How much help is too much help?

Huge fan here – Thou Shall Prosper has changed my life, and I continue to be inspired by Ask the Rabbi and Susan’s Musings.

My question is, as a follower of God, am I a hypocrite for not wanting to help someone in need? I’ve recently become acquainted with a woman who has severe emotional problems related to anxiety and trauma. She refuses to get professional help but simultaneously expects other people to take care of her many needs.

The lady she is staying with has a weekly prayer meeting at her home on Sundays, and she is afraid to be in the house during that time because of her fear of crowds and people. Last Sunday I took her with me to a part-time job, but this week I really felt I needed my Sunday free as it is my only day off. The homeowner told me she is putting the woman up in a hotel since I’m not available to take her.

How much help is too much? Having been treated for anxiety myself, I understand that someone can be extremely fearful of everyday circumstances, but if she can’t ride the bus to a coffee shop for a few hours or take a walk in the park while the prayer meeting is going on, how much can another person do for her? Should I be expected to give up my one day off every week to babysit a grown woman, and should my friend be expected to use her own money to put her in a hotel?

I’m torn between feeling anger and judgment toward this lady as well as feeling like a hypocrite both because I know what it is like to suffer from anxiety and because people also opened their homes up to me through house sitting jobs when I was first new in town. I can’t help thinking that but for the grace of God, I could be in her shoes, so I feel incredibly guilty for thinking she needs to “woman up” and take care of herself.

Feeling hypocritical and very un-Christlike,


Dear Cindy,

We shortened your letter because of space restrictions, but you gave a number of examples of how difficult this woman is and how no matter what you or others do for her it is never enough. The problem you are facing is one that, we believe, most good people run into during their lives. As good, God-fearing people, how can we turn away from those in need?

Truly, only you can answer that question for yourself, perhaps with guidance from a religious leader or wise mentor, but we can make a few comments.

Have you ever worked with pie or pizza dough? You need to roll it or stretch it into shape, but if you yank too hard, you will make holes rather than produce a smooth, satiny surface. Gently tugging at different areas gives the desired result; forcing the dough doesn’t work.

People are similar to dough. We want to enlarge ourselves and become bigger. As individuals, we each have different areas on which we must focus. Some of us need to become calmer, some more cheerful and others more generous. Some of us need to stiffen our spines more while others should focus on being more diligent. However, if we try to force growth and push ourselves too quickly, the most common result is tearing a hole in ourselves rather than moving forward.

This verse sheds a little light on your predicament.

You shall not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the members of your people;
you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
(Leviticus 19:18)

Does loving your neighbor as yourself mean buying a sweater for her whenever you buy one for yourself?  No, of course not. Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that it means that you should do for your neighbor exactly what is reasonable to expect from others if you were in the same situation. No less and no more.

You sound like a warm and empathetic person. Only you can decide where your boundaries must be. Like the proverbial case of sinking a lifeboat by taking on one too many survivors of a shipwreck, if you overload yourself you will end up helping fewer people with less generosity and kindness. It is good that you appreciate how people helped you when you were in need, but that should help you tug gently at your character development, not lay a ton of guilt on you.

We often hear or read stories of amazing people with depths of giving we can’t even imagine. Our job isn’t to become them. It is to carefully become more of us. Each of us has different talents and abilities that we can use to help others. We should push beyond our comfort zone, in effect setting a new and expanded comfort zone, but we shouldn’t lose ourselves in the process.

Another thing that must be considered is at what point support turns into a crippling crutch. You can’t force this woman to get professional help, but there is the possibility that excessive catering to her whims may help convince her that it isn’t necessary. At that point, you are enabling her dependency and not really helping. You are correct that your feelings that she should “woman up” and take care of herself aren’t good ones. They stem from your resentment rather than a place of caring for her.  Nonetheless, caring for her may well lead you to decide where to draw the line for her sake as well as for yours.

As to your friend paying for a hotel, she is making a generous gesture.  Like you, she must choose for herself what she can and cannot do. You need to be honest with your friend as to whether you plan to give up, shall we say, seven out of eight Sundays to be with this troubled lady or whether it is more likely that you will give one Sunday every other month. Then your friend must make her own decision as to what she can and cannot do.

So, dear Cindy, since we don’t know you we can’t advise you what to do. But we encourage you to be honest with yourself as you veer away from selfishness but also away from martyrdom.

Blessings in whatever path you take,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

19 thoughts on “How much help is too much help?”

