Psychologist Jess Baker explores why some people are susceptible to ‘super-helper syndrome’.
Did you choose your job because you care about the welfare of others? Have you ever gone beyond your remit to help someone? Have you ever felt guilty when you couldn’t help someone as much as you’d wanted to? Do you put others’ needs before your own?
Ever since I was 13 I had wanted to become a psychologist, so that I could help others feel better about themselves. I’ve heard similar sentiments from nurses, dentists, care home staff and other professional helpers. While wanting to help is a wonderful thing, it seems that those who do so tend to ignore their own needs. I call this ‘super-helper syndrome’ – where people feel compelled to help, even to the detriment of their own wellbeing.
While wanting to help is a wonderful thing, it seems that those who do so tend to ignore their own needs
Perhaps those who work in the community setting are at a higher risk of super-helper syndrome because their work brings them into close contact with the whole lives of the people they are trying to help.
You feel like you should be doing more
My first job in the NHS was in a day hospital for older adults more than 20 years ago. I became good friends with the social worker who supported some of my patients. When we met for coffee, every conversation would turn to our patients, discussing what could be done to give them a better quality of life at home. We were on a mission to resolve all their problems, even the ones beyond our remit.
For community practitioners there is also the risk of over-helping. While I was researching for a book I wrote with fellow psychologist Rod Vincent, one district nurse recalled an early moment in her career where she drove a young boy and his mother to the nearby park. It was her day off and she wanted to show them that by making small lifestyle changes they could be healthier. The nurse, now horrified at her naive younger self, acknowledged she’d breached professional and personal boundaries. She said: ‘I knew I shouldn’t have done it, but I couldn’t help myself.’
Another manager in an outpatient wound-care facility told me that she keeps an eye on certain nurses who are prone to getting ‘too involved’ with their patients. ‘I know they just want to help, and that’s admirable, but it can and does create a dependency on them as the problem-solver, which is just not sustainable,’ she said. She explained that because every patient has compounding problems, such as mobility or medical needs, the nurses often feel like they should be doing more.
Why do some of us become compulsive helpers?
The answer lies in exploring your motives for helping in the first place. Our qualitative research, involving 50 people who had experienced super-helper syndrome, highlighted four irrational beliefs that helpers tend to hold. The most common of those, the ‘good person belief’, is where you help in order to prove that you are good. This can happen if you were heavily socialised to help as a child.
Others feel an obligation to help because they had an acute awareness of the suffering all around them (the ‘help everyone belief’). Again, childhood messages often play a part, but there is also evidence that some people are highly empathic for hereditary reasons (Davis et al, 1994).
Some people hold the ‘they-couldn’t-survive-without me’ belief, where the helper feels indispensable to someone who depends on them.
All of these beliefs are often accompanied by one other – the idea that the helper shouldn’t have any needs themselves. The ‘no needs belief’ is possibly the most insidious of the four as it leads directly to exhaustion, exploitation and other harmful effects of the super-helper syndrome.
How to look after yourself while you help others
- Deconstruct any of the irrational beliefs you hold about helping. By doing this, you can be more realistic about your capacity and your responsibility to help.
- Acknowledge your full duty of care. As well as a responsibility towards your clients, your ultimate duty of care is to yourself – to looking after your own needs, protecting your boundaries and asserting your human rights. If you don’t, who will?
- Find support. If you see yourself as a provider, you are unlikely to seek help for yourself, especially if you hold the ‘no needs belief’. But you deserve compassion, too. Your family, friends and colleagues don’t want you to suffer. Be brave and call for the help you need.
How to set boundaries
By protecting your boundaries, you can help without falling into exhaustion, feeling resentful or being exploited. Start by choosing who you are going to help (are some people relying on you unnecessarily or exploiting your friendship, for example?), how you are going to help (for example, limiting most of your helping to your professional role), and when you are going to help (for example, you might decide to listen to your mother’s problems at Sunday lunches, but not spend time on the phone with her when you are at work). You can’t help everyone. As a professional carer, you don’t have to be helping in all other aspects of your life too.
Stay within the limits of your responsibility to help. For example, rather than trying to solve all of someone’s problems, simply referring them to other specialists might be all you can do.
Defending your new boundaries requires assertiveness. Here are some tactics for pushing back:
- People might not know they are asking too much of you. Explain: ‘I’d like to help but I have too much going on at the moment.’
- Avoid being overly apologetic – it can lead to you breaking your own boundaries.
- Buy time: ‘I’ll have to check my diary/work schedule first, then get back to you.’
- Believe it yourself: If you believe what you are saying without feeling guilty, you will sound more authentic and others will take you more seriously.
There’s plenty of scientific evidence to show that healthy helping can actually be good for your health (McGonigal, 2015), releasing beneficial neurochemicals such as oxytocin and dopamine – but only when it comes from a place of compassion rather than from compulsion.
Jess Baker is a chartered psychologist who specialises in working with people in the healthcare industry who are at risk of exhaustion due to their compulsion to help and care. With Rod Vincent, she is the co-author of The Super-Helper Syndrome: A Survival Guide for Compassionate People (Flint Books).
- For more on how to be a more compassionate leader, see jessbaker.co.uk/compassionate-leader
- For details of the book The Super-Helper Syndrome, see jessbaker.co.uk/shsbookclub
- Find 24/7 mental health support at mentalhealthatwork.org.uk/ourfrontline
- To follow the book’s co-authors on all social media platforms, see @jessbakerpsych and @rodericvincent
Time to Reflect
Stop to think: when was the last time you helped beyond the remit of your job, or out of a compulsion to help? Practise setting boundaries with people you trust, before building up your courage to assert yourself. Join the conversation on Twitter via @CommPrac #superhelper
Davis MH, Luce C, Kraus SJ. (1994) The Heritability of Characteristics Associated with Dispositional Empathy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 62(3): 369-91.
Baker J, Vincent R. (2022) The Super-Helper Syndrome: A Survival Guide for Compassionate People. Flint Books: Cheltenham.
McGonigal K. (2015) The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. Avery Publishing Group: New York City.
Image Credit | iStock |Yolande-De-Vries