Advice for Over-Helpers
Photo by Neil Thomas / Unsplash

Advice for Over-Helpers

You are—or you know—a person that is always going the extra, exhausted mile. The first to volunteer, no matter how busy they already are and despite the very obvious and painful limits on their time, energy, and resources. This person is an over-helper. And I have some reasonable advice for them.

If this article isn't for you, it's probably for someone you know. Let me describe that person:

You are—or you know—a person who:

  • Always goes the extra, exhausted mile. This is someone who is first to volunteer, and does it no matter how busy they already are. Behind the scenes, you see the sleep they skip or the money they spend for others, and they'd be mortified if you ever revealed it.
  • Deflects praise for their kindness. They instead feel like they should have done more, and often apologize for it.
  • In brief moments of honesty, utters the meekest of complaints at having too much to do for others, or at being taken for granted. But it's a thought they push away, because that sort of complaining isn't what a good person should do.
  • Is relentless in their desire to help, despite the very obvious and painful limits on their time, energy, and resources. They spend most days straining at these limits.

In short, this person is an over-helper. And I have some reasonable advice for them, advice to make them better helpers.

Ask for help more often

A first, common mistake I’ve noticed among over-helpers is that they are loath to ask for help themselves, even if it’s to recruit extra hands to assist someone else. Over-helpers are prone to feeling that if they themselves need help, then they’re falling short. Or that they’re burdening someone. Or that they’re obligated to return the favor. In any case, it feels more comfortable to go it alone, even if that’s ultimately overwhelming.

Over-helpers also hate to inconvenience others, so they’ll turn down assistance as a way to protect other people from themselves. This can deprive others of whole range of benefits that come from helping. People who help often get better physical and emotional health. They feel more gratitude, social connection, and feeling of purpose because they helped. And their helping behavior contagiously encourages others to be helpful. If you’re an over-helper, letting someone assist you offers all of these benefits to them.

And there's another reason, a hard one to admit. Sometimes we not only want someone’s problems fixed, but we want to be sure that we’re the ones to do it. A variety of reasons motivate this—self-affirmation, building a relationship, or avoiding guilt. But insisting that we alone are the solution sometimes leaves a person worse-off than if another person stepped in.

Focus on your gifts

Imagine the person who’s always volunteering, often for a task they’ve never done before. My wife has an old friend who did this often at her son’s school. The result was invariably late nights wrestling with a project that meant hours of research, conflicting schedules, wasted supplies, and regret at having volunteered.

It’s hard to say no to a request for help. We worry that it says something bad about us, or more accurately about our intentions. Over-helpers, in particular, often worry about the kind of person it makes them if they say no. Of course, our character isn’t defined by any one moment, and that includes a moment when someone asks for help.

There are plenty of moments where we ought to say no, and they have nothing to do with our character. People naturally ask for help, without enough information about the helpers. Does the helper have enough time? The needed skills? The right ideas about how to help? Asking for help is a reasonable way to find out. This means that it’s also reasonable to get a “no.”

If you’re looking for a reason to say no, let it be when you’re bad at something. Or when your important commitments are filling your time and energy. No person is a bottomless reservoir of ability and resources. Saying no is a way to leave room for requests that use your skills, and to make the most of your opportunities to help.

Withhold help on purpose

Most parents can describe the sharp discomfort that comes from watching a child struggle with something hard. But just as when a mother bird watches her chicks hatch from an egg on their own, or pushes them out of the nest where they’re warm and fed, we also find ourselves urged to help when the best thing to do is stand by.

Swooping in every time a loved one struggles does damage in the long run. It weakens them by taking away experiences that help them grow. For all of us, strength typically comes from doing hard things.

You don’t have to do nothing, of course. You can help with encouragement; cheer them on and give them courage.

My wife and I have stark memories of moments like this with our kids. It might have been a failing grade, a hard conversation, or a broken heart. With time, these moments made our children stronger and more capable. We were there with advice and confidence. People who never have a chance to fail never really have a chance to succeed.

