How do you know when you are being taken advantage of?
August 20, 2007 8:51 AM   Subscribe

Are there any good criteria for identifying when you are being taken advantage of? I love to help people, but sometimes I think that I may help people too much. This tension makes me uncomfortable.

On the one hand, I want to assume that people are good, and that my worries are unfounded, and that any instances of being taken advantage of are outweighed by the goodwill that I intend to contribute to. On the other hand, sometimes I end up feeling paranoid, used, and resentful.

Does anyone have any guidelines for navigating these conflicting feelings? What are some good boundaries to put into place, so that I know when to put myself first?
posted by unknowncommand to Human Relations (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
A little vague, no? How close are these people?

I help acquaintances when no money is involved and I've nothing else going.. but #2 is optional if she's cute.. or an old friend.

Otoh feeding pigeons or giving bums money might make feel good temporarily, but your hurting everyone else.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:08 AM on August 20, 2007

Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

If you are doing more for someone than you, in those same circumstances, would ever ask/need/expect someone to do for you, then it's okay to pull back.

Also: give a man a fish vs. teach a man to fish. Nothing wrong with helping others learn to help themselves.
posted by junkbox at 9:11 AM on August 20, 2007

I almost never put myself first if it's trivial -- if someone I know needs a dollar or five minutes I give it to them. This is restricted to people I know because I live in a major city, so for logistical reasons everyone else is dead to me. I don't have a dollar for everyone.

If it's not trivial and I'm asked to give several hours or a good sum of money then I figure the person asking should respect me enough to only ask if they really need the help. Some people exaggerate their own problems and think that everything is a crisis. These people take advantage of everyone even if they're not aware of it, in my opinion, so when I notice them continually having crises I start to tune out.

Other people only call you when they need help. And when I notice this I stop answering my phone.

I wouldn't worry so much about contributing good to the world as you seem to do. If you have a connection with people and spent time with them and then at some point they need help, then help them...but if it's a lot of effort for you, then weigh how much it would help them with how much it would cost you. If it would cost you more trouble than it would spare them, then they're not really seeing it from your perspective and you should feel free to say no.

You can put yourself first whenever you feel like it -- if you live in a first world country, then chances are they'll survive without your help.
posted by creasy boy at 9:28 AM on August 20, 2007

You're a librarian I see from your profile. This is a common problem generally for people in helping professions, in that we often take our work (and our helpfulness) home and yet often at our jobs we're underpaid and often underappreciated by both patons and co-workers and so it's hard to get perspective. I ask myself this same question a lot.

In my life a lot of it is situational. I like to be appreciated when I help out, somehow. If I'm not appreciated, I want to be getting something else out of the deal. I know people talk a lot about altruism and maybe I'm just cynical but it strikes me that a lot of altruism can be things we do because we like feeling good about doing good things. So, you don't get a "reward" in any concrete sense, but you get a well-being reward which makes such things worth it. Put another way, I'd be more likely to take someone to the airport at 4 am if they showd up with a cup of coffee in hand, not because I can't get my own coffee, but its a nice thought that anticipates the sacrifice that is early morning airport rides.

I had this problem with my last LTR with a partner who was going to law school. I helped out a lot to support him through school [not financially] and, like so many other couples we split when he graduated. Sucked. On the other hand, most days I don't wind up feeling used, resentful, whatever for a few reasons.

- I genuinely feel good at helping get my absentminded ADD boyfriend through school. I feel like it's a good deed, a mitzvah. Generalizable point: do things you feel good doing, try to avoid things that make you feel bad in the doing of them.
- I don't think he was in any way taking advantage of me, I just feel like he was a little clueless. Generalizable point: if you think people feel like they're pulling something over on you when you help them out, don't help them again. i have had (historically, not now) some friends who I felt were always angling to get more than they gave, whether it was not leaving enough money for a tip, bringing lame food to the potluck or just seeming to ask for help more than they were available for help. In all friendships I feel like there's an ebb and flow with things like this, but if I felt it was going too long in one direction, I'd either say something or slowly ease out of that relationship or move it to a point where I didn't feel that it was unequal. Keep in mind that with a partner this is something you can negotiate but with a friend, I always see it as more take it or leave it. This is how much they are prepared to give, is this an okay amount to get?
- I didn't put my life on hold to help him with school, I just have a lot of energy. Maybe I would have had more if I wasn't helping out, but whatever. Generalizable point: make sure at some level you're putting yourself first. What do you need? Are your needs being met? Are you helping out and sacrificing things that bring you joy, comfort or pleasure?