  1. God give us the discernment to know when and how to use our gifts…and to die to self when needed. Ruth

  2. Thank you all for your comments. It’s so nice to see such wisdom and caring in this online community. RDL and Susan, thank you so much for answering my question. I’ll make a long story short. She proved to have more severe problems than it originally appeared. She made several requests of the ladies in the house that she was staying at, and was accomodated in every way, including financially. The homeowner, who has had other women live with her who found themselves without a home, told me even she was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of requests and needs, and was feeling at a loss of what to do. I wish I had thought of RDL’s advice to give gentle nudges and be honest with myself about how much commitment I was willing to give. Instead, I took this lady at her face value, giving her the benefit of the doubt that she wouldn’t be a problem, and quickly became very overwhelmed. She began calling me several times a day while I was at work and leaving me long messages, and it got to a point where I went several days without responding to her. She has since left the home of the woman I introduced her to. I don’t know where she is now, but I hope she is OK. I think my biggest takeaway from this is that even though I want to be charitable, I must recognize that certain people in need will have difficult personalities, will not be rational, and will be making bad decisions. This should not sour my attitude toward helping those in need, but should make me be sure that I am more vigilant and set clearer boundaries. I think I was coming from the point of view of, “She’s just like me – she is just going through a rough time,” rather than seriously considering that there were more serious issues going on.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      You’re wisely taking away valuable lessons Cindy.
      Thus you’re acting today in the way that will make tomorrow better than yesterday

  3. It is so easy for us as Christians to believe that we should do anything and everything to “help those in need.” One of the hardest things is to determine whether someone truly is “in need” or only in want of a crutch. I agree with Robin that the lady may want to avoid the Bible study – her leaving the house to go with Cindy to a part-time job indicates that she is not so afraid of crowds and people. After all, there are probably fewer people in the Bible study than she encounters in leaving the apartment. Cindy, you sound like a responsible Christian woman, who tried to take care of yourself as much as possible during your recovery. The people who gave you housesitting jobs and helped you to get back on your feet were acting as Christians should do. The lady you and your friend are “helping” sounds like someone who is taking advantage of you. If she has real mental issues and refuses professional help, or anything else that would enable her to “woman up” and be on her own, then babysitting her is indeed hurting more than helping. I’d encourage you to read the book “When Helping You is Hurting Me: Escaping the Messiah Trap” by Carmen Berry. As someone who has experienced trauma, anxiety, and depression, been on both sides of the therapy desk (therapist and patient, sometimes simultaneously), and pastored emotionally disturbed people, I can relate to each of you. May God grant you wisdom in dealing with this woman.

    1. Sonia, you sound like you have a tremendous amount of perspective. I’m not familiar with the book you recommend but from the title, it sounds most interesting.

    2. Hi Sonia, thank you so much for your insights. I will definitely check out that book! The part-time job was actually cleaning in an empty office building, so there wasn’t anyone there. I do feel that her fear of people is real, but still agree with what you say that there are times when helping is actually hurting.

  4. As a trained therapist, I remember the Hippocratic Oath ‘first do no harm’, and the second rule of therapy is ‘do nothing for the client that they can do for themselves’. If the referral to seek community services and possible therapeutic intervention is refused, then the intervention must come through the people already in her life. I”m wondering why she becomes overwhelmed when the Bible Study group is held. Her fear of groups may be real, but could it be she wants to avoid biblical teaching? Perhaps every week, one member of the group could volunteer to take her aside and have a one-on-one study session.–thereby increasing her social confidence and equipping her with spritual strength to make the next move toward wellness. I would hope this would be agreeable for her. When life becomes overwhelming for those experiencing trauma and other adverse life experiences, it becomes easy to seek out a caregiver rather than navigate life for themselves. An informed caregiver should practice self care and empower them to build upon what is already in their hands.

    1. I love that you say, “Do nothing for the client that they can do themselves.” Having been in therapy myself, I do feel that there is a tendency towards too much dependency on care and not enough emphasis on individual strength and responsibility. RDL and Susan, I hope you will expand upon the topic of therapy and its role in our culture. My personal opinion is that it is a net positive (I’ve learned excellent tools to manage my anxiety through therapy), but that again there is an emphasis on dependence and medicalization. Just to give you one example, in college I once went to the university guidance counselors to set up an appointment because I was stressed out about my workload and just wanted someone to talk to about it, and they refused to see me because I had put on my form that I had been in therapy in high school. They said that they could only refer me out to a professional. I felt stigmatized for having been previously treated for anxiety, as well as a lack of confidence in the judgment of that department, that they couldn’t see the face value of a student stressed out about exams, just like any other student. Instead they felt this ordinary issue had to be medicalized. At that point in my life, I was not seeing my regular therapist in my hometown (not the same city as my college) because he thought I was doing well enough to not require care at that point, so I was frustrated that the school counselor wouldn’t see me over an everyday stressful matter because according to this type of thinking, not only do everyday problems call for the treatment of medical professionals, but by this logic, there would be no such thing as improvement in the condition of someone’s mental health. And this is just one example. I’ve pondered why this is so, this issue of encouraging dependence on mental healthcare rather than encouraging resilience in patience, and I wonder if it’s because mental health professionals lean to the left, and leftists are more in favor of government programs and such, similar to educators? Not that any of this is happening on purpose or with ill intent, of course.

