Help! I Think I Made a Terrible Mistake When Helping My Elderly Neighbor (The Codependency, People Pleasing Trap)
The letter below, and the summaries of other ones I am mentioning here (below the link and excerpt), should be a wake up call to anyone who has a difficult time saying no to people, refusing to turn down their requests, whether out of a sense of guilt or fear.
If you really struggle with turning down people’s requests for favors or for help (even if it’s someone who seems to legitimately be in need of help, such as a solitary, lonely, elderly neighbor with chronic health problems who is in a wheel chair), you may be codependent, a people pleaser, or an empath with very bad boundaries.
(And there are people out there, such as, but not limited to, Covert Narcissists who can spot nice, sweet, giving people like you in a heart beat, and they will waste no time in taking advantage of your kindness to get their needs met.
Even genuinely well- meaning, kind, nice, non-narcissistic people will and can lean on you too much, if they are very needy and you don’t put boundaries up.)
You need to learn that it’s perfectly fine to draw boundaries with people, even elderly neighbors who live alone who have health problems.
It’s okay to be straight forward and tell such neighbors that while you’re fine doing X for them every Z number of weeks, that you don’t want to do it more than that often, and you don’t want to also do Y, Q, and R for them.
The following is a letter someone sent to an advice columnist.
I will be including more comments below this link and excerpt:
I had no idea one kindness could turn into this.
Advice by Eric Thomas
June 4, 2022
I moved into a new upstairs apartment five months ago. I made the mistake of helping my wheelchair-bound neighbor, “Stella,” with her groceries during my move.
Stella had her bag break in the parking lot after she got off the bus. I put down my boxes and ran to help with her items and then put them up in her kitchen.
Stella told me about how she was alone in the world and on a fixed income.
I told Stella I would be happy to run to the grocery store for her since I go once a week.
Stella calls me every day now. She has problems with her doctors, her bills, and for anything and everything, she calls me. I have tried to be kind and helpful—but now I need help.
I should have set firm boundaries earlier, but she is a little old lady, and I was lonely in a new city. But I am not her daughter or her granddaughter. I am okay with running to the grocery store or being an emergency contact or coming over for tea and a chat—but not this.
Adult services are useless.
Stella’s life isn’t in danger, and she had enough income to be disqualified from the majority of services.
She isn’t cruel or abusive or mean. She is old, scared, and alone in the world.
But she is suffocating me.
My mom died when I was young, and my dad left me to be raised by my grandfather while he went off to have a brand-new family with his mistress.
My grandfather walked me down the aisle and died in his sleep four months later. My marriage didn’t make it a year since my husband cheated on me with his ex.
Apparently bad taste in men is inheritable.
Please don’t recommend therapy. It would be nice, but I can’t afford it, insurance doesn’t pay, and Stella is old, disabled, and alone. I don’t want to hurt her. Help!
— Deep End
Here is part of the advice columnist’s response to “Deep End.”
Dear Deep End,
There’re two things going on here: Stella is relying on you in a way that is starting to feel oppressive, and some of your stuff is being brought up to the surface because of your relationship with her. …
You feel guilty because you’re kind and you want to help, but I also suspect that you have a stronger feeling of obligation to her because of your history. …
… This isn’t to say that we should do nice things for other people simply because it makes us feel good, but rather that you are allowed to remember your own humanity and your own needs here. …
Now, as for what’s happening on the other side of the wall with Stella, I think it’s time for a kind but direct conversation about boundaries. It’s not too late to set them.
Stella is an elder, but she’s also an adult whom you can talk to as such. If the constant calls, the bill questions, the doctors are too much, tell her.
… Ask her if she has any other friends who she can confer with, and if she doesn’t, suggest that she seek out community, be it at a community center, through volunteer work, or through a house of worship.
If you have the capacity, consider helping her look for places where she can meet other people.
I hope this doesn’t come across as callous. I know that many seniors suffer from isolation and that that problem compounds itself as other problems mount.
It’s not an easy fix and it’s certainly not as simple as saying “Stella, go make a friend.”
She’s lucky to have you. But by pushing the boundary back just a bit, you can also potentially empower her.
— end excerpts —
A lot of the advice “Dear Prudence” gives in that response to the LW (letter writer) reminds me of some of the very same approaches I tried on my (Link): now ex-friend “Emma,” who spent seven or eight years telling me she has this and that problem and clinical depression, and she also has a huge, huge case of (Link): Victim Mentality.
I, too, had clinical depression for 35+ years, and I was trying to help this Emma person, finally, after several years of online friendship, from switching over from giving purely pity and emotional support to gently pointing out that considering she spends almost every day staring at screens (watching Net Flix, arguing politics on Twitter), that she was actually keeping herself trapped in depression.
I actually advised this ex-friend – just as the Dear Prudence columnist is doing here! – to find ways to get out of isolation, be in face- to- face contact with mentally healthy people more often,
to look into joining a local religious community,
to e-mail or phone and ask if anyone in the local church or house of worship could pick her up for services or drive to visit her.
The more you take personal responsibility for your life, the more control you will have over your life, and options will seem to spring up in front of you, your problems will appear smaller than before, and your depression may just dissipate at least somewhat, which sure beats sitting around home all day, every day, staring at a screen feeling sorry for yourself.
If you want positive change in your life, you have to make changes – there’s no shortcuts to that, and staring at NetFlix all day isn’t going to bring about change.
It’s amazing to me I get stomped on, yelled at, cussed at by ex-friends or random wackos who drop by this blog for giving the same input, observations, or advice that advice columnists or licensed therapists and psychologists give to people in similar situations in their articles or books I’ve read.
When I couldn’t afford to see a therapist myself, I found my way out of depression by researching it on my own, using free online resources and a few cheapo books I found on Amazon’s site.
Remarkable to me that people want to disregard input from someone who recovered from depression on her own, just from her own research.
If you’re truly interested in recovering from depression, you would show an interest or eagerness to learn from someone who cured herself from depression.
If not, you’re demonstrating that you don’t want to get well, but that you’re very likely using depression as an excuse to dodge accountability and responsibility and to illicit pity and attention from people.
Other, Similar Letters – Learn to Spot the Signs So You Can Enact Boundaries Quickly
I’ve seen so many similar letters to other advice columnists before, usually letters from 20- or 30- something neighbors who started out helping an elderly (or even morbidly obese) neighbor once or twice, and once these neighbors got a taste of that help, they began over-relying on these young neighbors for more and more favors and help – to the point it about breaks the younger person.
In one letter I recall, a young man wrote the advice columnist saying after he and his girlfriend moved into a new second floor apartment and agreed to help their obese neighbor once – the obese neighbor asked them if they could please run down to the bottom of the stairs or front office and bring her a package she had ordered, as her obesity made it difficult for her to go up and down the stairs.
The young man agreed, brought the package up to the obese neighbor’s second floor apartment (which was down the hall from his), but soon after, the obese lady began hollering for him down the hallway and calling him or his girlfriend for more and more favors like that one.
The letter writer even said that the obese neighbor lady even asked if he and his girlfriend could come to her apartment one Saturday to spend a few hours re-arranging her furniture for her, because her obesity made it difficult to get up and move furniture.
The poor guy had snapped at this point. He wrote the advice columnist asking how to get out of these never-ending neighborly requests.
He had been fine to a point helping this lady, but she came to over-rely on him, and it was starting to drive him nuts.
I read another letter to an advice columnist from a 30- something married lady who moved into a new house with her husband.
To be friendly, and to introduce herself, she baked a cake and brought it over to her next door neighbor, who was an elderly lady who lived alone, who had two adult sons who lived within 30 minutes of her.
Well, elderly lady started calling the nice, friendly neighbor lady all the time for everything, including, if I remember correctly, to be driven to doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping trips, and for help around her home.
The lady letter writer couldn’t understand why the elderly lady didn’t call her adult sons for help, or why the sons didn’t seem interested in caring for their own mother.
Anyway, this nice, 30-something year old neighbor was writing in for advice because she said she never intended on helping the elderly neighbor as much as she had been roped into doing, and she was wanting to know how to gently let the older lady know she no longer wanted to be the woman’s free maid service and constantly available friend and butler.
Then there was a letter from the 20-something guy who was retrieving his own garbage can one day after trash day, and as he was hauling his big trash can back to his apartment doorway, his elderly lady neighbor poked her head out the door to gesture to him to please get her can and bring it to her doorway.
So the guy did so – and he was happy to help her with her trash can that one time – but he felt he was in a pickle after that, because this elderly neighbor lady kept expecting him to continually bring her trash can to and from the complex’s trash area every trash day for weeks afterwards.
He told the advice columnist he was now afraid to leave his apartment, because he didn’t want to run into the old lady, because he feared she’d keep expecting him to drag her trash can to her door for her, a service he didn’t want to provide every single week.
But he didn’t have the courage or know-how to stand up to this neighbor lady and tell her “no.”
Please Study Codependency So You Can Recover From It
If you do not want to get sucked into situations like these, you might want to really start to study the topics of codependency and people pleasing.
There are books out there about those topics as well as free online materials.
You may also want to study personality disorders, the Cluster B ones especially (sociopathy, narcissism, borderline personality disorder, psychopathy) because the Cluster B personality disordered individuals are especially attracted to codependents, and sometimes codependents are attracted to them.
The “Cluster B’s” are selfish takers who will not care to meet your needs in return and/or some of them will phase in and out of terrible verbally abusive outbursts but expect you to stay in the relationship and continue to tolerate their mistreatment of you.
You need to spot the signs of these personality disorders in people as fast as you can when you first meet one so you can avoid them afterwards, or learn how to competently handle them if you must interact with them.
By and large, most people would not want to date or marry or work with or for a Cluster B personality disordered individual or want stay with one.
Also be aware that not all abusive people or selfish people have Cluster B personality disorders, so reading up on books pertaining to boundaries or domestic violence can be helpful.
You will encounter non- personality disordered individuals who may over-rely on you due to other reasons – they may simply be neurotic, lonely, or very emotionally needy.
These otherwise genuinely good (but emotionally needy or troubled) people can still exhaust you mentally or physically by expecting you to grant them constant emotional or practical support.
If you’re a codependent, an empath, or a people pleaser, are afraid of speaking up or are afraid of confrontation, above all, you should probably study Covert Narcissism (also known as Vulnerable Narcissism) and get very good at spotting the Covert Narcissists you may run across.
You’re not going to find lasting happiness or inner peace if you never develop self confidence and healthy boundaries.
People you meet in life are going to take advantage of your good nature – if you permit them – to the point you end up helping them way more than you had intended, and that will end in physical and mental burn out, and quite possibly, resentment.
You cannot afford to go through life allowing low self esteem, guilt over having boundaries, pity, fear of rejection, or fear of other people’s anger, to discourage you from standing up and politely yet authoritatively turning people down when they ask you for help, if you do not want to help.
The letter writer said that the elderly neighbor keeps phoning her for help in paying bills, scheduling doctor’s visits, and so on.
I am wondering if the elderly neighbor actually does not need help with any of that but is using that as a pre-text, an excuse, to come up with to contact the neighbor.
In other words, (and yes, I could be wrong, maybe the elderly neighbor really does need help with tasks), I think the elderly neighbor is lonely and would like some companionship.
Perhaps (and if the younger neighbor is up to it), the younger neighbor could call the elderly neighbor on a regular basis monthly, maybe offer to meet at her apartment once a week for an hour for tea, cookies, and a chat.
If a desire for companionship is driving the elderly neighbor’s behavior (the numerous phone calls “for help”), then spending time with her on a regular basis might help a little bit, it may cut down on the numerous “please help me with thus and so problem” phone calls.
If that’s the case, the younger neighbor would have to decide if she’s up to that, and if so, how many times and for how long would she be willing to meet for tea and chats with the elderly neighbor?
I do think churches should step up and do more to help adult singles of all ages, including the elderly in their communities, but most churches continue to salivate over the “young married couples with children still at home” families.
If more churches stepped up to the plate, it would take the burden off these young, single, 20 something neighbors who get sucked into these unfair relationships where they act as care-giver to some elderly person who is not even their grandmother or aunt.
(Link): Emma Responds – My Comments
(Link): When You’re in Imbalanced, Unfair Relationships – You’re the Free Therapist, The Supportive, Sounding Board Who Listens to Other People’s Non-Stop Complaining, But They Don’t Listen to You – re: The Toilet Function of Friendship