woman being super helpful hero

Do You Have Super-Helper Syndrome?

6 mins

Do you put others’ needs above your own and can’t say to helping out even though you have a million chores of your own? Sounds like you have Super-Helper Syndrome – here’s how to help yourself first

It’s the school bake sale tomorrow and there’s no time to make a cake again. How does it come around so quickly? Last term, you were manically busy and even though you’d planned to whip up a batch of homemade brownies reality kicked in, and so you donated a few KitKats. A biscuit is a biscuit, right? It’s all for a good cause. That’s when you vowed that next term, you’d help – but you can’t. There just isn’t ever enough time. Well for you, at least. 

Because making you feel worse is the fact that you know that one mum will turn up, laden with the most yummiest looking cakes, smiling, ready to do just about anything and everything. It’s always the same person baking, selling, fundraising, and helping, helping, helping. You think, she mustn’t have to work. She has far too much time on her hands. She has help of her own, clearly. Except. You learn that she doesn’t. She’s also holding down a full-time job. She’s a Neo-natal nurse, for goodness sake! She has three kids, family problems and elderly parents to consider. How does she do it?

Super-Helper Syndrome

woman making cakes - concept being she has super-helper syndrome

Say hello to Super-Helper Syndrome, a phrase coined by psychologists Jess Baker and Rod Vincent. Super-helpers are people who have a compulsion to help others while neglecting to meet their own needs. They always have time to lend a hand, even if they’ve got a million other things to do. From picking up someone else’s kids as a favour to cooking a Sunday roast for the sick neighbour, you name it, they’ll do it. Their own life might be chaotic, but regardless of that, you can rely on them 110 per cent. And it’s more common than you think. 

‘These Super-Helpers often help others to the detriment of their own wellbeing. They over-look their own needs’

In the UK, in 2020, 750,000 people signed up to join the ‘volunteer army’ to support the national health system (the NHS). Many more stepped up to help their neighbours and communities during the pandemic. Psychologist Jess Baker began to notice a trend. ‘These same people often help others to the detriment of their own wellbeing,’ she said. ‘They over-look their own needs.’

But surely super-helpers are nice? Kind? Giving? Yes, however, the desire to help becomes addictive. Without a second thought, compulsive helpers will seek out opportunities to help at any given chance. Inevitably, this can lead to exhaustion and burnout – and it’s difficult enough already with woman programmed to do everything, a phenomenon coined The Second Shift.  

As Psychologist Rod Vincent says: ‘Even as the waters overwhelm them, they are waving at the beach shouting, “No, no, you keep on playing; I’m fine.”’ 

Super-Helper Signs 

So how do you recognize a Super-Helper? They, say the experts, have the following traits:

  • Determination
  • Struggle to say no 
  • Easily involve themselves in other people’s drama
  • Constantly try to fix the problem
  • Take their responsibilities for others seriously
  • Ignore signs of exhaustion and being exploited
  • The last to admit they need help themselves

What Can Cause Super-Helper Syndrome?

Baker says that children – and more commonly, little girls – are taught that they must help other people in order to be a good person. She created a psychologists’ questionnaire on the subject and one support worker, Abigail, responded by listing this reason for her super-helping tendencies. ‘I got noticed when I was a good girl,’ she explained. ‘Praise made me feel like I was good enough. I can see where my people-pleasing comes from. Thirty-seven years of autopilot is hard to break.’

‘They see themselves as good when they help. They criticise themselves when they don’t. They feed off the praise and rewards. They live in fear of these being taken away. They are on the way to becoming a compulsive helper with Super-Helper Syndrome’

Baker and Vincent both note that it’s hardly surprising when children begin to internalise their parents’ and teachers’ messages. ‘They see themselves as good when they help,’ they say. ‘They criticise themselves when they don’t. They feed off the praise and rewards. They live in fear of these being taken away. They are on the way to becoming a compulsive helper.’

girl with angry parents in background she grows up to have super-helper syndrome

Childhood trauma can also cause a person to transition into a problem-solver. Growing up with volatile or abusive parents, a super-helper might see themselves more clearly as the fixer, the go-to rescuer in the family. Rania, a dentist in Dubai, recalls her mother being very hot and cold. ‘I needed love but would get nothing from my mom,’ she says, admitting how her rejection has impacted her own awareness of others. ‘I don’t want to upset anyone; I want to do right by them and help people.’

Can Super-Helpers Find Help?

If you know a Super-Helper, don’t wait for them to ask you for help. Instead, offer your support frequently. They might say, ‘Oh I’m fine,’ or divert the attention back to you, but gently probe. Acknowledge what they’ve done for you, thank them, or send a gift. And above all, listen. Super-Helpers will not want to burden you with the stresses of their own life, but they might let some truth slip if you’re engaged in a focused, two-way conversation.

What If I’m A Super-helper?

Take a break. Breathe. Never feel guilty for having a moment – or three. By taking rest, you’re only listening to your own advice to others. Resting is not a weakness, and in order to be strong, you have to step back once in a while. Write down what is important to you, listing activities that support your own wellbeing and what you enjoy? Reading? Yoga? A classic movie? Make time for that and use it to recharge. Turn to your closest friend and talk. A really good – true – friend will be patient and put your needs first, because, you have always done this for them. 

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