I think for some helper types, helping others really does feel good but we can get in the habit of saying yes all the time even when it's not convenient. My Mom does this, she'll agree to do something helpful but then she'll bitch about it being a headache for her while she's doing it. This, to my mind, isn't really doing anyone any favors and I finally stopped asking her for most stuff because I realized she wasn't differentiating between stuff that was easy to do and she'd be glad to help with and stuff that was hard and annoyed her to do.

So, I think about things that matter to me and try to set limits and stick to them, even if I can adjust them generally.

- money or things that cost a lot of money - I don't lend money ever to people who I have any reason to suspect won't be able to repay but sometimes I'll just give people money if they need it. Similarly I don't lend my car to people who couldn't afford to fix it if something happened but I'll often give people rides
- time - my time is important but not terribly so. I can usually give time more easily than I can anything else so I try hard to make this clear to people. That said if other people fritter it away, I make a note to either make is clearer than I do care about it somewhat and/or not do time-sensitive things with people who don't value time in the same way I do
- effort - I worry about imbalances of effort more than most things, though I think people put in effort in different ways. I see this when I help people move. I always offer to help. Sometimes helping means you show up and your friend isn't packed or your friend doesn't really have a plan. Sometimes all the boxes are placed by the door and your friend is there with a pizza and a six-pack for you. The first example seems like a lot of work, the second, not as much.
- emotion - this is the hardest for me. I can get the life/good mood sucked out of me sometimes by people, through almost no fault of their own, and I've grown really protective of my emotional state. I try to be communicative about how I'm feeling, and ask people how they're feeling and usually the way some sort of helper-thing feels to me afterwards has more to do with the exchange of emotional energy than any of the above items.

Part of the equation is also is feeling bad about saying no. I don't know if it's age or what, but I have a much easier time with this than I used to. Part of it is having a different group of friends, part of it is just feeling that I'm good with myself about why I decided to say no, hopefully my friend or aquaintance can see that and leave it alone (and it's sort of rude if they don't) and part of it is that I've become more gracious at declining when there's something I don't want to or can't help with. Because I feel more clear about it, it's easier to explain to others. "Oh, I'm sorry I don't loan out my car, but I'd be happy to give you a ride" "Oh I can't give you a ride to the airport but let's get together when you get back from your trip. Do you need a ride home from the airport?"

Sorry this got sort of long. The biggest part of it is trying to get in touch with what you want for you and seeing requests and your helping nature through that lens so that you can better evaluate what you do and don't want to do with an eye towards feeling better after the interactions afterwards.
posted by jessamyn at 9:38 AM on August 20, 2007 [11 favorites]

I have some issues with the Golden Rule and how junkbox explains it.

I say this, stressing that I don't think I am some great amazing person. But I am willing to give alot of myself.

Time, effort, energy, emotion. For my friends and family. I've realized over the last few years that I often give a great deal more than I recieve.

I've had issues with "friends" because I expected them to return the same effort and energy I was giving them and it often failed to go down that way.

Now, I pull back a little. If I feel like I am giving to much or that I couldn't or wouldn't expect from my friend to return the favor than sometimes I wont go through with whatever the action is.

If they aren't willing to do for you, what you consistently do for them, your being taken advantage of.

Obviously you can't expect some to ALWAYS be able to return the guestures, but they should at least be doing it on a semi consistent basis.

(I recently was in a situation where I was being taken advantage of and I pulled myself out of it. I got a not so nice email because of it, but still felt better in the long run. Don't let their issues impact YOUR feeling of well being)
posted by crewshell at 9:38 AM on August 20, 2007

In my experience, part of feeling taken advantage of is the extent to which your expectations of the interaction with the other person are met or unmet.

So, first of all, you need to be clear about your own expectations of the encounter.

For example, if you help your friend move house, you could reasonably expect that your friend would say thank you to you, and maybe buy you a beer and a piece of pizza. If they didn't even say thank you, you might feel taken advantage of.

Similarly, if you were doing your job, and went above and beyond the call of duty, you might expect your boss to thank you for it. If he/she doesn't, you might feel taken advantage of, but then again, your expectations might be too high.

