The Road to Good Intentions
White Knights trying to help the people they love, and how not to.
I’m an engineer and a technologist. I solve problems. I see many, many things in life as “situations which can be improved, often with technology”. I have been accused of being “solution oriented” in the past, in a way that makes it feel like I’m giving my friends and partners a quarterly performance review.
I’m also a bit of a White Knight.
Sometimes that means that I’m attracted to partners who are needy in some way. But sometimes, it just means I’m attracted to what I see as untapped, unrealized potential. I enjoy being around competency, and I adore seeing people grow.
I tend see others’ problems as my own to obsessively work on — to have an annoying desire to “fix” people, or “to encourage them to be their best”. These are all well meaning terms, which coincide with the title of this essay.
I need to own this behavior. It’s done damage to my relationships, and as part of my lifelong, continuous journey of learning, I’m sharing a few thoughts here.
It started when a partner (who used to be closer, and used to be a nesting partner) asked me this:
Hey, is there anything you read or watched that helped you resist or transform the “fix the other person’s problem” instinct you have?
To answer the question: I don’t think I learned or read things, I think I got introspective. Or at the very least, I am trying to.
To answer the implied rest of the question, we need context.
This partner had an emotional disorder that was diagnosed, systemic, invisible, and everyday affecting. They were trying to live with it, and doing their best. They were on medication, and seeing a therapist, but meds only do so much and many days were a struggle. I found this frustrating to watch. I knew they were hurting from it too, and I felt some of their pain. My desire to “help” caused us much consternation, because often I had the suggestion of “have you tried not doing X?” I let my own frustrations play into it. My empathy looked like anger (and in some cases it was, because I felt frustrated on their behalf), but it looked like ONLY anger, absent any compassion or reassurance or even apology.
I wasn’t a good partner in these regards. I yelled at panic attacks, I would sigh and fume, and I made them feel like a constant disappointment. We went our separate ways for a time, and we remain more distant than I’d like. Even for years after, they told me that that when they messed up, they’d hear me sigh. I was their own personal failure buzzer, living in their head.
If there’s an “Achievement Unlocked” for being a shitty partner, that’s one of them.
It took a lot of soul searching, but here’s a few revelations I’ve had, over the years.
These are just my own guidelines for myself — I’m no expert in any of this, but I’m sharing both for my own clarity and explaining to others I care about, and who might care about me.
Tip One: Start with consent as a framer.
There’s an old phrase: ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ Sometimes your help isn’t needed. Sometimes it isn’t wanted. Sometimes it is needed or wanted but isn’t appreciated. And sometimes, when an offer of help isn’t enough, it can make both parties feel worse.
Asking “would you like help?” is not demeaning, it’s necessary, but if they say no, then stop helping unless they’re in obvious (as in: there’s a car coming) danger. Yes, this means sometimes you have to let people make their own mistakes, and yes, to some of us, that can be woefully frustrating, but the counter to that is: They Didn’t Consent to Being Helped. Consent is key.
Asking first forms a social contract that you’re offering part of your time or energy to a person. It lets you make an informed choice as to your level of effort. And if the person you’re offering assistance to makes you feel unacknowledged, then you can say it to them instead: “I’m glad I was able to do this for you.” But only if it’s accepted.
Consent is ongoing. It’s not a once-granted always-in-effect thing. And yes, there are minor exceptions: if someone walks through the door with an arm full of groceries with the bag ripping, it’s probably a safe bet to grab the eggs before they hit the floor, but use your head.
When you have this kind of consent-based relationship, it’s also easy to set up the expectation that people can ask for help if they need it. But there are challenges. There are folks who view any kind of asking for (or even, accepting) help as a sign of weakness, and they’d rather struggle and drop the eggs, and beat themselves up afterwards to boot. Brains are complicated.
In a good reationship with solid foundations, consent can be passed back and forth easily, wordlessly. This takes discussion. It takes baby steps. And it takes an upper limit — there may be some things for which that consent may never be automatic. That wordless consent doesn’t happen overnight. Don’t assume it.
Tip Two: Don’t diagnose people, assess the relationship.
For my purposes, diagnosis is simply the act of comparing a person to a given reference standard.
If you’re a shrink, you’re looking for a label in some diagnostic manual (typically so you can justify treating them to an insurer or supervisor).
If you’re not a healthcare professional, but a lay-person, YOU are the reference model, and your goal is to figure out how a person differs from you, so you can find a common model. In diagnosing, work with the base assumption that “Everyone is not like you”. Work with the assumption that people are a bit of a puzzle, and we all have some sort of trauma driving us. There is no “normal”. Figuring this out is a puzzle for you — one that you can apply to helping yourself be a better friend/partner/ally for them. My more recent partner gave me an opportunity to approach everything with all the failures of the first relationship fresh in my mind, and it helped.
Putting a DSM-4 label on what people’s trauma is called is not my job (and probably not yours), but learning how you are diverse from others is part of the human condition. In working with the assumption that everyone has some trauma, means you can make some broad observations:
- You can carefully couch how you offer advice (you don’t know how a person was talked down to before).
- You can ask before feeding back (again, you don’t know a person’s past).
- You can guard your expression, lest it be too read-into.
- You can realize that not everything you can do (like making a phone call) is a skill everyone has.
- You can learn what comments are not welcome, even if you feel they are helpful.
Every one of the above is an adjustment to your interaction with the person, not an attempt to “fix them” yourself.
