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Too happy to help — A personal narrative on boundaries and work.

Have you ever — or do you regularly— fall prey of Saviour's Syndrome?
Stefania Montagna

Stefania Montagna

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In the spring of 2012, I had been working for Google’s customer support team in Dublin long enough to have gained the fancy title of “Billing expert.” It was the type of role that most people weren’t particularly drawn to because it was about enforcing specific guidelines and remembering very set sequences of steps. Billing was the subject area most people rolled their eyes at when it came up in customer calls, and the one many would have scratched off from their job description. But they couldn’t scratch it off, and, because of that, long queues were constantly forming around my desk. The problem? I was only too happy to help.

 

The issue with helping too much: it feeds co-dependency

I recall one particular day. It was a sunny morning, something which almost failed to catch my attention if it weren’t for the sun rays that peeked through the windows and hit the desk of a colleague, just as I was springing forward to assist her. That morning, I almost didn’t have the time to take a look out of the window. Instead, I jumped from computer to computer (From teammate to teammate), taking care of solving a colleague’s billing issue after another before even opening my own computer. By the time I did, it was 11, over two hours later than I’d come in.

My own work, and the clients who were waiting for my answers, had been sacrificed for my desire to “help.” My own Turn Around Time was way off —something that would negatively impact my performance— and I looked at the red alarms with a mix of contempt and incredulity.

You see, back then, I thought my “help” made me “noble” and a team player. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with wanting to help.

I reckoned, instead, that the system was flawed, as it failed to recognize my help as a valuable contribution to the team. And so, every time I had a 1:1 with my manager asking me why my metrics weren’t up to par, I walked out ready to call it quits, tears almost streaming down my eyes and words of rage shouting through my head, enraged at my coworkers and their inability to “help themselves.”

Today I know something I didn’t know then, i.e., that my desire to help wasn’t empowering and constructive, but co-dependency feeding. It was rooted in the misconstrued belief that if only I could “save the day,” I would get the recognition I craved. Yet, most of my colleagues were never trying to save the day, and much less were they trying to “save me.” They, instead, had something I didn’t have and didn’t even know I needed: boundaries.

Graffiti, Oslo – A face with boundaries?

The always-on dictum has made boundaries blurry

In the words of Špela Trefalt, boundaries are “physical, temporal, emotional, cognitive, and/or relational limits” that help people to distinguish one entity from another.” Boundaries are used to define that which is mine, yours or ours, and, in a sense, that which is “in” and “out.” For example, some people consider that colleagues are colleagues and should never be friends: they are setting a boundary. 

Hence, Trefalt reminds us, boundaries include two central aspects:

  • Placement: i.e., the conceptual territory to which a given boundary applies (For example, time of work or personal space). Placement also applies to where the boundary lies within that territory (i.e., I might be willing to flex my personal rule of not taking calls after 9 p.m. for my sister, but I won’t bend it for a client.)
  • Permeability: i.e., the likelihood of the boundary being crossed and under which conditions (Many examples of workplace issues relate to a potential blurring of boundaries, for instance, when a boss’s relative treats an employee as their personal assistant). 

One issue which has surfaced with the increasing pace of remote work, flexi-time, and the “always-on” culture is that boundaries have become blurrier and blurrier. Twenty years ago, the office, shop, or factory was the place to work, and home was home. But today, the boundary between home and work is no longer well defined.

A study by Eddelstone and Mulki found that the integration of work and family increases conflicts in both directions: both disputes at home arising from work, as well as workplace frictions arising from family dynamics. Ultimately, they conclude, it’s because working solely from home leads to a tendency to overwork and to simultaneously allow one’s job to infringe over one’s family role.

Boundaries, narratives and the temptation of being “nice”

But boundaries are, first and foremost, negotiated. When, as in the example above, I was allowing my colleagues’ work to always take precedence over mine, I was losing sight of my own boundary, of my own worth, and my own limits. And by so doing, I was communicating to my colleagues that I was available to solve their issue, and therefore, that they needn’t struggle to solve it on their own. It was almost as if, subconsciously, their success, to me, mattered more than mine.

