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Therapist Tips: Understanding Sacrificial Helping Syndrome

Therapists enter the mental health field out of a desire to help others. If you’re a counselor, you probably feel as though supporting people in need is your calling. You may have been through your own struggles and want to help others who are experiencing something similar, or you may just feel a strong sense of empathy for those around you. Compassion is an essential personality trait for therapists, but it can be a double-edged sword. Your empathy draws you to the profession and makes you an excellent source of support, but it also can drain you. As helping professionals, therapists often feel such an intense need to support their clients that they sacrifice their own well-being to do so. Sacrificial helping syndrome is an unfortunately common struggle for mental health experts, and it’s one of the biggest contributors to therapist burnout.
To succeed in the field without draining yourself, you should be aware of the causes and risks of sacrificial helping syndrome. By prioritizing your own mental health and putting safeguards in place to avoid burnout, you can continue to offer meaningful support to your clients.

What Is Sacrificial Helping Syndrome?

Sacrificial helping syndrome is a therapist’s instinct to sacrifice their own health to benefit others. As a therapist, you understand the importance of self-care, and you may even discuss its value with your clients. You know that everyone needs and deserves rest, and you’ve probably seen firsthand the effects of fatigue and burnout. As much as you preach about self-care and wellness to others, though, it can be more difficult to extend this same compassion to yourself.
Therapists feel such a compelling desire to help others that they may be tempted to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their clients. Here are some examples of behaviors you might display if you have sacrificial helping syndrome:

  • Scheduling a client on your day off or during your scheduled lunch break.
  • Allowing sessions to continue past their scheduled time.
  • Delaying taking a vacation out of concern that your clients will have a crisis while you’re away.
  • Responding to non-urgent work calls or emails from home.
  • Missing important personal events for work.

These actions might feel good in the moment. You’re fulfilling your desire to help by going above and beyond for your clients, which can make you feel like you’re being the best therapist you can be. This may also put your mind at ease if you worry that your clients will struggle if you don’t give them as much support as you possibly can. However, in the long run, this approach can be devastating.
When you’re constantly ignoring your own boundaries or your own health and wellness for your clients, you’ll quickly get physically, mentally, and emotionally fatigued. You are just as worthy of care and support as your clients, and you have to make sure you’re giving yourself opportunities to rest. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself vulnerable to burnout or another mental health crisis.
Sacrificial helping syndrome isn’t just harmful to yourself. It can be detrimental for your clients and for your therapeutic practice. Setting boundaries with your clients is a critical part of the process. To maintain a healthy therapeutic relationship and to allow your clients space to practice skills on their own, you cannot and should not be available to them all the time. Also, a burned out counselor can’t offer the same amount of support and empathy. Taking care of yourself is critical if you want to care for your clients.

Causes of Sacrificial Helping Syndrome

There are a number of reasons why therapists experience sacrificial helping syndrome. The most common experience for counselors who are struggling with this problem is the feeling that the work is worth the sacrifice. When you know how important good mental healthcare is, you want to do everything in your power to provide that for your clients. This can lead to you ignoring your own needs.
Another issue is the stigma surrounding mental health services. Although there have been great strides in recent years to normalize going to therapy, there are still so many people who believe that the work therapists do is easy or unnecessary. If you start to internalize those beliefs, you might sacrifice your personal time or your health because you don’t realize just how necessary it is for you to take a break. In reality, though, being a therapist is incredibly challenging, and taking care of yourself is essential for success.

How to Overcome Sacrificial Helping Syndrome

The first step toward overcoming sacrificial helping syndrome is recognizing that you’re struggling with it. Acknowledging the problem can be difficult, especially because this issue generally comes from a place of drive and compassion. It’s hard to accept that wanting to care for your clients could ever be a bad thing, but in order to prioritize self-care, you have to take a step back when you notice yourself showing the signs of sacrificial helping syndrome.
Setting and maintaining your boundaries is another key step toward overcoming this challenge and preventing burnout. Every counselor has a different schedule and structure to their day, so you have to consider what rules will work best for your practice. For many helping professionals, sticking to strict starting and ending times for therapy sessions is critical. You might also set rules for yourself regarding your work-related communication after you get home.
It’s also important to have hobbies and a social life that are completely separate from work. Your colleagues can be an excellent source of support, and it’s great to be close to those you work with. However, you need opportunities to detach from your identity as a therapist. Spending time with other friends can be a great way to focus on yourself and your own life. Similarly, having hobbies that allow you to distance yourself from your work can be very helpful.
If you’re worried that burnout or compassion fatigue is starting to interfere with your work, you should reach out for professional support. You could speak to a supervisor or a trusted colleague about what you’re going through, and they’ll likely have some good words of wisdom. This is a very common problem in the field, so other therapists can empathize with you. Personal therapy is always valuable for mental health professionals, too.
As helping professionals, it’s easy to develop sacrificial helping syndrome. Burning yourself out for your clients will not set you up for a successful and long-term career in the field, though. Balancing your compassion with your therapeutic boundaries is absolutely crucial. By taking good care of yourself, you can ensure that you have the mental and emotional capacity to offer your best services to your clients.
Blue Moon Senior Counseling provides therapy services for older adults. To learn more about our practice, you can reach out to us today.

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