Written by Amy Beecham
Are you constantly fixing people around you but not taking time for yourself? You likely have ‘super-helper syndrome’.
It goes without saying that it’s nice to be nice. An act of kindness towards a friend, family member or even a stranger often gives us that internal glow, a subtle ego boost that makes us feel better about the person we are.
And there’s science behind it, too. Doing good deeds has been shown to decrease stress, increase life-expectancy and give us that sweet ‘helper’s high’, aka the rush of endorphins that comes after making someone else feel better.
But of course, there can always be too much of a good thing. When the need to help comes at the detriment of your own wellbeing, that’s a problem. And it has a name: super-helper syndrome.
Coined by psychologists Jess Baker and Rod Vincent, it describes people who have a compulsion to help others while neglecting to meet their own needs.They’re the ones who always have the time to lend a hand, even if they’ve got a million things on their own plate. They’ll look over your CV, lend you their car, give you advice or come over to cook you dinner, regardless of what’s going on in their life.
It may just sound like they’re a kind and giving person, but in its strongest and most damaging form, the desire to help becomes addictive and can end up harming the helper. Because even when they don’t appear naturally, compulsive helpers seek out opportunities to help, and unsurprisingly, this can lead to exhaustion and burnout.
What does super-helper syndrome look like?
In The Super-Helper Syndrome: A Survival Guide For Compassionate People, Baker and Vincent write: “Compulsive helpers are determined. They take their responsibility for others seriously. They are the last ones to admit they need help. Even as the waters overwhelm them, they are waving at the beach shouting, ‘No, no, you keep on playing; I’m fine.”
Super-helpers struggle to say no. They get easily involved in other people’s drama and are constantly trying to offer fixes. They are surrounded by one-sided relationships, and often feel guilty if they’re unable to help in a situation. But most crucially: they deny their own needs, putting everyone else’s before their own.
If you’re still unsure whether it applies to you, Baker and Vincent ask: “As a result of helping other people, have you ever: 1) Experienced exhaustion? 2) Felt resentful? 3) Been exploited?” If the answer is yes, it’s likely that you’re susceptible to super-helper syndrome.
But how do you know where an act of kindness ends and super-helper syndrome begins?
“Helpers fall into exploitative relationships because they are compassionate people,” explain Baker and Vincent. “They remain trapped in exploitative relationships not just because they are accommodating, but because they would feel guilty abandoning someone who claims to depend on them.”
Similar to people-pleasers, a super-helper’sgoal is all about making the other person feel happy and supported, even if it negatively impacts their own wellbeing. But also like people-pleasing, compulsive helping is not a conscious choice but often one that we’re socialised into, particularly as women.
Indeed, the most common belief that compulsive helpers hold is about what it means to be ‘good’. For them, it means to be ‘helpful’ and this Good Person Belief develops from a young age – especially for girls, who are socialised to believe that they’ll only gain approval when they’re helpful.
What are the negative impacts of super-helper syndrome?
Not only can pouring from an empty cup cause physical and mental exhaustion, it can also contribute to what’s known as ‘compassion fatigue’. Typically associated with professional carers, it’s the condition of being emotionally affected by the trauma of another. Some people lose empathy, become numb or toughened or, alternatively, become unable to differentiate their own pain from that of their clients or patients. This can happen to super-helpers too, if they start to allow the burdens of others to impact their own mental wellbeing.
However, like most things, there is no shortcut or quick-fix to stop compulsive helping. First, you need to get to the root of your super-helper tendencies and do the work to begin unlearning the messages that are causing the harm. By identifying behaviours and patterns before you act on them, you can begin to intervene with a more sustainable thought practice.
As Baker and Vincent suggest, first expose the belief as harmful, and then let it go. Importantly, however, they say that you should put something else in its place.
“You might be interested in adopting an alternative belief: ‘My self-worth is not dependent on helping others,’” they write. “I hope you can see that this belief does not, for one second, suggest that you stop helping other people. It just decouples it from your self-worth. I’ve also got rid of the tyrannical ‘must’. There’s no internal command to do anything. This alternative belief gives you the freedom to choose what you want to do .If you resolve to let go of this belief and sign up to the idea that your self-worth is not dependent on helping others, you might start wondering what your self-worth can depend on? That’s the fun part.”
Jess Baker and Rod Vincent are chartered psychologists and authors of The Super-Helper Syndrome – A Survival Guide For Compassionate People, published by Flint Books.
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