The inspiration for this article was a conversation I had with Fran a few weeks ago. We were discussing the nature of friendship, help, and support when she suggested that “the need to be useful is a sign of insecurity.” I knew exactly what she meant. Most of my life has been spent trying to satisfy a need within me to be of use, help, and value to other people. It’s not that this impulse is wrong or necessarily unhealthy, of course. Eleanor Roosevelt asserted that “[u]sefulness, whatever form it may take, is the price we should pay for the air we breathe and the food we eat and the privilege of being alive.” The Dalai Lama went further. “What is the meaning of life?” he asked. “To be happy and useful.”
With that in mind, it might seem surprising that the Nonviolent Communication (NVC, sometimes called compassionate communication) model doesn’t mention usefulness explicitly in its Needs Inventory. The closest need is support, listed in the Connection section alongside appreciation, cooperation, communication. Feeling that you matter (to others, to yourself, or to the world) is included in the NVC Feelings Inventory. NVC’s emphasis on cooperation and respecting one’s own needs no less than other people’s aligns with the belief Fran and I share in the importance of mutually supportive connections. It’s the constant thread that runs through our book and our almost twelve year transatlantic friendship. That mutuality is foundational. Our needs differ in nature and over time, but we respect those differences and attend to each other’s needs as best we’re able. I think Fran would agree we’re still useful to each other, though that’s not the sum of what we mean to one another. On reflection, this kind of mutual usefulness has been a feature of virtually all the most significant and meaningful relationships I’ve ever known.
That said, I believe there’s a role for what I might call nonmutual usefullness, or unrecipricated service. That is, offering help and support with no need or expectation that it will be repaid in any way. I discussed this aspect of supportive friendships in The Constant Gardener: How to Be Someone Your Friends Can Rely On.
What does steadfastness mean in practice? It means saying, as many times as your friend needs to hear it, I’m here for you. I’m not going anywhere. How can I help? — and not only meaning it at the time but following through. It means picking up when your friend calls or messages you, no matter what time it is, how your friendship stands at that moment, or how recently you were last in touch, even if it’s six months after the friendship broke down, because you promised you’d always be there and they believed you.
Where this becomes unhealthy, or in Fran’s words where the need to be useful becomes a sign of insecurity, is where we ignore or lose sight of our needs, setting them aside in order to meet the needs of others. Left unchecked, the consequences of putting other people’s needs before your own can be devastating, as they were for my mother. Her mental health deteriorated to the point where she was barely able to function. Ironically, she spent her final years depressed, anxious, and wracked with guilt for not having done more.
As I’ve written elsewhere, helping people helps you too, as long as you don’t lose sight of your needs. The insecurity aspect comes from placing too high a regard on how others see us, and imagining that we’ll only have value to other people if we’re useful to them. “No one will like me just for me,” the voice of insecurity asserts. “But if I’m useful they will like me, and need me.” This is something I’ve come to recognise in myself. I have trouble seeing myself as someone people will want to hang out with if I’m not making myself useful to them in some way.
There are three problems with this way of thinking. First, it opens us to exploitation by people predisposed to take advantage of others. I’ve not experienced this personally, but the danger is real. The second danger is codependency, which describes a situation of mutually toxic dependency. The best defense against codependency is honest communication, as Fran and I discuss in our book and have described elsewhere in How Much Help Is Too Much? Codependency in the Caregiving Relationship. The third problem is the fact that in relationships as in the workplace, no one is indispensable. If you base your sense of self-worth on your usefulness to others, you leave yourself open to disillusionment and loss of self-esteem when the situation changes. When this occurs — as it has for me on several occasions — it’s necessary to assess what has changed, what’s left, and what you want to do about it.
This insight first came to me several years ago. One friendship had become so imbalanced that it seemed the only thing keeping it going at all was my continued offer of help. For a long time I struggled to accept that what we had no longer met my definition of a mutually supportive friendship. I finally realised there was nothing wrong as such, it was simply that things had changed between us. In acknowledging that fact, I knew I had a decision to make. I could end the connection and walk away, or I could continue to offer the support I knew was very much needed and valued. I decided to continue, and felt almost instantly relieved and at peace with the situation. The connection might not meet my need for mutuality, but it did satisfy my need to be useful. In time, we reestablished the balance we’d known previously. Our connection remains strong to this day. Another friendship stalled under different circumstances. We reached a situation where my need to be useful was no longer being met, largely because my friend’s needs had changed or were being met elsewhere. Without that “Are you there?” / “I’m here” / “I need you” / “What to you need?” dynamic the connection lapsed naturally and gently. There is sadness, but neither blame nor acrimony.
Exploring our need to be useful can be immensely beneficial, both to our sense of self-worth and to our relationships. It’s helped me recognise the validity of offering help when that help is wanted and asked for, but resisting the impulse — all too common with me in the past — to push help in people’s faces in a desperate attempt to validate myself by “being useful” all the time. It hardly needs saying that such behaviour is annoying at best, and seriously toxic at worst. It’s also taught me a lot about boundaries; mine and other people’s. I’ve come to realise that I’m not responsible for other people’s choices or decisions, and needn’t contort myself to fulfill roles that are no longer relevant or needed. In short, I can be there when people need me, but I can’t insist on being there when they don’t.
The need to be useful isn’t unhealthy in and of itself; indeed, I’ve learned that helping others is an important part of my ethical makeup. I’ve recently been exploring aspects of moral philosophy, in particular the course on moral philosophy by Jeffrey Kaplan on YouTube. One video which left a lasting impression is Ordinary People Are Evil based on the idea of moral obligation propounded by Peter Singer. This is beyond the scope of this blog post but I may return to it in the future.
Likewise, it’s healthy to value the usefulness of other people in our lives, whether it’s someone with a car who can offer day trips or rides to appointments, or people with specific resources, skills, and experience they’re willing to share with us. Acknowledging this doesn’t mean we’re manipulative or taking them for granted. My friend Aimee and I are both passionate about writing and blogging. We’re useful to one another because we understand the process, stresses, and excitements of blogging in the mental health arena. We often call on each other for advice and support. My friend Louise and I each have a good deal of experience supporting other people in various ways. It’s immensely valuable to have someone like that in my life. We’re able to draw on our experience to support each other when we need someone to listen to what we’re going through; someone who will understand without needing everything explained in detail. Mutual usefulness of this kind is a wonderful thing.
I’ll close with Fred Rogers’ famous quotation about looking for the helpers. It has its detractors, but for me it captures the essence of being useful.
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. (Fred Rogers)
I hope there are some people, whether still in my life or not, who would think of me in this light.
Over to You
In this article I’ve explored what being useful means to me. How do you feel about the topics I’ve covered? Do you have a need to be useful? Do you have useful people in your life? Whatever your thoughts and ideas on this topic, Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments section below, or via our contact page.
Image by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona at Unsplash.