Tool For Tuesday: When Does Doing Good Go Bad?

Last week’s Tool For Tuesday was about helping others. But there’s a flip side. When does helping turn into enabling? When does saying yes too often turn into people-pleasing? And when you say yes, is it only because you’re scared to say no?

I got a note from a friend who wrote, “ I feel guilty taking care of myself…I feel guilty when I do things I need to do, or say no to what other people ask of me.”

First, let’s get over this guilt thing. Even Mother Theresa went home to pray by herself or take a nap or nibble on a snack. (Ever hear of that movie, “The Snacking Nun”? Oops! Sorry about that.)

I often feel guilty for saying no. I’m a Jewish mother. Of course, I feel guilty for not doing everything in the world for everybody else. But one of my favorite friends, who’s Catholic, told me, “Drop that guilt thing! My priest always tells me, ‘Guilt is a wasted emotion!’”

Oh, I pay attention to anyone in any faith who can teach me something. If you’ve done something wrong, you can make amends. If you haven’t done something wrong and just feel like you’ve disappointed someone, then turn off the guilt. Really. Each time you catch yourself feeling guilty, remind yourself that if you feel bad, you probably did the right thing!

Of course, it’s great, valuable, and spiritually uplifting to do good for others. But we have to draw the line. If we’re doing things for other people that they really need to learn to do for themselves, then we’ve got to stop. That includes making sure they pay their bills on time, don’t overspend, remember to take their eyeglasses to high school, finish work assignments, etc. If we keep jumping in to rescue others (under the guise of, “Oh, I am just so nice and good!”) then we perpetuate their cycle of helplessness. They’ll never figure it out. And we never figure it out, either. Maybe under the guise of being nice, we’re really being manipulative. Maybe we’re in need of being needed. Maybe we’re using that other person’s crises to avoid looking at our own stuff. Maybe we don’t want to sit with the discomfort that comes when we watch someone else struggle and possibly fail. (Hint: Don’t watch!)

We can be good but not too good.

If we think that being good to ourselves means buying another caramel frappe, another pair of shoes, another necklace that we don’t really need, then we’re mistaken. Being good to ourselves means taking positive, healthy, even spontaneous (jumping into a pile of leaves) steps to take care of ourselves.

We can be good to ourselves even if it means others will think we’re bad, selfish, mean, rotten. Sometimes the best way to know if we’re doing good for ourselves is if we feel bad. We’re stepping into unfamiliar territory and trying something new. And remember that we can’t be our authentic selves if we keep worrying what other people think about us.

Living our best chapter means stepping out of our comfort zone and trying new behavior. What we once thought of as good might not be all that. We need to check our motives. We need to ask ourselves if we’re over-doing this being good thing.

Tool for Tuesday: Sometimes it’s better to be bad than to be good.

About dianabletter

Diana Bletter is the author of several books, including The Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women (with photographs by Lori Grinker), shortlisted for a National Jewish Book Award. Her novel, A Remarkable Kindness, (HarperCollins) was published in 2015. She is the First Prize Winner of Moment Magazine's 2019 Fiction Contest. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, tabletmag, Glamour, The Forward, The North American Review, Times of Israel, and is a reporter for Israel21C, and many other publications. She is author of Big Up Yourself: It's About Time You Like Being You and The Mom Who Took off On Her Motorcycle, a memoir of her 10,000-mile motorcycle trip to Alaska and back to New York. She lives in a small beach village in Western Galilee, Israel, with her husband and family. She is a member of the local hevra kadisha, the burial circle, and a Muslim-Jewish-Christian-Druze women's group in the nearby town of Akko. And, she likes snowboarding and climbing trees.
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7 Responses to Tool For Tuesday: When Does Doing Good Go Bad?

  1. An excellent reminder, Diana, especially at this time of year.
    A good friend sent me an email recently, saying she’d learned a valuable lesson about breaking a promise: it’s okay to break a promise if it means keeping a deeper, more significant and necessary promise to yourself.
    She had promised her ex-husband she would house sit and care for his dog (and his new wife’s cat) so they could take the children (my friend’s children with her ex) to Disneyland. It ate at her, and she was mad at herself for trying to show there were no hard feelings and she was a team player when it came to their children’s happiness.
    She called her husband and gave him the names and numbers of a reliable house sitter and an excellent dog walker who were both available for the dates he’d be gone. (He’s very wealthy and can afford both, along with Disneyland and every gift the children want for Christmas, but she didn’t mention any of this.) She concluded by genuinely but briefly wishing him a wonder Disneyland adventure.
    She said that when she got off the phone she danced around her living room and began planning what she would do while her children were off having a fun time at Disneyland. She said that for the first time since the divorce she stopped feeling forced to ‘prove’ she was a good mother and person despite all the early angry scene with the other woman. The new, more important promise to herself was to make this a new, improved opportunity for her own life and be willing to help but not serve or deny herself in doing so.

    • dianabletter says:

      Wow, Marylin. that is a powerful story. Your friend learned a vital lesson. We can’t change how other people think about us, anyway! So she did the right thing saying no and not trying to prove a point. Good for her! And your point is valuable–we have to make a promise first to ourselves!

  2. juliabarrett says:

    Oh wow… words to live by. I cannot adequately describe how destructive the inability to say no has been in my life and the lives of my family members. I forced myself to learn to say no 20 years ago. I’ve never looked back.

    • dianabletter says:

      Hi Julia, That’s incredible that you learned how to say no 20 years ago–it’s something I’m still learning! What a great tool to have in your toolbox for living!

  3. Diana, it is hard to say no, but the important thing is why we do things for others. Great post as always. 🙂

    • dianabletter says:

      Tracy, I wanted to thank you for your comment way back when about not neglecting what we’ve already written to write something new for NaNoWriMo. I took your suggestion and focused on revising a novel and not writing a new one. So thank you for giving me the push to say “no” to myself!

      • Hi Diana,
        Thank you for sharing that with me. You brightened my day. Don’t worry, I always have to remind myself of that, and I don’t always succeed, but I try. Have a super day too! 🙂

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