Sacrificial Helping Syndrome: Why Do We Give More Than We Have?

Most of us became therapists because we want to help people. Maybe we’ve entered this profession because something traumatic or powerful happened to us or our loved ones in the past. Ultimately, we all want to help others successfully navigate the pain life can bring with the support they need. To us, therapy is more than a career—it’s a calling.

Too often, though, as helping professionals we give so much to others that we don’t have enough left  for ourselves. I see this all the time, so I’ve given it a name: sacrificial helping syndrome.

What is Sacrificial Helping Syndrome?

Sacrificial helping syndrome is our instinct to sacrifice our own well-being to help others. We speak to our clients of self-care, but bolt down a protein bar between sessions instead of stopping for lunch. We tell our clients to be gentle with their bodies, but don’t offer ourselves the same grace. We schedule our vacations around our clients’ crises—ignoring our own need for rest. We cram clients into days we’re supposed to be off. We find ourselves burning out and feel powerless to change anything because our clients need us!

In reality, sacrificial helping syndrome hurts us more than it helps our clients. Burnt-out, exhausted therapists aren’t helping anyone including themselves. 

The Causes of Sacrificial Helping Syndrome

So why do we do this? What is it about private practitioners that make them prone to overextending themselves? There could be a lot of reasons, but I’ve noticed a few common threads—and some misconceptions—that contribute to this experience. 

1. Our work feels important enough to sacrifice self-care. 
It’s true that the services we offer to our clients are critical. If the world didn’t have mental health professionals, it’d be a lot worse off. There would be even more conflict, everyone’s quality of life would be diminished. In some cases, our clients might not even be alive without our vitally critical work. So it makes sense that so many of us feel like we can’t stop doing that work, whatever the cost. And unfortunately, there’s a kernel of truth to that. It’s harder to take breaks in this line of work than in others.

However, this belief can also lead you down a dangerous road of constantly putting your own needs far behind someone else’s crisis. When people find true help that they can rely on, they often 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. Of course there are clinical, legal, and ethical responsibilities that you need to take care of. At the same time, you have to take care of yourself, and empower your clients to take care of themselves as much as possible. How can you help others if you’re not taking care of yourself?

2. Running a business feels at odds with our values. 
It feels good to provide help to the people that need it most—and at the same time, uncomfortable to ask for money for that service. As helping professionals we love what we do, and many of us would do it for free. The journey to becoming a helping professional usually includes a realization that on some level, you’re already doing the job. People naturally gravitate towards future therapists for advice, and we feel good knowing we’re able to provide comfort and support to our friends and family. 

Our lives feel improved when we’re able to help others. We’ve all felt how amazing it is when someone shows improvement. If you’re passionate about what you do, it can be difficult and uncomfortable to charge for those services. But at the end of the day, if you’re running a private practice, you’re running a business. And no matter how much you love to help people, you also need to provide for yourself. When you’re making sure your financial needs are met, it removes stress from other areas of your life. 

3. Society doesn’t always value mental health services.
It seems that often, our communities don’t distinguish between being of service to others and being subservient to others. Much of the work we do as helping professionals is seen as less valuable—and too often, we go along with that misconception. Society has experienced these services being provided to them for free. Family members take care of their own. Elders and religious leaders provide counsel and support to their communities. Friends lend a hand or an ear. 

Combine that with the misconception that mental healthcare isn’t healthcare, and it can be very challenging to run a therapy business. When you’re offering services that much of society views as something that can be done out of the goodness of your heart, it can put you in an uncomfortable position. When you feel that discomfort, remind yourself that you’re an expert offering a service people can’t get anywhere else, and you deserve to be compensated for that expertise

4. We still feel some stigma when seeking help. 
Even as mental health professionals, some of us still feel embarrassed or ashamed when we need to seek therapy ourselves. Mental health treatment isn’t always seen as preventative care or part of daily life—to some, it means that you’re really struggling, and that should be a big secret. 

So therapists who are struggling with mental health issues are put in the corner—locked away without the same resources they’re offering to their clients on a daily basis. For many people, their ability to go through life without support is tied to their self-worth. We find a lot of our value through the help we give others. 

But at the same time, I tell many of my clients that they’re valuable even when they’re just sitting on my couch—they don’t have to do anything or help anyone to be worthy. But I struggle with that same belief for myself. If I couldn’t help anyone, would I be worthwhile? Would I have an important place in the world? 

Sacrificial helping is rampant—sometimes even valued. But when we burn out, the critical services we offer will wash away. There’s a lot at stake, and our communities rely on us to help them through whatever trials life brings. To combat this, we have to help each other. We have to value and take care of ourselves in order to help others. 

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