When Helping Hurts

Published on August 8th, 2019

"Open a chrysalis, and you kill the butterfly." I still remember the first time someone told me that because it seems counter-intuitive from the vantage point of how humans approach problems. If I could avoid a roadblock entirely, why wouldn't I? If I could take a shortcut to get through it faster, why wouldn't I? Of course, the butterfly wants to get on with its life, so why help them?

Yet, the chrysalis serves a critical set of functions during this beautiful moment of transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly. Without its protection, it could be killed by predators. Without its barrier, it would not gain the strength necessary to extend its wings and have the strength to fly. Without its durability, the creature would be exposed to the world before it was ready.

Life is full of these situations. At first glance, it might appear that avoidance of or a shortcut through a problem would be best. Ironically, this can become a trap in itself. This is especially true if you're doing it for another person that doesn't want or didn't ask for the help in the first place. As a chronic rescuer, this hits home for me. Having experienced incredible highs and painful lows in life, I want to help people avoid the latter and experience nothing but the good stuff. Sounds great in theory, right?

A great question to ask as a self-checkup: am I doing this, so they feel better? Or I am being selfish and trying to fix them faster so I feel better. Honestly, I hate seeing people in pain. As a result, I often find that I insert myself to fix their problems for my benefit.

Here's the problem.

Inserting myself without their request robs them. A colleague of mine calls it being "a spiritual thief" because they lose the opportunity for the experience and the resulting wisdom of facing these challenges. It also robs them of potential gains in self-confidence and self-esteem. If I (or someone else) is always the one rushing in to fix things for them, it sends a message that they are incapable of doing it themselves. Every moment of transformation is like the butterfly struggling. Too much help and they lose all value, and it may leave them completely ill-prepared for the next phase of their existence.

This is a lesson that has become all too real to me the past few years, and I have to find myself pausing before I rush in and fix everything and anything. This is my problem. And I'm still learning how to be comfortable sitting back while people I care about struggle. It's often best and necessary for both of us.


Earlier I alluded to life being full of these examples. Here are a few that have affected me personally or friends and family I know.

Birth is a moment of massive transformation for the baby, the mother, and the entire family — everything changes. And yet our modern health system in America likes to short circuit the process rather than wait for nature to run its course. This is why you hear stories of doctors scheduling births and forcing through inducement or just jumping right into a C section. While this is often medically necessary, sometimes it's done purely out of convenience so that the child can be born on a weekday versus a Saturday night. In removing a baby unnecessarily through a C section, they lose all the additional benefit of passing through the birth canal and getting the amniotic fluid squeezed out of their lungs. It also allows for more immediate skin to skin time with the mother, which sets off a host of beneficial processes between the mother and child.

Addiction is another area in life where we attempt to force transformation before the other person is ready. As the addiction takes over and starts to create massive chaos in their life, it bleeds over to everyone that surrounds them. This creates a strong desire to "fix" them so that they stop causing this disruption. However, others forcing help ofter reinforces the shame spiral of not being X enough, which ultimately fuels the craving for the substance they are addicted to. Only they can choose when they are indeed ready to walk the difficult journey of recovery.

Business is full of opportunity to mentor, train, and delegate to others so that they can create space for others to level up and take on higher-value tasks. Unfortunately, what can happen is micromanagement, which results in a co-dependent relationship. The manager doesn't empower the individual to own what they were hired to do. As a result, the manager can't fully disengage and focus their effort on other tasks and areas of responsibility. Only when the new hire is allowed to face and grow from the challenges of the role will they both benefit.

And so on and so on. This is not to say that all help is unnecessary and shouldn't be done. Hardly! But there are many situations where the person has everything they need to take on a challenge. In these situations, we honor them by allowing them to prove it to themselves and all of those around them.

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CXO of Atomic Form. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.