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I want to use it to mean "thoroughly make use of ... without pushing it/them over its/their limit" but I am worried it does not mean that.

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Yes, exploit can carry a negative connotation of using someone else for your advantage and even being horrible to them.

Instead of exploit, I would say:

I benefited from x's help

This sounds much nicer than I exploited x and now does not carry a negative connotation but instead, it shows you made use of their help.

If you want to emphasise how much help they have you, you could say:

I thoroughly benefited from x's help

This implies they benefited and helped you a lot, and you did not push them over their limit.

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    I would add emphasis to Daniil's first (relatively gentle) observation: In my experience exploit is universally, or very close to universally, negative, for things, for people, and for situations. – user114352 May 6 at 14:04

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