In my everyday interactions with helping professionals, I’ve come across a pattern of behavior and a specific mindset that holds so many of us back. This configuration of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings is so common in my experience, that I’ve decided to give it a name: “Sacrificial Helping Syndrome.”
I can hear you now. Wow Katie, that sounds awful! I’m sure I don’t have that… I’m generous and thoughtful, but certainly I don’t have a “Syndrome.”
Not so fast, gentle reader. Let me explain what I mean.
So many of us will unselfishly give and help when we don’t necessarily have what we need for ourselves. We’ll lower our rates (or not even think of charging), make wild scheduling contortions within our already full calendar, and drop everything else – including our own priorities – to help someone in need. When we do that a lot, our friends, family members, colleagues, and clients start to assume that we’ll always do this. They begin to rely on our selfless (or even self-sabotaging) help. So often, we end up feeling bitter, manipulated, and burned out. And no closer to our own goals and dreams.
Why does this happen? Why do so many of us struggle with this “Syndrome?” Or feel guilty when we set a limit and hold our boundaries, take care of ourselves, or even *gasp* ask for help ourselves?
Here are 3 myths that I believe contribute to this rampant epidemic of sacrificial helping.
MYTH #1: If I say “no,” I’m mean (or not empathic, or selfish, or bad… you get what I’m saying here).
I think this myth stems from an irrational thought that so many people hold: I am only of value when I’m “of service.” Now – don’t get upset. I’m not bashing any of us with a service mindset. It’s an amazing value and is so important to our society. However, if you only find value for yourself when you are “of service,” you won’t acknowledge your inherent value. Think of your loved ones, who you value just for being who they are. It’s difficult to turn that perspective on ourselves, but it’s so critical to realize that even when you’re not giving, and in service, you still are inherently valuable.
TRUTH: I can be of service and set limits. I must decide who I most want to help and am best able to help (and say “yes” primarily to those individuals). I am valuable even when I’m not “of service.”
MYTH #2: I should do this out of the goodness of my heart.
You love what you do and for many of you, you used to do it for free. The journey to become a helping professional usually includes a realization that you’re already doing the job. Everyone comes to future therapists for advice. Care managers often have navigated the system themselves and want to help others avoid their struggles. You find a calling and a skillset and then add the additional credentials you need to become a professional. You’re passionate about what you do and used to do it for free. How do you ask for money now? Also, society has often had these services provided for free. Family members take care of their own, whether they’re children, elderly, or disabled. Elders and religious leaders provide counsel and support to their communities. Friends lend a hand or an ear. It can be a very hard transition to charging for what you view as something that is often given out of the goodness of one’s heart.
TRUTH: I love what I do and my work changes lives. But it is how I make my living. As a helping professional, I am entitled to get paid for my services.
MYTH#3: My client’s crisis is my crisis. My client cannot survive without me.
I think this can be the hardest one to overcome. This myth has truth in it because it speaks to the immense value you provide to those who you serve. However, it can also lead you down a road of constantly sacrificing your own needs for someone else’s crisis. When people find true help, that they feel they truly can rely on, they come to depend on it. I see too many service providers become their clients’ source of hope, safety, and progress. These clients feel so taken care of, but the service providers are running on empty.
There must be a balance. You need to take care of your clinical, legal, and ethical responsibilities. However, you must also take care of yourself and empower your clients to take care of themselves as much as is possible. How can you help others if you’re not taking care of yourself?
TRUTH: To best help my client, I must take care of myself. When I take care of my responsibilities, I have done what I need to do for my client. My clients are better served when I can empower them or connect them to the resources they need.
What do you think? Have I convinced you about the “Sacrificial Helping Syndrome?” I bet you’ve at least seen it in your colleagues and friends. As helping professionals, we need to take good care of ourselves. Our work is too important for us to become bitter, feel manipulated, or burnout early.
Do you have any additional thoughts? Ideas to share? I’d love to hear your perspective on this. Please come join the conversation at The Modern Therapists Group on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/therapyreimagined/