How To Tell If You’re Being Helpful or Crossing A Boundary


I’m currently exploring what I will call a “difference of opinion” between myself and my husband on this topic. Our eldest son is 20 years old and attends college in Europe. After spending almost a month here in the US over the Holidays he left to go back yesterday. As we live in Santa Fe in New Mexico there is no such thing as a direct route and, during the winter months at least, it’s a three leg trip to get to Dublin. 

A medical emergency meant that the second leg of his trip, from Dallas to Philadelphia, ended up diverting to St Louis. As he was later re-routed back to Philadelphia it was clear that he would miss the connection. My husband booked him a hotel room at the airport while he was still in the air en route to Philly. 

That was clearly very helpful for my son. That was clearly an act of caring and love by his father. I on the other hand wondered whether we’d over-helped and deprived him of the opportunity to have a mini-adventure and sort it out for himself.

Is It A Problem Or An Adventure?

I recall spending a night on an airport bench in Charles de Gaulle airport when I was 17 when flights were disrupted. There were no mobile phones and I certainly wasn’t carrying a credit card or enough money to put myself up in a hotel. Granted, it wasn’t ideal. It was uncomfortable and there was the incident when I awoke to find a creepy man leaning over me, inches from my face. Another woman’s intervention, shouting at this man and telling him off, had roused me from my slumber. We decamped together to another seating area after that. 

But I had an adventure. This woman, whose hands and feet were covered in henna tattoos, had just come from Morocco where she had been married. We chatted for ages before going back to sleep and exchanged addresses before parting ways the next morning. I learnt I could handle myself in unexpected circumstances and that, although I needed to be vigilant, there were interesting and helpful people all around me. 

A little struggle builds life muscles and so I think that we probably over-helped our son on this occasion. Arriving late into Philadelphia armed with a mobile phone and a credit card is not exactly a challenging situation. It’s easy to deprive other people, particularly people we love, of helpful challenges in the name of caring and love. I think we do them a disservice when we do this, or if we do it too often. It crosses a boundary and deprives them of a growth opportunity where they rely on themselves to resolve a situation. That feeds into their identity story. 

What Is My Identity Story

“I am a person who is resilient and can manage whatever life throws at me” is a pretty powerful story.

It’s a lot more useful than:

“I can rely on [Person] to sort things out for me if and when I’m in difficulty. 

We all need to experience ourselves as who we wish to become. That means taking the training wheels off and allowing ourselves to fall and get back up. It’s an essential part of growth and learning and it prepares us for the larger challenges in our lives. With this first smaller challenges we begin to build experiential wisdom. We have an experience that we can leverage in service of meeting a greater challenge. It is the beginning of our story as courageous confident individuals. 

A Counter To The Negativity Bias

Considering how our minds evolved to see threats in our environments and naturally tend toward the negative as a result, building up a bank of achievements is a critical component to building confidence. We have lived experiences of brave action that we can consciously bring to mind when our minds are telling us a story of all the things that might go wrong. 

As a parent or a leader it is important to recognize where we might be over helping. There is a term “learned helplessness” in behavioral science where some people don’t take reasonable steps to solve their own problems because they have not built this muscle of self-reliance and resilience. 

What’s A Boundary?

A boundary is a line that marks where I end and you begin. Inside my boundary is my responsibility and my work. This is what I consciously choose for myself and my life. Many people however don’t consciously choose who and how they want to be and instead just follow the path of what they feel they should do. It’s often in situations like this, where people don’t have a clear sense of themselves, that they also have porous boundaries.

When we take the time to know ourselves really well and to explore and pursue what brings us fulfillment and meaning, we also find it easier to set and hold boundaries. We see clearly what it is that we wish to nurture, grow and therefore also protect. Even if someone else does not see their lives in this way yet and instead enthusiastically welcome you into their domain to problem solve for then, you are trespassing. You risk doing that person a disservice and seeding a story for them that they can’t do certain things by themselves because they’re not smart enough or good enough in some way.

It may feel good for us to help other people but that is not sufficient rationale to deprive another person of their own growing pains. Consider the harm you may be doing and whether it is more respectful and beneficial to the other person to allow them to struggle. This may feel uncomfortable but that is not necessarily a signal that your decision is wrong. Discomfort as they say is the price of entry to a meaningful life.

Did you know that if you intervene when a butterfly is struggling to emerge from their cocoon that you will damage the butterfly? If you interfere to “help” you deprive the butterfly of a crucial challenge that they need to build strength in their wings to be able to fly away when they emerge from the cocoon. Often it is our own discomfort that we look to ease. We find it intolerable to see the other struggle so we intervene in our role as “helper”. We feel good about this identify and love the validation it often brings us. If this is you, I invite you to zoom out a little here and see this behavior in the context of the adverse impact on the other person. Whose wings are you damaging in the process?

Do you struggle to say no when someone asks you for help? Do you recognize yourself in this post and worry that you may be overstepping? Learn how to say no with ease and grace and improve all your relationships in the process with my boundaries course, The Elegant No.


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