For my family and friends, I’m the go-to person for nearly everything. Someone has relationship problems and needs advice? They turn to me. Someone short on a bill? They ask me. Need some kind of medical info that they should’ve asked their doctor? They call or text me instead.
Although I love helping people when I can, it’s not always good for me. Sometimes I give funds that I really shouldn’t. Being an on-call therapist can get tiresome. And I often feel so overwhelmed dealing with other people’s issues that I push my own to the side.
That, my dear, is what’s known as a super-helper.
What’s the “Super-Helper Syndrome”?
The term “Super-Helper Syndrome” was coined by two psychologists out of the U.K., Jess Baker and Rod Vincent, authors of The Super-Helper Syndrome: A Survival Guide for Compassionate People. A super-helper is someone who has a compulsion to help others — family, friends, on the job, in the community and strangers — at the expense of their own wants and needs.
Yep, that’s me.
I feel the Super-Helper Syndrome is similar to the Black Superwoman Syndrome. Jamila Jones, a licensed clinical professional counselor and owner of Reclaiming Minds Therapy and Wellness in Chicago, agrees. “I think we can consider them to be kind of synonymous with one another because the outcome for most of us is the same, which is those feelings of being depleted and obligated and not having enough boundaries to maintain our own quality of life,” she explains.
The way the Super-Helper Syndrome and the Superwoman Syndrome differ is their origin. The Black Superwoman Syndrome tends to come from what society puts on us —expectations that, as Black women, we do it all, do it well and without a complaint. On the flip side, the Super-Helper Syndrome usually stems from something within.
The authors of The Super-Helper Syndrome say compulsive helpers usually have one (or more) of the following irrational beliefs: They think helping is the way to be “good,” they’re overly empathetic and believe it’s a duty to help everyone or they believe someone (say, a family member) wouldn’t survive without their help. Super-helpers also tend to think they shouldn’t have needs or that they’re selfish to meet them.
Jones says the super-helper scenario is also familiar. “Growing up, we see our moms, grandmas and aunties all trying to be that person for everybody and making little room for themselves,” Jones says. So, that’s what we believe womanhood should look like, not realizing just how unfulfilled those women may have been, she says.
The problem with being a super-helper
The most obvious downsides of the Super-Helper Syndrome are exhaustion and burnout. Oftentimes, I’m so drained from putting out other people’s fires that I don’t have the energy to address the ones that are encircling me.
Relationships may become strained too. “After a while, resentment tends to grow because you’re resentful of the fact that you’re the person to fix things, you’re the person to provide things. But who’s helping you? Who’s providing for you?” says Jones.
The answer may be no one. When everyone turns to you for help, it seems like you’ve got everything under control, so they may not offer to help or support you (and you may not feel comfortable asking for it) when you need it, says Jones.
Being a super-helper may also make you feel you can’t be your authentic self. I yearn to simply enjoy my life without all the extra responsibilities. I want to be open to meeting new people without worrying they’ll be more people on my long list of people to help. But because I’ve been in this role for so long, I feel I can’t really be that carefree, light version of myself. I know that sours connections (and would-be connections). I’ve been told that my being guarded and overly helpful comes across as being “fake” or “stuck up.”
On the money front, the Super-Helper Syndrome is an easy way to find yourself broke and busted if you’re helping folks financially when you really shouldn’t. Ask me how I know.
Oh, and on that note, if you have a super-helpful nature, people will use you.
Recover from super-helping
Get to the root cause. It will be difficult to slow down if you don’t know why you’re being a super-helper in the first place. Think about what’s the underlying motivation behind your super-helper syndrome. Were you raised to believe that helping makes you a good person? Do you feel deeply anytime you see someone in a bad situation and think you’re obligated to help? Do you feel you have no choice but to help someone close to you because they wouldn’t make it or will struggle otherwise? Are you unconsciously making excuses to focus on other people’s needs instead of your own? Once you understand the irrational belief behind your super-helper behavior, you can work towards getting rid of it and forming healthier helping habits.
Create healthy boundaries. “Determine what boundaries you need to put in place to protect your emotional and mental wellness surrounding helping,” says Jones. For example, you could put limits on who, how and when you’ll lend a hand. So you may decide to help only family for a while. And that help could be in the form of advice only, no lending money or traveling across town to play chauffeur. Furthermore, you may choose to help only when you aren’t busy doing something else. No more dropping everything to answer your phone.
Say no. If you don’t have the time, energy or desire to help someone, say no. Although it can be difficult, the more you practice saying no, the easier it will become.
Check yourself while helping. Scaling back doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help at all. You just need to find what works for you, so your help is given freely rather than feeling obligatory. Jones suggests being mindful of what you’re feeling when you’re helping. “If you notice you’re getting anxious, you’re more short-tempered than usual or you’re feeling constantly overwhelmed and overextended, those are clear indicators that you want to take a step back and assess what’s going on,” she says. If necessary, reevaluate and adjust your boundaries.
Turn super-helper into self-helper. Show up for yourself just as you do for others. Prioritize self-care. Make sure you’re eating and resting well, being physically active and finding time for activities that you find fulfilling. Another important step for a reforming super-helper is asking for help from others when you need it.