I am writing an article on the legal profession's version of the helper syndrome. This syndrome results in a person helping others in order to ease his or her own pain or to ignore his or her own problems. Because of the lack of clarity or self-awareness on the part of the "helper," the results of the helping intervention can often be worse than nothing at all. The service professions frequently attract people who exhibit the helper syndrome. Even for the mentally healthy, the service relationship can be tricky.
A major consideration, and one that should be held steadfastly in the back of every professional's mind, is that the helping relationship is typically asymmetric: people are not on equal footing. Asymmetric relationships bring with them many potential problems, including dependence, resentment, and suspicion. A key antidote to those perils is the client or helpee maintaining autonomy and self-determination in as large a measure as appropriate and possible.
Another key is well-placed trust in the professional. Gerard Lulofs* writes:
[T]he professions are separate from other vocations because they require a relatively high level of systematic theoretical knowledge. This brings with it a market imbalance, because the information at the disposal of the exchange partners is asymmetrically distributed. . . . As a rule, it is the supplier who determines the needs of the recipient, whereas the latter is seldom in a position to assess the quality of the services provided. The most prominent characteristic, therefore, of the professional services market lies in the element of trust contained in the exchange relationship between provider and recipient.
Still another key to effective service relationships, perhaps the most essential, is the professional's mental
health. Providing service to a client because—or if—the professional is not well-balanced can be very destructive. Over the years, some wise people have taught me some clues to that mental health.
Two of these clues are presented in an article on toxic mentees by Professor David Clutterbuck. Although he is talking about mentors in this quote, the two assessments easily apply to lawyers, therapists, coaches, mediators, even philanthropists.
[W]e particularly try to screen out two types of persona. One is the person whose primary motive is altruistic ("I want to put something back"; "I've so much to give"; "I want to stop my mentee making the same mistakes I did"). There is a good deal of evidence that these people tend to be much more self-indulgent and self-focused. The most effective mentors tend to be those, who see the relationship as an opportunity for their own learning and development.
The second is the person with "helper syndrome." They become drawn to helping roles, such as a mentoring or counselling, in order to avoid confronting their own painful issues. Unfortunately, their own issues dominate their thinking and they project their problems onto the people they are supposed to be helping, that is, they see that person's issues through the filter of their own. In one assessment of potential business mentors, we found that 40% of the applicants interviewed suffered from helper syndrome.
I am creating two lists. One is of traits of a toxic lawyer. The other is of traits of a toxic mediator. The two assessments in the previous quote lead off both lists. To each I would add lack of self-awareness or self-knowledge. What would you add to my lists? I am looking forward to your thoughts.
*Professies en de markt voor vertrouwensgoederen. In: Lindenberg S, StokmanFN (red.) Modellen in de sociologie. Deventer: Van Loghum Slaterus, 1983.
Image credit: mickeysacks at flickr
Note (added January 14, 2011): Another post on helper syndrome: Some suspect, even harmful (for your client and/or you), reasons to enter a helping profession.