Often over-helpers are driven by emotional empathy, feeling someone else’s feelings. Not only is this is a recipe for burnout, but it also can induce unethical behavior like unfair bias. This is because we usually can’t feel the feelings of two people at once. We’re prone to focus on one, and favor that person over the other.

Emotional empathy is powerful, though, because seeing someone suffer feels like suffering for us, too. That’s why we’re compelled to help.

Instead, it’s worth trying to have more cognitive empathy—sharing another person’s concerns without sharing their feelings. Cognitive empathy is more psychologically sustainable and allows you to hold multiple perspectives at once. You’ll be a better helper with this kind of empathy.

“Easy for you to say,” you might be thinking. Shutting off emotions is tough for anyone, but especially for over-helpers. This is because they are often over-feelers, too. But there are reliable practices that work in giving you more emotional independence when you see someone struggling. Withholding help where it’s not necessary is one such practice.

Enjoy it

In this bit of advice, I want to be careful and clear. There’s a common idea that if you aren’t joyful in your help, whistling while you work, that there’s something wrong with you. Sometimes help is very unpleasant. Caretakers for sick family members feel this intensely. Loving a person doesn’t mean we have to love the hard things we for them.

But helping someone is often a joyful thing, at least eventually if not immediately. Seeing a person flourish with our help is sublime. Being thanked by a truly grateful person is deeply satisfying. The problem is that over-helpers often deny themselves these pleasures.

Most commonly, over-helpers instead worry that they could’ve done more. Somehow, none of the help they’ve given is good enough, so the vibrant joy that comes from helping gets drenched by storm clouds of what could have been.

If you’re an over-helper, don’t let the help you fail to give ruin the pleasure of the help you do give. There will be always be more to do than you have time and capacity for. Always.

If you struggle with this, take time to acknowledge the good you do for others. Write it down so you see it more clearly. If people say thank you, enjoy the moment and say that you’re happy to help. Then truly be happy to help.

Be aware of disorders

There’s some degree of over-helping in all of us. It might be with those close to us, or those we feel responsibility towards. I have a hard time saying no to my students, for example. It sometimes means I have long days and weeks in the course of a semester. It’s manageable enough, though I could do better. This semester I’ve made sure to block out calendar time for the other things I need to be doing. It means students sometimes have to wait a bit longer to meet with me, but it’s a small trade-off with bigger benefits.

For others, though, over-helping is a mental health concern. Helping—like all good things—can be a burden where it extends beyond its proper bounds. Here are some examples of where this happens:

  • Harm OCD is where obsessive thoughts badger a person about how their actions could cause harm to others. People with harm OCD will use compulsive habits, like excessively helping others, to comfort themselves that they aren’t risking hurt to someone else.
  • Scrupulosity (closely related to Harm OCD) involves obsessive thoughts about one’s spiritual standing. Most religious faiths incorporate a belief that we should help others, and so scrupulosity leads a person to help obsessively for assurance that they haven’t sinned or otherwise acted unrighteously.
  • Unmitigated Communion is a condition when a person bases their own happiness on the well-being of a significant person in their life. This focus on someone else is so intense that it leads to an exclusion of self in decision-making. The research shows that women are especially prone to this behavior.

If this sounds like you or an over-helper that you know, it’s a good idea to meet with a mental health professional with expertise in treating these conditions. The very good news is that therapy and/or medication can help immensely.

Over-helpers, take heart

If you’re an over-helper, consider this encouraging thought: you are as worthy and as capable of being helped as anyone else. You also can develop skills and ways of thinking that will make your generosity more sustainable and satisfying.

None of this advice is pointing you to selfishness as an antidote to over-helping. To the contrary, these are ways to become an even better helper. Not a more frenzied, exhausted, guilt-ridden one, but a more confident, thoughtful, and effective one. Take heart in your good heart.


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Written by

Aaron Miller

Aaron Miller

Provo, UT