“I can’t help you” how to step back

When we care about someone, our natural instinct is to help them. We want them to be happy and carefree. When that person in struggling, we feel a sense of responsibility – like it’s up to us to help them. And of course, we do our very best to help.

But there comes a point, for all of us, when we have to stop. A point when we have to say “I can’t help you” and take a step back.

There are several reasons for this – from self-preservation to not enabling – but first, let’s look at some situations when you may feel you have to help someone. Then we can understand when you might need to draw the line and how you can do this without feeling guilty.

And it’s the not feeling guilty bit that is the trickiest – trust me. As a natural helper (or some may say ‘rescuer’) I feel as though I’ve been through this process many times and even now, through therapy, I’m learning a lot about how it affects me and… the people I’m trying to help.

Because sometimes, even though we mean well, our helping isn’t helpful.

When you might want to help someone

There are probably hundreds of situations when you want to help someone, but here are a few examples:

When they have a mental health condition (like anxiety or depression).

When they come to you for advice or comfort.

When they have an addiction.

When they have money problems.

When they are lost in their personal life.

Again, these are broad, sweeping examples – but for the purpose of this post I’m focusing more on those who are emotionally reliant on you, rather than physically/medically reliant (there’s some great info on carer support on Counselling Directory if you are a carer).

When to draw the line

This is the hard bit. Of course when someone we care about relies on us for support, we will try and be there for them. Whether that means responding to their beck and call, cancelling plans to be with them, giving them money or simply talking to them.

All of the things we do require energy. Mental and physical energy, and even if we’re more than happy to do it, it depletes that internal battery. Even after we do whatever it is we’re doing, we might be left thinking about the person, worrying about them and thinking of other ways we can help. All very admirable, but again, energy draining.

In most cases, this situation is manageable. We can give our energy to the person occasionally, then return to ourselves and replenish our energy. Sometimes however, the balance gets out of whack.

When we are spending too much energy on helping someone, when our advice is falling on deaf ears, and when it all simply gets too much – it’s time to draw the line. You’ll likely know this because you’ll feel the following:

Like what you’re saying/doing isn’t helping.

Like the same problem keeps coming up again and again.

Exhausted, run-down.

Like it’s having an effect on your mental health.

At this point, it’s time to reflect and ask yourself if it may be more helpful in the long-term if you actually stopped (or at least reduced) what you’re doing. Sometimes we think we’re helping someone, but really, we’re enabling their behaviour (encouraging them not to change) or even getting in a codependent relationship (when you’re supporting each other’s unhealthy behaviours).

How to say “I can’t help” without feeling guilty

I’m no psychotherapist and am certainly not a relationship or family expert, but the following ideas have helped me, so may be worth thinking about.

Set boundaries

Once you realise you need to take a step back, limiting the amount of time you spend helping is a great first step. This may be enough to address the imbalance, or you may decide to stop helping altogether, depending on the situation.

When setting boundaries, think about how much time you can give and when you can give this time to someone. Could you set a certain time to get together and talk about what they’re struggling with? Could you limit certain conversations and explain you’ll talk to them more about it at a later date?

Explaining that you’re struggling a bit yourself and are looking to plan your time better can help them understand why your behaviour is changing.


This part helps with the guilt that so often comes with putting ourselves first. Do some research and find out if there are any groups, websites, books or professionals that can help them. Give them numbers to call, help them make appointments, support them in supporting themselves.


Remember, you aren’t abandoning them. Sometimes we simply cannot help – and that is nothing to be ashamed of. Being strong enough to admit that, and encouraging them to find someone (or something) that can help is an act of compassion and love.

Prioritise self-care

This one can feel so wrong when someone we care about is struggling, but the fact is – if you’re stressed, worn out and run-down, you aren’t in a position to help anyone. As tough as it may be to hear, it really is important to look after yourself first.

Look at how much time you get to yourself. How much time do you have to relax? How much time do you have to do nothing?

Get your own support system in place

We all need support sometimes, and if you’re struggling – ensure you have your own support system in place. Would you benefit from talking to a professional? Could you join a support group? Of course this will all depend on your circumstances, but taking the time to look at your own network can help you from feeling overwhelmed.

This was surprisingly easy to write. It was one of those blogs that felt as if it flowed out of my fingers and had a life of its own – clearly I had some things to get off my chest! I’ve been doing a lot of reflection on this kinda thing lately, and this blog is a culmination of what I’ve learnt/realised from years of trying to help others – family, friends, even exes.

And I know I’m not alone. Do you relate to this at all? Would love to hear your thoughts.

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"I can't help you" how to step back

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