Are You a Compulsive Helper?

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.

Safety is Essential for Healing

Before I talk about safety, I’d like to recap the other posts in the series so far. If you’ve missed any of them, I recommend you go back and look them over before continuing ahead. I’ve placed them in a particular order because understanding and clarity should begin to occur before jumping into the practical steps for healing. Here’s what we’ve done so far:

  • “Is Anxiety Rooted in Trauma?” – In this post we discussed the overlap between anxiety and trauma, and we explored how we can discover whether our anxiety comes from unhealed traumatic events in our past.
  • “What Makes an Event Traumatizing?” – Here we listed several types of events that can traumatize a person, and we discovered that an event becomes traumatizing not based on the gravity of the event, but based on the state of the person involved and his/her ability to make choices.
  • “How Trauma Affects Us” – In this post I shared three signs to look for that may indicate you’ve experienced trauma that needs healing: changes in mood, relationship struggles, and bodily symptoms.
  • “The First Step in Healing from Past Trauma” – This post focused on the importance of having a safe person with whom you can talk about painful things. I also addressed how to be a safe person for someone who’s experiencing traumatization.
  • “Deep Breathing: Healing Anxiety and Trauma” – Last week’s post focused on the importance of calming our bodies through deep breathing. Without a calm body, mental and emotional health will be incomplete.

Now we’re going to take a deeper dive into the idea of safety. We do not find hope and joy in a vacuum. We also don’t find it while chaos is reigning. That’s why it’s so important to create spaces of safety when you’re trying to heal. So how is this possible?

First off, if you’re in an unsafe environment on a daily basis, healing will be hard to come by. Think of it like someone who’s just had surgery at a hospital. In the recovery process, the patient needs to be monitored and re-bandaged often in order to ensure he is getting back to normal. If a person refused these services and demanded to go home for this process, the doctors would surely object. When there’s been a significant wound, that wound needs time, space and intentionality in order to heal. If there’s continual re-injury, the wound will continue to fester.

Let me put it bluntly: if you’re in a home or a workplace in which you’re being wounded continually, your healing process will be slowed. It’s not impossible to heal in this context, but I would definitely recommend that your first step is to seek counsel on how to increase safety in your environment. You can talk with a trusted friend, a pastor with a good reputation for understanding and caring for those in oppressive situations, a hotline for those who are experiencing abuse (1-800-799-SAFE), or a professional counselor.

So your environment needs to be safe for healing to occur. This means you have:

  1. At least one safe person you can trust
  2. A physical place of refuge in your life
  3. Access to resources that maintain and increase safety

Let’s take these one at a time.

A safe person is someone who knows how to listen before they speak. It’s someone who commits to pray for you and offers wisdom that isn’t based solely on her own experience. She doesn’t throw Bible verses at you as if they’re pills for you to swallow, but she focuses on the attributes of God and His love for you in the midst of sorrow and difficulty. She’s not afraid to say hard things, but she believes in God’s timing and purposes in your life. She’s there for the long-haul and isn’t scared away by your struggle, even though she might not know what to say when you’re hurting.

A safe place allows you to have refuge. When chaos seems to be reigning in your everyday circumstances and in your mind, finding a quiet space is essential so that you can re-center your thoughts, emotions and body. This was essential even for Jesus (Mark 1:35), so of course we all need it. I have arranged a room in my home and called it “the quiet room.” I gave it this name so that my children would respect the space and speak quietly when they come in (not that this happens all the time, or even frequently, but we’re trying). This room contains my favorite chair, my favorite furniture, my favorite smells. It’s the space where I pray, read God’s Word, breathe deeply and journal. Maybe you don’t have access to an entire room, but I highly encourage you to create a space that is comfortable, cozy and relaxing (and do your breathing exercises there).

You’ll also need access to resources. I have known people who spent years just hanging on, waiting for their trauma to heal with time. It doesn’t happen. The Lord has given us His Body (the Church), wisdom from His Word, knowledge from the common graces of medicine and neuroscience, and educated people who have learned the steps toward healing in order to guide us on the journey. We are meant to utilize all these resources for the sake of healing.

You may not feel strong enough to create safety for yourself. If that’s the case, I encourage you to take one step. Just talk to one person who seems safe. Tell him or her that you feel weak and need some help to create physical safety and access resources. One step can take you a long way.

Why Are You Sleeping, O Lord?

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The words of Psalm 45:23-26 ring deafeningly in my ears:

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
our belly clings to the ground.
Rise up; come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!

This is actually in the Bible! It sounds so accusatory toward God, and it’s definitely filled with bitterness and sadness. The Sons of Korah (who wrote this song to be sung by God’s people) intentionally used language that was so strong and harsh to express the despair felt collectively by the Israelites.

When I read this psalm a few weeks ago, I felt something that surprised me – relief.

If this passage is right there in the middle of the Bible, surely there’s something I’m meant to do with it. Surely there’s a posture that I’m allowed – even encouraged – to emulate when life throws me to the ground.

Grief.

It comes in a thousand forms, and it doesn’t walk a straight line. Anyone who’s grieved a terrible loss will tell you that the “five stages” model doesn’t do it justice (although it’s a helpful tool). Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. And then some more bargaining, and then some guilt for being a little bit happy. And then a barrage of cussing and spitting directed at those we love. And then sleep that doesn’t seem to relieve us. And back to denial. It’s exhausting.

As I watch our world collectively experiencing the thousand forms of grief (whether or not there’s an awareness of it), I’m drawn to Psalm 44. I’m comforted by the fact that even though the world cannot handle my anger or my fear, my God can handle it. In fact, my God wants me to bring my questions and doubts and frustrations to His ears. That’s the difference between a perfect Father and an indifferent judge. My questions aren’t judged as irrelevant, and my doubts aren’t deemed a lack of faith or prayer. Only in the wrestle with questions of “Where are you?” and “Why is this happening?” am I able to come face to face with the God who sees. And asking the question is, in itself, an act of faith. Pouring out my grief before God means I believe that He’s actually listening. What a gift.

The answers don’t come quickly or easily. In fact, I may not get an answer. What I get is a PERSON. Someone who’s right there in the middle of it with me. Never leaving and always abiding.

This is something I love so much about my God. And as a believer, I know I am called to represent Him in the world. If I cannot hear other people, if they cannot come as they are with their questions and doubts – how will I mirror God’s character? I must be a listener first. I must believe that a person who’s screaming (just like the psalmist) has experienced something so excruciating that a scream is all they have left. And I must not be afraid of the expressions of grief that are happening all around me. Caring about people means letting them be themselves and seeking to show them the heart of God amidst terrible pain.

I’ve learned over the years that those who cannot tolerate the grief of others have not yet entered into their own grief honestly. The best way to do this is to first take it in prayer to God. Emotion is not an enemy. It’s an arrow pointing us toward redemption.