Sacrificial Helping Syndrome: Why do we give more than we have?

Most of us became therapists because we want to “help people.”

Frequently, we chose this profession because something traumatic or powerful happened to us or our loved ones, and now we want to aid others in navigating through the pain we felt, but more successfully and with more support. To us, therapy is more than a career—it’s a calling.

Too often, however, we give so much that we don’t have enough left to keep going. I see this all the time, so I’ve given it a name: The Sacrificial Helping Syndrome.

We 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 only stay home sick when we’re super contagious. We schedule our vacations around our clients’ crises. We cram clients into our days off. We find ourselves burning out and feel powerless to change anything because our clients need us!

Why do we do this? Well, there are a lot of reasons—but I’ve noticed some patterns that you may be able to relate to.

Our work is super important.

The work we do is critical. If the world didn’t have mental health professionals, it’d be a lot worse off. I think there would be even more conflict, quality of life would be greatly diminished for everyone, and some of our clients, many of them severely abused and neglected children, wouldn’t even be alive without our vitally critical work. So it makes sense that we feel we can’t stop, whatever the cost. And, unfortunately, there’s some truth to that.

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. You need to take care of your clinical, legal, and ethical responsibilities, of course. However, you must also 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?

It feels good to provide help (and weird to ask for money).

You love what you do—and many of 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, and it feels so good to be able to provide help. Our lives are improved when we help others. It’s meaningful. I mean, we all know how amazing it is when someone else shows improvement.

You’re passionate about what you do and got used to doing it for free. How do you ask for money now?

Society expects our help, but doesn’t always value it.

It seems that in many cases, our communities don’t distinguish between being of service and being subservient. Much of the work we do as helpers is seen as less valuable AND we play along too often. So often, society has 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 to hold strong on charging for what you (and much of society) view as something that is often given out of the goodness of one’s heart.

For therapists, Sacrificial Helping can also be tied to Mental Health Stigma.

For many, it’s seen as embarrassing or shameful to “have to go to therapy.” Treatment is not seen as preventative or mainstream — it means that you’re losing it, which should be kept as a big secret. So, therapists are like Baby from Dirty Dancing —we’re put in the corner. Locked away and happy to be there because, well, stigma and confidentiality and… You get the picture.

For many, help = worth.

We find a lot of our value through the help we give. I tell many of my clients that they are valuable just sitting on the couch — they don’t have to do anything or help anyone to be worthy. But I struggle with that same belief myself. If I couldn’t help anymore, would I be worthwhile? Would I have an important place in the world? We know that we will feel good doing work that  gives back to society, but do we know that that isn’t required of us? That helping doesn’t have to define us?

Sacrificial helping is rampant. I think it is even valued in certain circles. (Take a look at the recent “Martyrdom Trap” article for example!)

We have to help each other – we need to value and take care of ourselves in order to help others. If we burn out or wash out – these services will go away. That’s just not okay. There’s a lot at stake, and our communities rely on us to get it right.

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