Limits and Risks of Helping

Practical Insights

We asked volunteers working in the field of migration, what “helping” means to them. We also asked them to share their personal limits. Do you see similarities to your own situation?

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Generally speaking, altruism is a socially desirable attitude. Many people are impressed by helpers who subordinate their own interests in favour of the welfare of others. But helpers should be aware that prosocial acting has its limits, risks and pitfalls.


Love the wind, fotolia

We would like to point some of them out here:

The Own Social Environment
People with a high altruistic attitude often have a pronounded sense of justice. They tend to see the needs of other people – no matter if they are relatives, friends or strangers – as highly relevant, and they try to combat injustice with full commitment. In some cases they get involved in social projects to such an extent that they neglect their families and related people. Their own social environment suffers from a lack of attention while the helper spends most of his/her time and energy on their charges. Thus, families and social networks can break, and the helper stays back alone.
The Own Limits and Needs
Many helpers are so dedicated to their challenging tasks that they forget their own limits and needs. They do not allow themselves to take breaks and to recover. In the long run, they exploit their own physical and mental resources to an extent that their health and wellbeing is at risk. They sacrifice themselves for the welfare of others.
The Difficulty to Say No
For people with a high degree of altruism it is often difficult to say no. They are used to fulfil the demands of others by all means. In the long run, this attitude can cause stress, overstrain and exhaustion and the risk of reactive depressions and burnout syndromes. Symptoms such as lack of energy, sleeping disorders, dejectedness, nervousness, anxiety or health problems such as headache or gastrointestinal problems can be first alarm signals of a beginning burnout.
The Lack in Self-Esteem
Sometimes the background of excessive altruism is a lack of self-esteem. The people in question only feel valuable when they live a life in the service of others. They just see a purpose in their lives when they are needed and receive recognition for their altruistic bahaviour.
The Balance Of Giving and Taking
For all people helping others, either professionally, voluntarily or in their personal social environment, it is essential that giving and taking keep a certain balance. Altruistic and egoistic motives cannot be considered separately but should complement one another. If egoism plays the leading role people are reckless and inconsiderate against others; if altruism gets out of hand there is always the risk of self-exploitation.
The Helper Syndrome
Altruistic and prosocial behaviour addresses sections of the brain that release happiness hormones. If helping is the only thing in life that triggers happiness it can become an addiction. In this case the helper satisfies his/her own dependence by supporting the needs of others. Psychologists describe this inadequate attitude as “Helper Syndrome”. We will take a closer look at this phenomenon on the following page.

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