Compulsive behavior includes thoughts, urges or behaviors that persist despite negatively affecting health, job or relationships. Normally when we think of compulsions, we imagine a person who constantly checks the locks on doors or washes their hands all day long. But any behavior that is persistent and includes negative effects can be considered compulsive. So is it possible to be a compulsive helper?
My answer is yes. I can say this with confidence because my behavior as a helper was incredibly compulsive for many years. This doesn’t mean I disliked helping but felt obligated to do so – it means I had to help when I saw a need, regardless of whether it would be beneficial. This played out in many different settings: advising people about their purchases at the grocery store, agreeing to mentor four different people at the same time, and volunteering for too many projects at my kids’ schools. And then I joined a church staff and started a private counseling practice. Imagine the opportunities to over-commit!
People who help others are often very compassionate and merciful. They deeply desire to serve in whatever way they can. This desire is often sparked by their own stories and experiences, including their testimonies of salvation. This type of person is essential in God’s kingdom as he uses his gifts to encourage and care for others. But motivation really matters. A person who compulsively says yes to helping opportunities is highly motivated by some sort of need. Often the compulsive helper is motivated by a need to feel loved and special, or by a need to have purpose and significance in life.
These needs are focused inward in order to create personal security. Compulsive helpers usually feel genuine compassion toward those who are struggling, but the urge to help is fueled by some sort of deficiency rather than by Christ’s love. If a person serves others out of a need to be upheld, secured or loved, he is traveling a dangerous path that may damage others and himself.
I was not aware of my compulsive helping behavior until I began to lose heart and experience extreme fatigue in ministry. I was advised to slow down and delegate opportunities to others, and I found these things almost impossible to do. Why? I had built an identity around serving people, so I would have no sense of self if I stopped.
If this story seems at all familiar to you, I encourage you to spend time answering the following questions:
- When a need arises, do I tend to assume I will be the one to meet it?
- What types of needs do I believe I have to meet? Why do I believe I need to be the one to meet them?
- How long has my helping compulsion been happening? When did it start?
- What motivates my urge to help others?
- How and when do I rest? Do I need to add more rest to my life?
Taking a hard look at ourselves can bring clarity and wisdom for how to move forward. Compulsively helping is not sustainable – it will bring about burnout or resentment (or both). Ask the Lord to search you and know your heart (Psalm 139:23). He will show you the truth. As you see yourself more clearly, ask Him to help you process the motivations of your heart honestly. Then ask Him to give you a way forward.
A few things started happening as I did this process. First, I understood more clearly the necessity of Sabbath. The whole point of Sabbath is for us to relinquish control and trust God with what is left undone. I desperately needed this habit of grace in my life. Second, I began to pay attention to the ways in which ministry had become obligatory. I recognized my own resentment and worked toward forgiveness and healing. And third, I began to notice the value and beauty of saying ‘no’ to opportunities that might not fit my gifts or capacity. This included learning to celebrate my limits and be grateful that I could not and should not do everything.
Forsaking my compulsive helping means that I have to listen to the Holy Spirit in my decision-making. Now when an opportunity comes my way, I choose not to say ‘yes’ right away, even if it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Instead, I take time to pray and ask the Lord to show me whether He wants me to say ‘yes.’ I try to remember that Jesus did not say ‘yes’ to every opportunity – in fact, he said ‘no’ to many people who wanted to be healed or served in some way. The only way to know the best decision is to listen to the voice of the Father.
My prayer is that the love of Christ will compel us above all else (2 Corinthians 5:14), and that we will serve out of an overflow of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in our lives. When we experience the need for approval, significance and love, may we turn to the Lord and ask for His love to nourish and strengthen us.