My best advice to give you is the advice my sister gave me: When giving anything that belongs to you, including your time, give it with no expectation of it ever being paid back.
posted by LN at 9:43 AM on August 20, 2007

Jessamyn had a great answer to this post.
posted by crewshell at 9:45 AM on August 20, 2007

On the other hand, sometimes I end up feeling paranoid, used, and resentful.

I'd say that you may be doing too much, then. My dad is like this -- generous to a point of fault, then feels under-appreciated. It's wonderful to help people, but it's also important to modulate how much you want to help w/how much help someone is comfortable receiving.

My own guideline is to make sure that I'm not turning little favors into big favors. Little favors should not require you to completely re-arrange your schedule to the point of significant inconvenience.

Somewhat hyperbolic example: Don't say "no, really, it's no big deal" while mentally realizing that you have just committed yourself to an extra two hours of driving and a 12-hour day to do a minor favor that's by no means life-or-death.

On the other hand, if I can do someone a small favor, I don't see any reason not to do so, with no expectation of thanks needed. Karma and all.
posted by desuetude at 9:55 AM on August 20, 2007

You may also notice that beer and pizza figure highly in other people's "should I help?" estimations. You need to figure out what your "beer and pizza" is, in short.
posted by jessamyn at 9:58 AM on August 20, 2007

It really would help to know what kinds of situations you're thinking of. Someone ringing your bell to ask for a donation? A neighbor asking you to do favors? People generally seeming to think "Oh, unknowncommand won't mind"?

But my first thought upon reading your question was that there usually isn't a sign. A lot of people who ask for things just figure you'd say no if you didn't want to go along. And people setting out to take advantage of you -- the only give-away is they continue trying to convince you after you hesitate.

By the way, it's usually okay to say no. If your default is, "I need a good reason to refuse," you're more likely to get taken advantage of.
posted by wryly at 9:59 AM on August 20, 2007

For me, it comes down to the source of the problem - in their shoes, with their resources, would I be in similar trouble? People who, after accepting help, still bring misfortune upon themselves through their action, inaction, or decisions, are not going to benefit from further help compared to someone who wants to stand on their own two feet and just needs half a chance to do so.

Ignore what people say. When someone wants to stand on their own feet, it shows in their actions.

It's hard to say with things being so vague though. I can imagine plenty of situations where the above is useless.

As for boundaries, (again, hard to say, since I don't know you) but I have a sneaky little suspicion that the kind of situation in which you feel guilty about putting yourself first is likely to be exactly the kind of situation in which you should be putting yourself first.

If that's not helpful, a common boundry is "can I comfortably afford this?", where "afford" doesn't necessarily refer to money, but also time/effort/stress. In other words, putting yourself first by default, and helping when it is not going to hurt you.

If that's not helpful, how about "I enjoy helping people. Am I still enjoying this?" (This is a tack for preventing playing the casinos at vegas descending from entertainment into frustration and determination to break even. When it's no-longer doing it for you, you learn to stop, and maybe come back some other week)
posted by -harlequin- at 10:02 AM on August 20, 2007

A lot of people who ask for things just figure you'd say no if you didn't want to go along.

I'd like to second this. I am a person who in some situations is "ask" and in others is "guess", and often unthinkingly expects other people to have a spine when faced with a direct question.
For example, when asked "How much trouble would it be for you to...", make sure you are not mentally mis-translating this into "would you please do [...] for me" unless you know the person really well and know that that is what they mean. There is a real chance that they are trying to establish whether the value of the task to them merits the magnitude of the cost to you, and if you always say "it's no trouble", you're preventing them from using their best judgement and being considerate of your effort, and creating for yourself a burden which will not be acknowledged or appropriated thanked because you have hidden it from them.
And you will feel used, but they're not even using you - you are using you on their (unknowing) behalf.

Or to put it simply, be aware of both Ask and Guess culture, make sure you can interact appropriately with both kinds, and make sure you know which you are dealing with.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:26 AM on August 20, 2007

I think before anyone (including yourself) can really answer this question, it might be helpful for you to define your own motives for wanting to help people.

You say that you love to help people. If it was indeed just that simple, that you take pleasure in the act of helping people in and of itself, then you probably wouldn't feel the resentment, paranoia, and tension after the fact. But of course it's not that simple. As others have mentioned above, it is your expectations of the ones you have helped that seem to be the cause of these negative feelings. What kind of expectations do you have of them? Are they reasonable? Would you still want to help if you knew these expectations were not going to be met?

