and Sally, because they just didn’t understand.  Sharon told this third party that she was just tired of the way they always were giving her suggestions about her yard and house; that they were criticial and overbearing, and that the straw that broke the camel’s back was when they had gone against her clear request that they leave her flowers alone. She just couldn’t deal with them any more, so she avoided them.  She felt bad about it, but they had just gone too far.

When the innocent third party carefully explained to Sam and Sally what Sharon had said, they were even more hurt and bewildered.

“But we were just trying to help!”  they declared.  “All we ever wanted was just to be helpful!  I guess you just can’t help some people!”

They didn’t get it, and the relationship was never repaired. So, just in case you don’t get it either, here’s the lesson:

If someone tells you NO!  DON’T!  then you need to respect that and stay out of their business. It doesn’t matter how muich better off they would be if only they would follow your advice. They see you as butting in, interfering. Worst of all, you make them feel as if you think they are incapable of running their own lives. 

Sometimes, the best help we can offer is to stand back and let the other person learn in his own way, take his licks, and go on to be a stronger and better person.  This is true in child-rearing and any other relationship. I personally hate to be snoopervised.  I do not need anyone else to do my thinking for me.  You may think you are being helpful, and your intentions may be nothing but good. But if you have been asked to stay out, then your insistence on “helping” isn’t going to mean diddly squat to the person you’re helping. She’s going to see it as meddling, and she won’t take it kindly.

We all need to learn that sometimes we just need to mind our own business.

I think it was wrong of Sharon, by the way, not to tell Sam and Sally why she was angry.  Maybe she just didn’t want to hear “But we were just trying to help” again.