No matter what, standing on the sidelines, pointing and yelling “You’re doing it wrong.” is not helpful. Diagnosing how to offer help is a step in making sure none of your methods sound exactly the same way. When people are flailing and in a frustrated state, it’s easy to hear the kindest words as the most critical. Don’t be that person. Learn who you’re working with. You owe that to both of you.
As you get to know a person, more of this will become inate, but in terms of purely learning how to offer advice, having a diagnostic approach helps.
In practical terms, this means in the early phases of a relationship — be it professional or personal, you should check back in and ask if a thing was okay, if your partner would have preferred other directions, if you felt you had offered too much or too little.
Tip Three: Don’t attach strings to gifts.
If you must offer your help as a physical or virtual gift (say, an item or a gift certificate or a subscription), give what help you can, but make the decision to give it and then let go of it. In offering help to a person, you are making an investment in them. Not all investments pan out. This is the basic rule of investments. Make your investments with no obligations.
“Hey, this is a tool I found helpful. I give it to you with no obligation, but maybe it’ll do something for you. It’s yours no matter what. If you don’t like it, maybe you know someone else who will, that would also make me happy to see it put to good use.”
That tool could be an organizer, a book, a pen, a tool for their everyday use in something they love, whatever. But if you love the person, let them make their own use of it. If you give someone a book, you’ve done your part — you’re not obligated to make them read it. You’ve told them where the pond is. You cannot make them drink.
I hold largely the same rule true with loaning money: Don’t offer it if you can’t afford to get it back. Over time it feels as though it’s led to fewer damaged friendships and fewer hurt feelings, overall.
(Caveat: if you give them something actually dangerous like a chef’s knife or a sous vide blowtorch, when you see them frustrated with basic cooking, maybe do offer the training.)
Tip Four: Within your own limits, love people the way they want to be loved.
This is one of my own, cardinal rules on relationships. Another way of framing this is: Don’t try to be something for another person that they don’t want you to be. Don’t try to be something you’re not prepared to be. Don’t try to be something you’re unwilling to be.
Just as “Childhood Best Friend” doesn’t have to become “Boy/Girlfriend” unless you both want it, your role as partner/coworker/friend/whatever doesn’t come with the label of “Coach” or “Teacher”, or “Personal Trainer” or “Mentor”, unless it does. Unless you’ve been asked, or tasked to by some senior person (management, parent, etc), you can take solace in the simple fact that it’s just not your place.
This is a hard one to learn, but if you can cement the “it’s not your place to do this” role in your head (again, see tip one, consent is key), it can serve as a useful emergency brake on the urge to a need to Fix All The Things. It can circumvent your frustrations. It can enable you to, harsh as it sounds, let people make their own mistakes.
Is that optimal? Maybe not. Is it rational? Yes. Is it easier to follow than constantly trying to second-guess what a person needs before they do? Absolutely. Learning via mistakes is part of the human condition, and sometimes you have to let that happen even if it hurts.
Just as in tip three, you can gently offer a “let me know if there’s anything I can do to help” — that’s your gift. How they use it is on them.
Tip 5: Couch your Offerings
In Tip 1, I stated that consent was key, and it is. But that works both ways. If you’re offering someone help moving, or help with yardwork, or time to talk, or emotional support — you’re allowed to have your own limits (which I mention in the previous point). Doing so is reasonable, healthy, and can be a critical part of taking care of yourself.
“I can probably commit to N hours this weekend” or “I can help you with labor but probably not with money” or “I’m available to do light lifting, but you need to find someone else to move the Piano” are all reasonable ways to put this forward. They are part of the social contract you’re forming.
Part of that social contract also includes being as reliable as you can in giving and doing what you say you will — it helps to build a longer term lasting relationship, and makes you a better communicator over time. It lets your people learn that you will move with intention.
The final Tip: You can’t help everyone
I’m an engineer. I’m a compassionate person. I’m attracted to people with unrealized potential, or who are struggling. I have some intellectual and financial means in my life (a solid job, a safe home with a touch of extra space, a car that can carry people and a love of driving, an able body). I’m also kind of stubborn in that I can continue with the insane process of trying the same thing and expecting a different result with people.
I have lost touch with people because I couldn’t connect. I have lost people in my life because other relationships have become more prevalent in theirs. I’ve lost friends because I became tunnel-visioned with other people in my life, or my working relationship. I have lost people because no matter what I did, they went down the rabbit hole of going off their medication and getting into drugs — and watching it happen and firewalling the relationship off was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. I’ve lost people to suicide, and always regret not doing more for them.
I fix machines and operating systems and networks in my day job. While it would be very easy to make a comparison between fixing a computer and fixing a person, sometimes the reality is that people can’t simply be “fixed”. Things like the internet, or the phone system, or the Space Shuttle, are some of the most complex machines ever built, and every single one of them pales to the complexity of the human mind and body.
Comparing a person to a machine is not only unfair, it’s disingenuous: People can have lifelong conditions that may never heal, and may only occasionally go into remission. Parts are not easily sourced and are not user-replacable or interchangeable. Rational behavior is not always guaranteed. Repeatable cause and effect is an expection, but not a certainty. And while we’re still working on the manual, there are a number of undocumented features and capabilities.
Telling an engineer: “This can’t be fixed.” is a hard slap. It’s a nerd snipe. It’s an invitation to say “well, you’re just thinking about it wrong, I bet I can…”. It can lock up a nerd brain for hours. But people are different (from machines and from each other), and learning that is a hard lesson.
At the best of times, it helps to step back and realize that, of these collection of will-eventually-fail parts being driven by software developed by a slowly-evolving genetic learning process — I’m one of those too. I’m not perfect either. I still need to grow. I can only do so much.
And so can you. Keep yourself safe.