  5. Dare I comment from the other side? After reading the responses from the other readers I became very grateful that The Almighty has called some people to be caregivers. I had a life changing event occur back in 2004 that I will never fully recover from. I required a “team” of people around me for years in order to get through the worst of it and am still struggling with the aftermath of a physically and emotionally terrorizing experience which, for all intents and purposes, almost cost me my life. I was once a happy-go-lucky woman who loved living life to the fullest and (literally) overnight my life changed so dramatically that I don’t recognize myself anymore. I truly hope that nobody here ever has to know what it’s like to actually need long term help but if you should ever find yourself in such a situation I pray you will be blessed with God’s caregivers because sometimes it’s simply the difference between life and death. I, for one, am truly grateful for those people who give of themselves without seemingly becoming depleted themselves and who have so much joy and love in their hearts that they truly bring hope back to those who have lost their own hope. If you can’t give without a joyful heart then maybe you aren’t really helping at all. Perhaps you should get out of the way because, believe me, this person probably senses that you feel inconvenienced and that will only slow down her healing.
    Just my 2 cents for what it’s worth.

    1. Lisa, thank you for adding your personal experience. May we all be blessed with the right people to help us when we are in need. I’m pray that your healing continues.

    2. Hi Lisa,

      The reason I felt so guilty about feeling anger towards this woman is precisely because I can imagine her having gone through something similar to what you described.

      We don’t know anything about her. She showed up at my place of worship one day, new in town, not knowing anyone, and asking for a place to stay. There’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever – as others have said, God has called us to help those in need, and we all find ourselves in hard situations. We didn’t press her for information naturally, and she didn’t volunteer, so we don’t know what her issues are, how long ago they started, where her family is, or anything. When I met her it was clear that she wasn’t using any substances, and she was clean and well-spoken, so I thought it was a safe bet to help her find a place to stay. I spent several days of my personal time contacting everyone I knew until I found a place for her. (The owner of my place was not OK with having her there.) But then things kept unfolding and it was clear that she expected complete strangers to take care of her and accommodate her. I do understand that there are desperate situations, and that there are times when someone is alone. I also understand that there are limits, and sometimes the best thing for someone’s health is to set those limits.

  6. As I read Cindy’s letter and the various wonderful responses, a couple things occurred to me that I think relate. First, we all have trials to work through. When we have worked through them we have tools to minister to others going through similar trials. So, Cindy, I would urge you to consider how you can minister to this woman out of your own experience.

    Second, there is such a thing as false responsibility. That is when one sees another struggling and, instead of aiding that person to reach a solution to her own problems, takes the burden of solving the problem onto oneself. I think that is what troubles you.

    Like Rabbi Daniel and Miss Susan, I think you should seek advice from a spiritual advisor you trust for guidance in finding a balance between these two issues that will help you, specifically, determine what you are comfortable doing for this troubled lady without usurping her responsibility to solve her anxiety problems. It is my guess that as you also pray for wisdom and discernment about these issues you will find that what you do to aid this lady turns into a blessing to you.

  7. Thank you Rabbi ~
    When you become resentful in your actions, it is a codependent relationship.

  8. Carmine Pescatore

    People build their own prisons (or Egypts as in one of your podcasts). They manipulate others to be their jailers and take care of their needs. This woman needs to be gently pushed into taking care of herself and getting professional help with her social problems. Ben Franklin said that making people comfortable in their poverty doesn’t help them in the long run. The same goes for this woman. She will go from one caregiver to another sucking them emotionally dry.

    1. That certainly sounds like it might be the case here, Carmine. In all our responses, of course, we are only working with one side of the story – that of the person writing. I had not heard of that saying from Ben Franklin, though I know that Abraham Lincoln felt the same way.

  9. The tenets of AJW are always welcome. It is such a blessing to receive rabbinical guidance on thorny conundrums of everyday life. You (pl.) make it abundantly, Scripturally clear that there are boundaries that reason and good sense must establish. Benjamin Franklin said: ‘Common sense is the only kind of sense there is,’ or words to that effect. As I recall, a psychologist named Thomas Szasz postulated that there is no ‘mental illness,’ only ‘problems in living.’ People become conditioned to respond in certain ways, and when these patterns are maladaptive, they become like a millstone around the neck of society.

    Actually I would also postulate that certain people condition themselves to respond in maladaptive ways. Their environment reinforces and enables their behavior. In fact it goes so far over the edge that there are psychic vampires about that will suck your positive energy dry, if you give them the opportunity. In my lifetime I have witnessed several of these in action. Dealing with them is simply not worth it. Give them the little finger and they will take the whole arm. Your kindness merely enables the parasitic exchange. At a certain point an adult must take responsibility for his / her own life, seize control and face the music. Is it not so? There are certainly folks in dire need. Yet we are put on this earth to make our own way, to actualize our own path, but not to bleed others dry in the service of our own Almighty Ego.

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