Growing up we’re told being helpful is a wonderful thing.
That’s a message that sticks with us well into adulthood, and it’s not wrong: it is lovely to lend a helping hand when you can, to offer support, to aid those struggling.
But when the urge to help comes at the detriment of your own wellbeing, that’s an issue.
This is ‘super-helper syndrome’, a term coined by psychologists Jess Baker and Rod Vincent to describe people who have a compulsion to help others while failing to meet their own needs.
This compulsion can cause serious damage over time, and it can be hard to recognise the super-helper tendency until it’s too late – resentment has built and burnout has struck.
So, to help us identify the syndrome, Jess and Rod have shared some common signs.
Signs you might have super-helper syndrome
‘Super-helper syndrome is a compulsion to help couples with not meeting your own needs,’ Jess and Rod tells Metro.co.uk. ‘Signs you might be susceptible to it include:
- You help in all aspects of your life – your job, family, friends, volunteering, colleagues, clients, neighbours… an endless list.
- You struggle to say no to requests for help.
- Your relationships are lopsided – you help people but they seldom help you. You feel like you are the one making all the effort: remembering birthdays, keeping in touch, sending well-wishes for that job interview.
- You ask lots of questions of others but notice that they don’t show as much interest in you and your problems.
- You deny your own needs. You feel guilty looking after yourself. You put everyone else’s needs above your own.
- You get easily involved in other people’s drama. You’re constantly offering advice or trying to fix people.
- You are the one that everyone turns to – the first port of call when they are in distress
- People open up to you even when you’ve just met them. Strangers unload their whole life story – the delivery man, the waiter, the woman at the bus stop.
- You feel guilty if you are unable to help.
‘In the book we explore the underlying beliefs that lead to all of these. If you are susceptible to The Super Helper Syndrome, it’s likely that you’ll end up with one or more of the four “adverse impacts” – exhaustion, resentment exploitation and self-criticism.’
The negative effects of super-helper syndrome
As we mentioned above, many of us are taught that helping can only be a good thing, so it can be tough to recognise how unhealthy a tendency to help too much can be.
Jess and Rod explain that there are four adverse effects super-helpers are likely to experience:
‘Many helpers run on empty and take this for granted,’ the psychologists say. ‘Are you tired all the time? Do you have no time for yourself? Is your sleep disturbed? Do you suffer muscle tension or headaches? Do you feel irritable, tetchy or just weighed down?’
Resentment can spread like ivy throughout your relationships, gripping them until an inevitable breakdown.
Jess and Rod describe this as such: ‘Are you stretched out like an elastic band that’s eventually going to snap?
‘It’s easy to say you don’t want anything in return for helping but the reality is it’s hard to keep going indefinitely if you get little reward. At the very least you deserve thanks and recognition.
‘Do you find yourself ruminating on how much you do for others? Do you resent your lopsided friendships, with you doing all of the giving? Do you begrudge the fact that with everyone you meet, you’re the one asking all of the questions?’
‘If you never express any needs, then it’s easy (and convenient too) for other people to act as if you don’t have any, to take advantage of your helping,’ Jess and Rod note. ‘If you give the impression you want nothing in return, you get nothing in return.
‘That’s why it’s important to take a hard look at whether some of the people you are helping are exploiting you. Do they really need help at all? Do they need your help?’
Super-helpers can be lovely to everyone else and absolutely horrible to themselves.
Jess and Rod explain: ‘Helpers’ self-criticism typically operates on two levels. Do you criticise yourself for not helping enough? (Helper’s guilt).
‘Do you criticise yourself for experiencing the other three adverse impacts of the Super-Helper Syndrome: for feeling exhausted, resentful, or exploited?’
How to heal from super-helper syndrome
We’re sorry to say that there’s not a quick fix for super-helper syndrome and its negative effects.
You need to get to understand the root cause(s) of your super-helper tendencies, then start to unlearn the messages that have become so deeply embedded in your mindset.
Jess and Rod’s new book, The Super-Helper Syndrome, will help you do this, but you may also want to seek professional guidance to work on this more deeply.
‘If you are suffering from super-helper syndrome and really want to
make some changes in your life, reading can only take you so far – you have
to do the work,’ the pair write.
A lot of that work will be internal exploration, and the art of setting boundaries. Breaking down super-helper syndrome may be a gradual process of learning to say no, ditching people-pleasing, and getting comfortable with the idea that your worth is not dependent on what you do for others.
Jess Baker and Rod Vincent are chartered psychologists and authors of The Super-Helper Syndrome – A Survival Guide for Compassionate People on sale September 29 in hardback (£18.99) and ebook, published by Flint Books.
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