There is this Buddhist story about two monks sitting in meditation on the shore of a deep river. At some point, a man comes and tell to the monks he wants to swim across. Both monks know that, despite its calm appearance, the river has many traps and powerful currents and that is virtually impossible to get across by swimming. They try to convince the man that going across will be simply suicidal. But the man is really stubborn and there’s only one thing he knows: that he will swim across no matter what.
And here comes the interesting part. One of the monks goes back in meditation. But the other one gets up, approaches the man and punches him in the face.
The meaning: sometimes, if you really want to protect someone, you need to punch him in the face. In Buddhist teachings, they say that the monk who stood up and punched the man didn’t break the “protect life” vow, even if he acted violently, whereas the second one, who returned in meditation without trying to help, did.
The “Helping People” Syndrome
I’ve been thinking a lot at this story lately. The part in which the monk gets up and punches the man, putting some sense into his mind, deeply resonated with me. I can clearly remember some situations in my life when I did the same. Not punching them in the face, of course, but brutally explaining them that the direction they’re about to take is dangerous. Sometimes in a very colored language, I admit it.
Alas, most of the time, that didn’t prevent the other person to go ahead and “cross that river”. Maybe for a limited time, surprised by the vigorous intervention, they stopped and tried to think about it. But, eventually, many of them went ahead with their own agenda. In almost any of these situations, time proved I was right (unfortunately). None of the people who decided to “swim across” drowned, fortunately, but they did experience a lot of turmoil and unhappiness. Sometimes for years.
It’s also true that some of the people didn’t cross that river, and, in a few months, they came back and thank me for the intervention. But we’re not gonna talk about them today.
We’re gonna talk about those people who, under various circumstances, sometimes driven by an acute need to change their life in a meaningful way, acted destructively. Most of the time not even being aware they are destructive at all. In the search of a better version of themselves, trying to create a new identity, or simply to have new experiences, they broke up positive patterns in their lives. They broke up meaningful relationships, they lost opportunities, they changed entourages and, eventually, they experienced toxic relationships, toxic environments and turmoil.
I know you’ve been there too. I know you witnessed this pattern in your friends (or close, intimate relationships) as well.
And I know you wanted to help. At least, I know I wanted.
But at this type of situation emerged more and more in my life, a few recurring patterns showed up. Eventually, they created a habit that I call the “helping people syndrome”.
This is not a good habit, guys. As a matter of fact, this is a very nasty habit. It creates more problems than it solves and, sugarcoated by compassion and support, eventually ruins both persons: the one who wants to help and the one who doesn’t want to be helped.
Here are the 3 most important manifestations of this toxic habit.
1. They Don’t Want Your Help, But You Keep Pushing
If you are 100% convinced they’re going in the wrong direction, then, as the monk in the story above, you should stand up and “punch them in the face”. But do it only once. As clear and as straightforward as you can, but only once. If it’s going to work, great. But if it’s not going to work, then go back to your life and keep minding your own business. Stop it. Don’t push it.
Something very subtle happens if you continue to offer your help when they don’t want it. I confess that I understand this only recently, but it was a very powerful lesson for me.
When you offer your help but the other person declines, something very deep occurs at the communication level. Your words, not being taken into account by anyone anymore, are becoming useless. You’re talking to no one. It’s only idle chatter. Useless usage of your energy and ability to communicate.
This “idle chatter” thing, despite looking harmless at the surface, is actually something very dangerous. In Buddhist teachings it even has its own vow: “do not engage in useless talk”. The consequence of this, at a karmic level, is that your future actions will have little or no results. Just like your words are not getting to anybody anymore, your actions will not reach their desired result. This is serious. It’s not like you’re talking to the walls and that’s it. By continuing to talk to a person who doesn’t listen to you anymore, you create the cause for yourself to experience lack of results. Stop it.
2. You Feel Guilt If They Fail
Now, suppose you went over the first step and stopped your efforts. But, if you were right, then sooner or later they will hit a wall. They will experience some negative consequence and that will make you feel bad. Well, they do have the right to hit their own wall, you know.
It’s ok to feel compassion. It’s not only human, it’s fundamental at a more deeper level. Compassion is ok. But it’s not ok to feel guilt. It’s not ok to look in the mirror and say: “I could’ve stop that”. Because you couldn’t. It was their call. You did your best. You even punched them in the face. If that was their decision, then they are the ones who are going to experience the consequences as well.
This guilt is very hard to overcome. The thought that is constantly buzzing in the back of your head, while looking at the person with whom you were so close at some point, with whom you shared maybe years of your life, seeing how miserable they are now, the thought that is telling you: “you didn’t do enough, you could’ve prevent this”, that’s tough.
But as tough as it may be, don’t fall for it. It’s their life. It’s their decision. It’s their responsibility. Not yours.
Unless you acquired the super powers to save everybody, you must not feel responsible for everybody. The only person you can safely be responsible for is yourself.
3. You Promise To Yourself To Do Better Next Time
Now, suppose you’re over the guilt. You did all you could to prevent them to jump into the river, but they did jump anyway. And once in the river, they struggled a lot. Well, you’re over that.
But what you’re not over yet is the promise to “do better next time”. A promise you made to yourself.
Because, as life unfolds, you will be put in the same situation again. You may witness the same scenario, in which a friend, or a close intimate partner is going to screw up his or her life really bad. And, because you already know this movie, because you’ve already been through this, you do your best to help them. Again.
Well, please go back to number 1. You can’t do better than that. Just do it once and then, as gently as you can, just step away. Do not stay in their way.
Even more, keep a certain distance because, if your intuition was right (and we assume it was) then at some point they will create a lot of mess around them. The impact to the wall they’ll hit will most likely result in lots of debris. And those debris are kinda toxic, you know. Just by being around those people at the moment of the explosion, you may get hurt.
And, as much as you love them, you don’t want to get hurt just because you chose to be there and they’re stupid.
There is so much more in the world to be experienced and so many other people who are waiting for you to interact with.
In a meaningful, balanced way.