How to fight super-helper syndrome

Jun 28, 2023

3 mins

How to fight super-helper syndrome
Laetitia VitaudLab expert

Future of work author and speaker

Whether it’s the nature of their job or the nature of their soft skills, people who help others enjoy a strong sense of purpose at work. However, there is a limit to this and that’s when they put themselves at risk. We take a look at so-called super-helper syndrome with our expert in The Lab, Laetitia Vitaud.

I’ve lost count of the people around me who have left what they classed as a “bullshit job” to become coaches, trainers or “helpers” in one form or another. And for those who haven’t changed, the act of helping out being an excellent way of feeling useful. In short, helping others is probably one of the most essential raisons d’etre related to our work.

In reality though, some take this too far, making themselves constantly available and always being ready to lend a helping hand – often to the detriment of their health and well-being. Worse still, their impact isn’t always as positive as they may have hoped. We call these excessive individuals “super-helpers.” But what if this overwhelming desire to help others was actually an addiction? How can we recognize if we’re going too far and put in boundaries to strike a fine balance?

A more common syndrome than you might think

Whether you adhere to the concept of bullshit jobs or not, you cannot deny that office jobs involving the analyzing and producing of ideas, slides and charts have become commonplace. However, many people in these positions have a desire to help others, hoping to “make up for” the time taken up by the tasks perceived as less useful. With this in mind, it’s not uncommon to see these people helping their peers at work or volunteering outside of work. But when this desire comes before any consideration for their own well-being, it becomes problematic.

In the book The Super-Helper Syndrome: A Survival Guide for Compassionate People, psychologists Jess Baker and Rod Vincent take a look at these people who are more skilled at helping others than looking after themselves. They describe these individuals as being prone to overworking, being subjected to traumatic situations more than others, and even absorbing the suffering of those around them to help others cope. The prominent cases -notably, but not exclusively, among carers, teachers and even assistants- share a common trait of being at a higher risk of burnout, anxiety and depression. However, their suffering goes unnoticed thanks to their flair for never discussing it.

The flaws of empathy

There’s nothing wrong with being helpful or useful – quite the opposite. It’s even good for your health given that it induces a sense of satisfaction, which contributes to professional growth while boosting self-esteem and promoting one’s emotional well-being. Altruistic acts can even boost your immune system (yes, that’s right!) thanks to hormone changes. For example, oxytocin (the love and trust hormone) has a powerful anti-stress effect. So, when does the joy of giving and helping become excessive and problematic?

Here are some unmistakable signs:

  • You feel anxious and useless when not helping someone.
  • You help others even though they didn’t ask for it.
  • You feel bad when you discover that someone else has been of use to your colleague/manager/client/patient…
  • You dream about changing your colleagues’ lives thanks to the advice you give.
  • You feel in danger when the person you’d like to help doesn’t follow your advice and recommendations.
  • You feel stressed and/or exhausted by all the help you want to give to others.

Ticking one of these boxes doesn’t necessarily make you a troubled super-helper. But it may invite you to watch your behavior. If your identity depends on a sense of usefulness linked to the help you provide, this could become harmful and lead to burnout – not to mention that this situation may be annoying for your colleagues.

How to strike a good balance?

Firstly, you need to strive to be an equal partner rather than a “savior.” To do this, you should favor assistance that allows the helped to become more independent. Good coaches and teachers help people to progress until they’re longer needed.

It’s good to be mindful about the stories that we tell ourselves regarding the help we provide and the advice we give. These stories can clearly indicate the motives behind our actions.

It’s important to have clear expectations from the outset. In particular by not feeling more concerned about a person’s success rather than the actual person themselves.

The helper also deserves to be helped. A healthy, well-balanced approach starts by taking into consideration your own needs and your own physical, emotional and mental well-being. This includes setting clear boundaries and seeking help from others when needed.

Primum non nocere (“First, do no harm”). The first tenet of the Hippocratic Oath was aimed at caregivers. However, it’s an excellent mantra for anyone wanting to be helpful to others. While it may be pleasurable to know that those in your -notably professional- circle count on you for help, your desire to have a positive impact must not become a need to be indispensable. When the people we’re helping realize that we’re actually just serving our ego rather than them, they tend to distance themselves. It’s much better to maintain a healthy separation between who we are and what we do without making our whole identity about the help we give to others.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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Translated by Jamie Broadway

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