The Need To Be Needed: Are You Addicted To Helping People?

It’s a good thing to be empathetic and help others, but can too much of it be detrimental to your mental health?

By Meghan Dillon4 min read
shutterstock 1702668919
Shutterstock/Dmytro Kapitonenko

Many of us are chronic people pleasers and know that it’s a habit that we need to break, but this can also veer into the extreme of being a compulsive helper. The addiction to helping others can not only lead to people taking advantage of you but to the destruction of your own mental health.

What Is Compulsive Helping?

Compulsive helping is an addiction to helping others, defined as “when the individual finds it impossible to say no each and every time they are asked. A compulsive helper will always help regardless of what the situation is, whether it is convenient for them or not. This can result in the compulsive helper building up resentment against the other person or persons and feeling like a doormat. When this happens the compulsive helper begins to resent being asked.”

But how is compulsive helping different from people pleasing? The two behaviors are similar, but they aren’t the same. People pleasing is often rooted in wanting to be accepted by others or a fear of rejection, and though this can be toxic in its own right due to the risk of being taken advantage of, compulsive helping takes it to another level. Compulsive helping often involves taking on the responsibilities of others, sometimes engaging in enabling behaviors, and can lead to codependent relationships.

People who need to be needed often find their way to people who want to be taken care of or enabled, like addicts. Dr. Robert Lefever, the founder of the PROMIS Recovery Center, says, "Wanting to help a friend or family member in crisis is natural, but the first thing I have to do when treating an addict is peel off the compulsive helper."

Dr. Lefever continues, "It's a common dynamic, because addicts go looking for compulsive helpers and compulsive helpers go looking for addicts. The need to be needed meets the need to be fixed."

Why Do Some People Feel the Need To Be Needed?

It’s natural to want to be needed because it gives us a sense of worth and purpose, but if being needed is our primary way to feel worthy, then it can turn into an unhealthy method of building our self-esteem. 

Mariam, a woman who grew up in Africa, took helping people too much to heart and it made her miserable. In a post on the Tiny Buddha blog, she writes, “As a kid, I was taught how to cook, clean, and care for others. As a teenager, I got a lot of practice caring for my younger siblings; at first, it was great, being a caregiver, being the one who everyone went to when they needed something. I loved being needed, and I relished in the label I was given as dependable. Family, friends, and even strangers knew that I was the go-to girl for whatever they wanted. If I couldn’t help them with whatever they needed, I would find someone who could. I was determined to never leave anyone high and dry. I loved being needed, and if anyone needed me, I believed that I was their last resort.”

Some want to feel needed because it gives them a sense of power, superiority, or importance.

While many, like Mariam, are addicted to helping others out of the goodness of their hearts or because it makes them feel like they have an admirable quality, some want to feel needed because it gives them a sense of power, superiority, or importance, like other people can’t operate without them. Or it feeds their vanity. When you help someone out of the goodness of your heart, you’re not expecting anything in return – and that includes feeding your feelings of self-inflation. 

Others might feel the need to be needed because they don’t have a proper sense of self; rather, they only know how to operate in relation to others. Or they don’t know how to establish boundaries and to say no, whether that’s out of fear of rejection, discomfort, or just plain ignorance of how to do it. Still others might not even be aware that they are compulsive helpers – they might just be extremely empathetic and feel the urge to help whoever they can, whenever they can.

Why Women Are More Likely To Be Compulsive Helpers

Women tend to be more empathetic than men, and you could argue that it’s in our nature. Unlike men, we’re biologically designed to bear children, and it’s no secret that you need to be empathetic to be a good mother. Women are also more likely to be caregivers (81% of caregivers are women) and to take jobs in nursing, social work, child care, and teaching. This data supports that women are more likely to be empathetic and want to help people more than men do, which also makes them more likely to be chronic people pleasers and compulsive helpers.

How Compulsive Helping Affects Your Mental Health

Being a compulsive helper is destructive in many ways – it often results in enabling the bad behaviors of those the compulsive helper is trying to help. The most obvious example is the compulsive helper and the addict. The compulsive helper will often enable the addict by supporting them financially, often providing them with the resources to fund their addiction. While the compulsive helper thinks they’re helping the addict, the only thing they can really do to help the addict is to engage in some tough love by encouraging them to get help. A good friend isn’t someone who sits by and always encourages you to do what you want, but one who isn’t afraid to call you out when you’re hurting yourself. Though taking the tough love route can be difficult, it’s sometimes the only way to truly help someone, even if it means cutting them off for a while before they finally decide to get help.

When you put the majority of your energy into helping others, you don’t prioritize meeting your own legitimate needs.

Compulsive helping can also destroy your mental health through compassion fatigue and a lack of reciprocation of care. Compassion fatigue is defined as “the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of helping others – often through experiences of stress or trauma. Compassion fatigue is often mistaken for burnout, which is a cumulative sense of fatigue or dissatisfaction.” 

While compassion fatigue is common among those who work in professions like nursing and social work, it can also happen to compulsive helpers. This is more likely to occur when the compulsive helper has developed a codependent relationship with the person they’re helping or when others are taking advantage of them. When you put the majority of your energy into helping others, your mental health will take a negative turn because you’re not prioritizing meeting your own legitimate needs and voicing your own desires or boundaries.  

If you’re experiencing compassion fatigue, the best thing you can do is speak to a therapist. Your therapist will not only recommend coping strategies but help you break the habit and set healthy boundaries. This process may even involve cutting people out who take advantage of you, which is difficult but worth it in the long run.

Closing Thoughts

While helping others is a good thing to do and often feels great, being addicted to helping others can be harmful to your mental health. From engaging in enabling others’ bad behaviors to opening the door to let people take advantage of you, a lot can go wrong when you put the desire to take care of others above your basic needs. While it’s admirable to want to serve others, it’s important to put your basic needs first so you can help others healthily and productively.

Don’t miss anything! Sign up for our weekly newsletter and get curated content weekly!