Hester Lacey reports
SO. YOU HELP lame dogs over stiles and old ladies to cross the road. When holiday acquaintances are passing, they really do drop in on you. At a moment's notice you are always ready to babysit/ lend your best dress to a friend of a friend/shelter a distant cousin in the spare room for a month/nip out for coffee for the whole office, without collecting any money, when it's not even your turn. Brownies ask you for advice on their daily Good Deeds. Fine. You may sometimes feel a trifle put-upon, but don't worry: you are fundamentally a Nice Person.

But take it all a step further. You work like a slave for everyone else's good, so why do neither your boss or your clients seem to appreciate your efforts? Everyone else's problems weigh as heavily on your shoulders as your own. And you know, just know, that with a bit of effort you can solve the lot; but you simply can't understand why other people don't seem to realise that you know what's best for them. You want, in a nutshell, to save the world. You are a Compulsive Helper, officious and nannying, and - this may come as a surprise - you need help yourself.

Dr Robert Lefever is a director of the Promis Recovery Centre, which specialises in treating all forms of addiction. He believes that helping can be as compulsive as any other addiction. How to spot it? Compulsive helping, as opposed to helpful helping, is not always welcomed by the helpee, the compulsive helper is acting as much for themselves as for the other person, and it is damaging to both, says Dr Lefever. Compulsive helpers he has counselled include the mother who brought a stash of heroin into a counselling centre because she thought her son might be having a bad time detoxing, and the teacher who spent hours giving an anorexic pupil one-to-one counselling rather than seeking medical help.

"You can see from these examples that helping can be not helpful but destructive," he says. "The process is progressively destructive to the person on the receiving end and also to the giver of help, who becomes dispirited, worn out, and angry with the other person and themselves."

The concept of the nanny state, he says, stems from compulsive helping on a national scale. Cases of professional burnout are also likely to involve the syndrome. "Why would anyone go to that extreme if not? Stress is universal - it is how we respond to it that makes the difference between those who manage and those who don't." Compulsive helpers tend to gravitate to "caring" professions like doctor, politician, therapist or counsellor. "The doctor who is a compulsive helper expects their patients to be grateful," explains Dr Lefever. "They want to feel they are doing good work, but they end up exhausted and resentful. Then there's the politician who takes every issue raised by a constituent as a personal crusade rather than spotting when it is a personal problem that the constituent should work out for themselves."

And, he adds, compulsive helpers are closely linked to addicts of other kinds. "My interest in the subject first stemmed from finding out why some addicts don't get better. What we have found at Promis is that behind every addict there is a helper somewhere - someone who will pick up the tab, either financially or emotionally. The compulsive helper is very easily emotionally blackmailed by the addict - it really is a one-on-one relationship. While ten per cent of the population has an addiction problem, ten per cent has a compulsive helper problem. The helpers need to be needed and the addicts need to be fixed." Compulsive helping, he says, is difficult to pin down. "Many end up diagnosed as depressives because they are anxious, miserable and can't sleep. And the correct diagnosis doesn't go down too well. When people are compulsive they don't want to see it. Denial is normal for the addictive personality, and this seems so justifiable - people say 'I'm only helping!' but that's the same as the alcoholic saying they only drink beer or the heroin addict saying they can give up any time."

Treating compulsive helpers is done by introducing them to others in the same boat - along the same principle as Alcoholics Anonymous. But curing them is not easy, says Dr Lefever. "We have a good success rate in getting people to acknowledge they are compulsive helpers, but it is much more difficult to get them to acknowledge that they should do something about it." So we should feel sympathy for the likes of Harriet Harman, helping single mothers get back to work, or Dr Jack Cunningham, helping the nation not to eat nasty beef on the bone. They're only trying to save us from ourselves - and they just can't help it.

Promis 24-hour helpline 0800 374318