In various workplaces, individuals who derive a strong sense of purpose from helping others are commonly found. However, there comes a point where they jeopardize their own well-being. This article delves into the phenomenon known as the super-helper syndrome, shedding light on its implications and providing strategies for establishing healthy boundaries.

Many people around us have transitioned from what they perceived as unfulfilling jobs to become coaches, trainers, or helpers of some kind. For those who haven’t made such a change, helping others remains an excellent way to experience a sense of usefulness in their work. Helping others is undeniably one of the most meaningful aspects of our professional lives.

However, some individuals take this inclination to help too far, constantly making themselves available and sacrificing their own health and well-being. Moreover, their impact may not always be as positive as they intended. These individuals are often referred to as “super-helpers.” But what if this overwhelming desire to help others is actually an addiction? How can we recognize when we have crossed the line and establish boundaries to maintain a healthy balance?

The Super-Helper Syndrome: More Common Than You Think Regardless of whether one believes in the concept of “bullshit jobs,” it’s hard to ignore the prevalence of office roles centered around analyzing and producing ideas, slides, and charts. Many people in these positions possess a genuine desire to assist others, aiming to compensate for the time spent on tasks they perceive as less valuable. Consequently, it is common to witness these individuals offering assistance to colleagues at work or engaging in volunteer activities outside of work. However, when this desire comes at the expense of their own well-being, it becomes problematic.

Psychologists Jess Baker and Rod Vincent delve into this phenomenon in their book, The Super-Helper Syndrome: A Survival Guide for Compassionate People. They describe individuals who excel at helping others but neglect self-care. These individuals often work excessively, encounter more traumatic situations than others, and even absorb the suffering of those around them to support others’ coping mechanisms. Prominent cases, particularly among caregivers, teachers, and assistants, share a common risk of experiencing burnout, anxiety, and depression. Unfortunately, their suffering often goes unnoticed due to their reluctance to discuss it.

The Flaws of Excessive Empathy There is nothing inherently wrong with being helpful or useful; in fact, it is highly beneficial. Acts of altruism contribute to professional growth, boost self-esteem, and promote emotional well-being, ultimately enhancing overall health. Such acts can even have physiological benefits, as hormone changes induced by helping others, such as increased oxytocin (the love and trust hormone), can have potent anti-stress effects. So, when does the joy of giving and helping become excessive and problematic?

Here are some unmistakable signs to watch for:

  1. Feeling anxious and inadequate when not assisting someone.
  2. Providing help to others without their explicit request.
  3. Experiencing negative emotions upon learning that someone else has been of assistance to your colleague, manager, client, or patient.
  4. Fantasizing about changing your colleagues’ lives through the advice you provide.
  5. Feeling threatened when the person you want to help does not follow your advice.
  6. Experiencing stress and exhaustion due to the overwhelming desire to assist others.

Meeting one or more of these criteria does not automatically classify you as a troubled super-helper. However, it should prompt self-reflection on your behaviors. If your sense of identity hinges on feeling useful through the help you provide, it can become detrimental and lead to burnout, while also potentially frustrating your colleagues.

Establishing a Healthy Balance To strike a healthy balance, it is important to strive for equitable partnerships rather than assuming the role of a “savior.” In order to achieve this, prioritize assistance that empowers others to become more independent. Effective coaches and teachers guide individuals to progress until they no longer require constant support.

Mindfulness plays a crucial role in understanding the underlying motives behind our actions. Pay attention to the narratives we construct around the help we provide and the advice we offer. These stories can reveal whether our actions stem from genuine care or an unhealthy need for validation.

Clearly establish expectations from the outset. Avoid becoming overly invested in someone’s success to the point where their well-being becomes secondary. Strike a balance between supporting others and recognizing their autonomy.

Remember that as a helper, you deserve support as well. A healthy and balanced approach involves considering your own needs, both physically and emotionally. Set clear boundaries and don’t hesitate to seek assistance from others when necessary. Taking care of yourself enables you to better assist others in the long run.

One of the core principles of the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm,” holds relevance not only for caregivers but for anyone aiming to be helpful. While it can be gratifying to know that others rely on your assistance, be cautious not to develop a need to feel indispensable. When people realize that your actions are driven by personal ego rather than genuine care, they may distance themselves. It is far better to maintain a healthy separation between your identity and the help you provide, ensuring that your support remains genuine and selfless.

By acknowledging the signs of the super-helper syndrome and adopting strategies for balance, you can continue to make a positive impact without compromising your well-being. Remember, true effectiveness lies in finding harmony between your desire to help and the necessary self-care that allows you to sustain that support over the long term.