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  • Writer's pictureSarah Hindle

When Helping Hurts

Do you identify with any of the following?

  • Feeling overly responsible or essential for the wellbeing of others

  • Conflating helpfulness with worth

  • Constantly monitoring the needs of those around you

  • Choosing to sacrifice your own health or wellbeing to be helpful

  • Experiencing strong guilt when trying to limit helping

  • Finding yourself drawn to entitled partners/friends

  • Becoming resentful or feeling neglected when helpfulness is not reciprocated

Sometimes referred to as 'self-sacrificing', being a selfless person is widely celebrated and can be a confusing space if our world-view, value-system or morality includes a high view of service to others. Strong self-sacrificing can drive clinical issues such as workplace burn-out, anxiety, or depression. However the origins of excessive helpfulness can have a much darker underbelly, often tracing back to a childhood where one had to 'parent' younger siblings, regulate a parent suffering with mental health or substance use issues, or live alongside difficult personality traits, such as narcissism or entitlement. To help became a means of staying connected to a caregiver (which we know is preserved even when it is harmful to a child) and was reinforced with approval, attention and (conditional) love.

For self-sacrificers, love and help have become synonymous, such that to deny someone help is to deny them love itself.

When helping, self-sacrificers feel close to those they love, and protected from deeper fears of disconnection and rejection. Yet these fears are not healed but only masked by helpfulness. Regular flashpoints of distress signpost the activation of those deeper fears, which may include a belief that people they love will not be there to support, nurture, or protect them, or that they themselves are not worthy of love.

If you help to the point of hurting, you can:

- hold an awareness of your own needs and seeing them as equally important to the needs of others

- develop a process for checking in with your current capacity before offering help

- be aware of the 'chemistry' around people who are narcissistic and elicit your helpfulness

- begin to express your needs to yourself and others

- set limits on unhealthy helping

- start to see guilt as a positive indicator that you are reducing unhealthy helping

- tell yourself that your worth as a person is unrelated to the help that you offer

Therapy can also be of great benefit if you find yourself stuck in patterns of cyclical burn-out, guilt, or toxic relationships as a result of your self-sacrificing helpfulness.

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