After thinking about things this way, also realize that your willingness to be helpful is definitely a quality that others will recognize and utilize. If you're offering to help people, they will most certainly take advantage of this. However, that is completely different from taking advantage of you. The difference is that someone taking advantage of your willingness to help is merely accepting an offer that you have no problem in making. Taking advantage of you is that you are not seen as a person anymore--just a means to an end.

With the limited information given, I'd say a pretty safe rule of thumb would be to ask questions about any concerns you may have before you agree to help anyone (how long is this going to take, how much will this cost, etc.) This will let them know that your time, money, and attention are valuable and not necessarily as flexible as perhaps theirs is. And trust your instinct: being a helpful person naturally runs the risks of helping a thankless jerk who only wants to know how much he or she can get out of you. If you feel as you have described above before, during, or after helping someone, don't help this person any more!
posted by tjvis at 11:24 AM on August 20, 2007

I would simply say that if you are helping someone it must be for YOU. Not for them. It must be because you feel good about doing this. Have no expectation of a return.
Otherwise, people WILL disappoint you.
If you are expecting people to treat you equally you're in some future Star Trek Universe that I too want to inhabit...... but until then, do this for you.
posted by Wilder at 11:28 AM on August 20, 2007

I got myself into trouble with this... I generally don't (at least didn't) ask for help unless I *really* needed. I assumed that other people were like me, so whenever a friend would ask for help, I would give, even if it was hard. Then I would ask when I needed it, and if they casually said no, I'd be really stung.

Now I try to notice more how much a friend really needs my help, before committing to something that would be a bother, and also try to make it clear to my friends when I ask, that I really need their help. The ones who used to say no really are likely to say yes (they're my friends for a reason) if they realize I'm asking seriously and not just as a convenience. On the flip side, I've gotten much easier about asking for, getting, not getting, and giving and not giving conveniences to friends.
posted by Salamandrous at 11:40 AM on August 20, 2007

Thanks so much for your responses, everyone. They were very helpful. Sorry to be so vague. These issues come up in many parts of my life and I didn't want to implicate anyone or anyplace. Really thanks, though.
posted by unknowncommand at 6:23 PM on August 20, 2007

Just so long as your not feeding pigeons or giving bums money. :)

I liked creasy boy's answers "tune out the drama queens" and "real friends call even when they don't need help".
posted by jeffburdges at 1:47 AM on August 21, 2007

Also I blame you all for forcing me to have pizza and beer for dinner last night.
posted by unknowncommand at 8:39 AM on August 21, 2007

Mostly when people help too much, I believe, it's just a matter of mutual cluelessness. But sometimes you'll come across someone who really is taking advantage of you -- making you that "means to an end" that tjvis mentioned.

I got mixed up with a few people like that several years ago. (Three dramatic women, none of whom knew each other. It took about three years for me to get a clue.) What happened with me is that I got a feeling of unusual eagerness to help them. They each charmed the heck out of me, and in one way or another, I became excited about how I might make their lives better. Psychologically, I was eager and delighted to be their chump. But physically, I tended to feel a little off-kilter around each of them -- a little tight around the solar plexus, a little dazzled. I dismissed those feelings without thinking about them; bad move!

If you think about it, that unusual excitement is probably not a coincidence -- people who want to take advantage of you are probably people who are used to taking advantage of people and are therefore good at it. They've got that care-seeking behavior down pat. If you respond strongly to that kind of behavior, it can be a heady experience... for a while.

I've come to recognize that my first instincts won't necessarily protect me from users. Apparently I have a minor weakness for them, especially if they're creative, highly emotional women. Perhaps someday I'll work out the kink in my head that inclines me to be a patsy. But for now, when I meet someone new whom I like a lot, I check my solar plexus first. And I ask myself, "Just how excited am I about this person? Does it seem a wee bit over the top? Just how revved am I feeling?" So far, so good.

So I would recommend that you try to think about how you felt physically when you were doing those favors that later left you feeling used, paranoid, and resentful. Did your abdomen tighten just a little bit? Or perhaps you were feeling downright effervescent, more than you usually would when you do a favor. Something in you probably knows when you would be better off saying, "No."
posted by sculpin at 9:42 PM on August 22, 2007

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