Published On: Sun, Nov 12th, 2023

Carolyn Hax: Is it ‘selfish’ not to help the family out financially?

Carolyn Hax: Is it ‘selfish’ not to help the family out financially?
Carolyn Hax: Is it ‘selfish’ not to help the family out financially?

Dear Carolyn: This is an uncomfortable question, but what do I owe my family? I am in my late 20s and living on my own. I have a decent job and can support myself, but I am definitely not rich. And I come from a family with financial problems. They have always had them. Parents and grandparents and siblings.

They also have other problems, including relationship problems and problems getting or holding down jobs and addiction and, you get it, it’s a big mess.

I wish I could help all of them, but I don’t have enough money or time, and they all come to me all the time asking for favors, usually money. And if I turn them down, I get a lecture about how selfish I am. Sometimes I think I need to leave town and change my name to get away from them. Most of my friends come from stable middle-class families that aren’t as needy as mine.

I feel like having a family meeting and telling them once and for all that I can’t help them financially anymore, so they stop asking. Do you have a better approach?

Anonymous: You owe your family compassion, integrity and, where warranted, your sympathy. But you do not owe them a dime.

You know the practical reason: If you gave them everything they asked for, then you’d all be broke. No one benefits.

But the emotional and functional reasons for saying no are the ones I think you’re asking to hear.

Functionally: You are well enough to keep your messes and problems — which we all have, certainly — from affecting your ability to earn and manage an income. Good for you, by the way; tough to do amid dysfunction.

Your family members, meanwhile, apparently aren’t well enough to separate their pathologies from their earning potential. If that’s the case, then your money will just be temporary relief from whatever underlying problems keep them from supporting themselves. Therefore, you’d be lighting that money on fire, compromising your ability to help anyone in any sustainable way, yourself included. Like I said — not good for any of you.

Emotionally: You care about your family enough to think big-picture and weigh the consequences of giving your money away out of guilt and without a plan. Yet for having the maturity to do that famous bit of caregiving — i.e., for putting your oxygen mask on first — how does your family thank you? By lashing out in anger.

Short of saying, “We’re too messed up to care about you,” it’s hard to think of a clearer way for them to get that exact message across than by refusing to respect you or your right to say no.

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These get at what you’re really looking for here: their willingness to sacrifice and work hard toward fixing their own problems before they’d dream of turning to you. When you see a family member make that kind of sincere, sustained effort, then it could be well worth it to you, long-term, to find a sustainable way to help out.

Until then — yeah. You may have threatened a move and name change facetiously, but you seem aware that you might need to relocate out of their reach for real. You’d hardly be the first, since it’s not perfect but often it’s enough.

Whether you’re ready for that or not, first make yourself clear to anyone who asks you: “I have reached my limit on helping. Please don’t ask me anymore.” Period. End of discussion. It is not their business whether the limit is about your money, patience or [grrr].

Also note that “once and for all” is completely independent of “so they stop asking.” Once-and-for-all controls only your choice (not to help anymore). They can still choose to keep coming at you anyway.

And to make it clear that I’m not beating up on family members who are obviously unwell: Anyone can keep coming at you after you say no “once and for all,” like a zombie apocalypse, if that’s what they think is going to work. That’s why your skill at an unequivocal but also unfailingly kind “no”— where you do not engage with these requests, or anything else you don’t want to discuss with people or sit for lectures about — is one you want to develop. Soonest.

We all need it, not just you or others pulled in tough directions by struggling loved ones. And it means holding a calm line — “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry to hear that” — until they finally realize their pushback will not break through limits you set for your own protection.

Just from your letter, I believe they won’t break you, either. But to serve all of you, steer anyone who asks you for help toward institutional-based support, which addresses problems at scale in ways no individual can. Try my resource page, or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which has a name-your-need hotline, 800-662-HELP (4357). The point of resources is to distribute the weight so it doesn’t drag down well-meaning people like you.

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