• Whether it's your job or your natural inclination in your relationships, giving up a lot of your time and energy to help others can lead to burnout

  • Psychologists Jess Baker and Rod Vincent offer their 5 self-care tips for super-helpers

  • If you are struggling to make time for yourself, we have therapists and counsellors available to support you here

If you’re a natural helper, you probably already have a long menu of suggestions for how people should look after themselves. You already know about the benefits of self-compassion, mindfulness, relaxation techniques, exercise, a healthy diet, time spent with loved ones. These are delightful acts of self-care. But how much of this do you do for yourself?

You might believe it is your duty to provide for others. You might say you are too busy to spend time on yourself. You might be caring for others in your job and in every aspect of your personal life too. You might deny you have any needs but the fact is people who are good at looking after others are often not as good at looking after themselves.

Like everyone else there are times when you need comfort, rest, reassurance, sustenance, or time to yourself. And if you don’t express your needs, how can anyone else know how to take care of you when you are struggling?

1. Explore your motivations for helping

If you have a tendency to help others without looking after yourself, the first thing to do is to understand why this is. There are four beliefs that typically underlie super-helper behaviours and drive compulsive helping.

  • The Good Person Belief: Are you helping others in order to prove that you are a good person?
  • The Help Everyone Belief: Do you have a compulsion to help everyone you meet?
  • The They-Couldn’t-Survive-Without-Me Belief: Do you believe you have no choice, that you are indispensable, and that the people you are caring for couldn’t cope without you?
  • The No Needs Belief: If nobody else could hear, would you have to admit you hold the belief, ‘I shouldn’t have any needs’?

Deconstructing these beliefs is essential to letting go of compulsive helping. Deconstructing them allows you to make more conscious choices to balance caring for others with caring for yourself.

2. Recognise the adverse impacts of being a super-helper

It’s important to spot the signs early so you can take action before you reach a state of collapse. The four most common adverse impacts are:

  • Exhaustion: Many helpers run on empty and take this for granted. Are you tired all the time? Do you have no time for yourself? Is your sleep disturbed? Do you suffer muscle tension or headaches? Do you feel irritable, tetchy or just weighed down?
  • Resentment: Are you stretched out like an elastic band that’s eventually going to snap? It’s easy to say you don’t want anything in return for helping but the reality is it’s hard to keep going indefinitely if you get little reward. At the very least you deserve thanks and recognition. Do you find yourself ruminating on how much you do for others? Are your friendships lopsided, with you doing all of the giving? Do you begrudge the fact that with everyone you meet, you’re the one asking all of the questions?
  • Exploitation: If you never express any needs, then it’s easy (and convenient too) for other people to act as if you don’t have any, to take advantage of your helping. If you give the impression you want nothing in return, you get nothing in return. That’s why it’s important to take a hard look at whether some of the people you are helping are exploiting you. Do they really need help at all? Do they need your help?
  • Self-Criticism: It’s ironic that those who are good at looking after others are often less kind to themselves. Helpers’ self-criticism typically operates on two levels. Do you criticise yourself for not helping enough? (Helper’s guilt). Do you criticise yourself for experiencing the other three adverse impacts listed above: for feeling exhausted, resentful, or exploited?

3. Choose when, who and how to help

Compulsive Helpers tend to help in all aspects of their lives. Even when they are in a professional caring role, they are also volunteering, looking after dependent relatives, acting as the fixer in the family, trying to help everyone they meet. It’s OK to consciously decide how much you are going to help and when.

4. Don’t help people more than they want to be helped

If you are a coach, a counsellor or therapist, a carer, or in any other kind of helping position, you can have unrealistic expectations for how much you can do for others. This puts pressure on you and adds to helpers’ guilt when you don’t achieve the results you want. But sometimes you can’t transform someone’s life. Sometimes it’s enough to leave them in a better position than they were when they first came to see you. Some don’t want to change radically and no matter how ambitious you are for them, they might never find the level of healing or development you would wish for them. Remember that success is in the eye of the client.

5. Use the zorb of Zen

If you don’t know, zorbing is when you roll down a hill in a transparent plastic bubble. It’s a strange but fun experience. The Zorb of Zen is a way to visualise your boundaries. Here’s how we describe it:

Imagine yourself safe and comfortable inside your zorb. You can still interact with the world as normal, but it slows your reactions down. It gives you the opportunity to observe others from within your zorb when they are throwing their emotions at you like wet paper tissues. It prevents you from immediately taking on other people’s drama or instinctively giving in to your urge to help. 

You can use the Zorb of Zen to shield you from toxic situations that others want to draw you into. It gives you the time to choose how to respond. You don’t have to absorb their emotions. You watch them slide down the outside of your zorb like wet paper tissues.

All of the five suggestions above are ways to build awareness of your helping tendencies. By taking a good look at yourself as a helper you can stop yourself from becoming overstretched. You can give yourself permission to take the self-care you know you need. By being a healthier helper you will ultimately have more to give to others because you’ll be coming from a stronger place.

Jess Baker and Rod Vincent are chartered psychologists and the authors of The Super-Helper Syndrome: A Survival Guide for Compassionate People

Further reading

Compassion fatigue in the caring professions

What's the downside of empathy?

How to keep healthy boundaries with a friend in need

Watch our interview with coach Michelle Elman on setting boundaries: