Helper Syndrome

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There is a weakness that is particularly frequent among people in service professions, causing burnout and depression rates in the service industry to be some of the highest.

The ‘Helper Syndrome’ describes a strong drive to make other people feel better. In some cases it is done to ease or divert the helpers from their own pain. But by no means you have to be a ‘professional’ helper to behave this way; it can be a friend, neighbor, associate or yourself who is vulnerable to getting pulled into responsibilities and tasks that others wouldn’t even think about taking at the first place.

The Helper Syndrome can contribute to outright abusive forms of relationships: the ‘helper’ might increasingly experience signs of burnout or feel exploited, and their highest efforts might increasingly be taken as a matter of course with little gratitude for their support – no matter how much energy the helper invests, he might never get to a point where everyone is satisfied.

Another unhealthy aspect of the helper syndrome can be a lack of self-awareness and abuse of the responsibility a helper has towards the helped. This is because a helping relationship is typically unbalanced; people are not on equal footing. A good helper will be sensitive to the imbalance, while an abusive helper will ignore or even seek it. Instead of supporting the other in becoming stronger or looking for additional (often: professional) means of support, the helper tries to keep them dependent, and focuses on reaching their very own goals. To achieve their goals they might even abuse their power, or the trust of the recipient.

So whether the motives for such behavior are altruistic (‘I want to give something back’, ‘I don’t want them to do the same mistakes I did’, ‘I want to share’, ‘I can do it!’) or driven by dubbing their own psychological issues, it is always a sign of emotional imbalance and exploitation, of oneself or others, if someone ignores their own limits and tries to ‘fix’ everything only by themselves.

Typical forms of ‘helper’ relationships are: long-term relationships of non-addicts with addicted, aggressive, selfish or controlling personalities or relationships defined by a strong imbalance (with one partner being the ‘teacher’, ‘the sugar-daddy’ or ‘the boss’). They are functional for both, but quite resistant (and vulnerable) to change, which prevents at least one of the partners from achieving greater self-esteem and realizing his or her full potentials. While professional helpers can use supervision to reflect their work, in our private lives we can just try to take care for ourselves to avoid getting entangled in dysfunctional helping ambitions.

Live the happy life you planned! Richard L. Fellner is head of the Pattaya Counseling Center in Soi Khopai and offers consultations in English and German languages (after making appointments at 0854 370 470).