Writing about family and organizational therapy, Salvador Minuchin (p. 43) offers that “each of us is constantly stimulus and response” (p. 43). As he points out, in relationships, and therefore, at work, there are seldom “facts.”

Instead, perceptions are shaped by narratives, by constructs that become a shared reality of mutual understandings and prejudices (One might say, expectations). Any organization and, thus, any individual —in the eyes of Minuchin— could be seen as relating to its own view of itself.

As time passes, however, narratives might become crystallized into myths, reinforcing specific structures of behaviors.

To be clear, in my example, I was living up to my own narrative of the “nice” person, the person who was ethical and helpful and always there for others. It was, in fact, because “I was helping,” that I could find meaning in my work. Back then, I thought that “to help” is to serve. It’s not. To serve the world is what helps. “Helping,” in other words, and particularly “over-helping” or helping without consent, doesn’t help. But when the stimulus I’m offering another is that “I am always available,” the response I’m eliciting is attuned to that. And this is how, as Minuchin points out, problems emerge.

An issue finds its roots not in the presence of something wrong, but in the molding of a stuck, in the fixation of a story that no longer works and patterns of behavior that no longer serve us. If I’m not protecting my own boundaries, if my narrative is rooted in their absence rather than in their protection, I can hardly expect others to respect them.

Suppressed boundaries, Impostor Syndrome and the call to save the day

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

Back in 2004, researchers Mirsalimi, Jones, and Castro set out to investigate whether or not the risk of suffering from Impostor Syndrome might have been greater for individuals who were parentified as a child.

The term parentification first appeared in 1973 and refers to an inversion of parent and child roles. It’s a cross-generational process whereby parents — mostly without being aware— look to their children to satisfy some of their needs, such as validation, recognition, and attention, which they feel weren’t appropriately met during their own childhood.

Through parentification, a child is given a set of responsibilities they shouldn’t be asked to handle and asked, however subconsciously, to suppress their own needs. When hearing this, it is only natural to conjure up images of a child doing house chores or taking care of a sibling (And to be clear, these are also forms of parentification).

Perhaps more insidious is hidden parentification, the process by which a child learns that they can never cry because “they need to be strong” or because “mom/dad can’t take it.” Faced with the parent’s inability and unavailability to validate her feelings, the child takes the only path he finds available: they suppress their own emotions and needs.

Yet, as Mirsalimi, Jones, and Castro point out, by doing so, the child also develops a sense that they are “never enough,” that they are inadequate in some way. At the end of the day, the child can’t replace their parent’s parent(s) — no matter how much and how long they try. The suppression of the child’s emotions and needs serves, during childhood, a very specific function: that of ensuring the emotional bond with the parent, something which is key to the child’s own survival. Yet, when such suppression becomes a pattern that manifests itself everywhere in adulthood, it can become toxic.

As Mirsalimi, Jones and Castro conclude, impostor syndrome can be explained, in part, as a significant long-term effect of childhood parentification. 

Another long-term effect of parentification? An unhealthy hunger for achievement (And how often do we confuse achievement with helping others even when they don’t need or haven’t asked for our help?)

Performance can be a way, for some parentified individuals, to measure their own self-worth, to feed their need for validation. For others, the tendency might be to take care of literally everything: they become the caretaker, the breadwinner, and at work, they might be the person who takes notes in a meeting, organizes the summer party, and does two full-time jobs, because “everyone else is overworked and we’re understaffed.”

Heroism, Saviour Syndrome and Western culture

Unfortunately, the tendency to overhelp to “save the day” and “save the world” is not just rooted in personal history but in Western culture, too. As author Jordan Flaherty discusses with Nathan Schneider following the publication of his book “No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Saviour Mentality (2016), both Hollywood and popular culture feed the worship of “Saviour mentality” and of superheroes. The message that a hero will come and save the earth, according to Flaherty, underpins supposedly progressive movies, like Norma Rae, educational programs, and —I would add— tech companies’ mission statements.

