Getting Off-Course: The Hero Syndrome

Now, it's perfectly normal to gain recognition and satisfaction from being the only one who can solve a particular problem, but when the joy of the recognition quickly fades into resentment, stress or overwhelm, sorry -- you've become the hero at a great cost.
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young business man tearing...
young business man tearing...

What is the "Hero Syndrome"? It is an unconscious need to be needed, appreciated or valued that disguises itself as a good thing, but threatens to make you bitter and to overextend you. This insidious need will get met when you say yes and overpromise what you can deliver in order to be liked, please other people, or avoid the perceived consequences of saying no. The workplace is not the only place where it surfaces. Mothers and community volunteers are also highly susceptible.

How do you know if you have it? If you feel like you never have enough time to complete your work or always have a backlog of projects, watch out. If you are the one always called on in a pinch, the one to stay late or start early, or the one who people call only when they have a problem, beware. If you get great satisfaction out of being the only one who can solve a particular problem, the one who will drop everything to help, brace yourself. You may have the hero syndrome.

Now, it's perfectly normal to gain recognition and satisfaction from doing some of these things, but when the joy of the recognition quickly fades into resentment, stress or overwhelm, sorry -- you've become the hero at a great cost.

Matt was known as the techno-wonder kid at the northeast offices of a large American food company. He was in his 30s, but his nickname stemmed from his do-it-all capacity when it came to fixing system glitches or designing additional website material as needed. Everyone had come to depend on him, yet Matt hardly felt appreciated. What he did feel was overwhelmed, constantly.

Matt hired me as his coach to help him become more organized and effective at work. It took months to get him out from under a backlog of projects and disorganization, but what had become clear immediately was that Matt suffered from the hero syndrome. As soon as I mentioned it, he knew it was true. He had become indispensable, but he wasn't doing anything that mattered to him. He was so busy making everyone else happy, he forgot about himself. He was such a "hero" that when he asked for a temp to be hired to take some of his overflow, his request was denied because he always managed so well that they couldn't see justification for bringing on someone else.

He knew he had to change the perception of those around him by shedding his hero's cape and trading it in for a legitimate position on the team. He came out from behind his computer and learned how to foster relationships with the right people; he said no to projects that would take him off track of his new goals; he showed those that relied on him how to rely on themselves; he came up with ideas and shared them freely at meetings; and he saw where the company could grow using more technology, thus presenting the top brass with a plan. In a matter of a few months, he was a player and an integral part of the marketing team. He went from techie to marketer, was fulfilled by his work and felt valued in the company. All because he cured himself from the hero syndrome.

What can you do about it if you or someone you know suffers from it? You have to learn how to say no and mean it. It sounds easy enough, but it takes great discipline to learn how
to put yourself first at the risk of disappointing others. Practice by starting small. Say no to things you clearly hate doing (even if no one else steps up to do so right away).

When no one protests, you'll start seeing how fun this will be. Then, build up to saying no to something you fear the consequences of saying no to. Like dinner every week at the in-laws' or traveling every week for business. When you have the experience that the world will go on without these things, you will experience a tremendous freedom.

The key to turning around the hero syndrome is understanding its source: needs. The hero is driven by the need for approval, recognition, and/or feeling needed and valued. The need is met briefly by the "high" of being asked to do something, but it is exactly this short-lived high that makes it an addictive cycle. In order to get it met, you have to keep saying yes.

The secret is getting the need met in a much healthier way. Ask colleagues, managers, mentors, coaches, loved ones or friends to help you get those needs met without doing things for them (only if the level of relationship makes this an appropriate request). Keep your eye on what need drives you, and you'll be able to keep it in check.

The bottom line is: You are no hero if you steal from yourself to give to everyone else. A true hero does not get his strength by doing good deeds. A true hero knows how to fill her cup and then give some away.

We'll all be better for it and then we can thank you, our hero.

For more by Laura Berman Fortgang, click here.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.

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