Isn’t it sexy to imagine that every big issue —from the pandemic to plastic contamination— can be solved with a technical hack? Yet, behind that belief, there may lure another: that if we just can bring our best self to the table one more time, if we can just work for this one extra hour, we can “save” something: ourselves, maybe, or the world. And too often, we may not be realizing that we are still trying to save: our parent(s).

Story of Marius and Scilla. When the Saviour becomes the victim.

Towards the end of its Republic, Ancient Rome was rife with struggle due to political divisions between two conflicting factions: the Optimates, who represented the conservative ruling class, and the Populares, who represented the rights of the Plebeians, the commoners. Through this struggle —that led to Rome’s first civil war— two figures emerged: Marius (157-86 a. C), who led the commoners, and Sulla (138-78 a. C), who represented the ruling class. Both were highly skilled at war and, according to José Medina, both displayed a leadership approach that could be dubbed as “Saviour style,” defined by the following traits:

  • It emerges as a consequence of a crisis or an emergency for a population or institution;
  • It witnesses the rise of a “Saviour,” tasked with all the power and the responsibility of addressing everyone’s concerns;
  • The “Saviour” ends up not only “solving the problem” but annihilating it by focusing on the elimination of its causes and consequences, with unforeseen side effects. In so doing, the Saviour destroys and goes from being the “hero” to being the “victim.”

Could trying to help make us blind to the potential of those we are trying to help? 

There is wisdom in these words. Because if our focus is on “saving the day” or “helping another” —whether that practically means focusing solely on saving our job or on getting this project completed, this e-mail answered, or that event organized— we might quickly lose focus of the potential of the people around us, whose support we so might need. 

When we are stuck in the belief that the whole world rests on our shoulders, we fail to see them both: the world and our shoulders. On the one hand, we are blind to the world’s potential to deal without us. On the other, we are unable to focus our regard on our own boundaries, on our shoulders’ ability to really handle it all, or, more likely, on their need for a break.

The world on our shoulders — Vigelandsparken, Oslo

There is also an issue of role reversal in wanting to help too much, in wanting to help to feel “important.” Just like it may have happened with parentification, the desire to help another —especially when we’re rendering the other incapable of mastering a skill or competence just because we’re always there “doing it for them”— masks a subconscious belief that the other “isn’t capable.”

And that’s how from “saviours,” we may become “victims”: constantly stuck in this helping, caregiving, or responsibility role which isn’t allowing us to do what we really should, i.e., focus on our ambitions and our development. Ultimately, the quest to help another might be a procrastination game. If we never stop to look at what we really want and need, we never have to make an effort to go after it. 

Boundaries, as it turns out, are what we need: to serve the world. 

Sources & Further Readings

Courtney Martin (2016). The reductive seduction of other people’s problems. In: Bright the Mag. [Article] Available at: https://brightthemag.com/the-reductive-seduction-of-other-people-s-problems-3c07b307732d#.8p5f8l6w6

Eddleston, K. A., & Mulki, J. (2017). Toward understanding remote workers’ management of work–family boundaries: The complexity of workplace embeddedness. Group & Organization Management42(3), 346–387. https://doi-org.biblioteca-uoc.idm.oclc.org/10.1177/1059601115619548

Minuchin, Salvador, Nichols, Michael P. (1993). Family Healing: Strategies for Hope and Understanding. Free Press. Kindle Edition. 

Trefalt, Š. (2013). Between you and me: Setting work-nonwork boundaries in the context of workplace relationships. Academy of Management Journal56(6), 1802–1829. https://doi-org.biblioteca-uoc.idm.oclc.org/10.5465/amj.2011.0298

Are you struggling with boundaries, at work, or otherwise? Do you see yourself helping too much? Could your desire to help too much be distracting you from your goals and priorities?

Let me know in the comments, or consider booking a call with me.


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