Too Much of a Selfless Good Thing: Pathological Altruism
There’s a good chance you’ve been lectured on the virtues of selflessness. Regardless of how religious you are, putting others’ welfare before your own can carry a lot of clout.
But is acting on others’ behalf always a good thing? Should a willing altruist ever keep from extending a helping hand?
As it turns out, there are many situations in which unbridled benevolence may be a dangerous deed.
Say hello to pathological altruism. Broadly defined as “good intentions gone awry” by pathological altruism pioneer Barbara Oakley, the term applies to any helping behavior that ends up hurting either the provider or recipient of supposedly well-meaning intentions.
Codependency, helicopter parenting, eating disorders, animal hoarding, genocide and suicide martyrdom all count as kinds of pathological altruism. Each is a combination of information deficiency, self-righteousness, and misdirected aims.
When Helping Hurts, and Why Some of Us Can’t Stop
A desire to alleviate others’ suffering — even if by means that harm, rather than improve, another person’s well-being — arise from our brain’s hardwired empathy circuits, empathy researchers Carolyn Zahn-Waxler and Carol Van Hulles note. The mere sight of another’s distress evokes patterns of activity in our own nervous systems that mimic others’ emotional or physical pain as if it were our own, albeit at a much less intense level than the actual sufferer. So it’s no wonder most of us would like to get rid of the not-so-pleasant feelings ASAP.
The same neural systems that enable vicarious pain and empathy also appear to give rise to guilt — especially when that guilt derives from feeling obligated yet unable to effectively help sufferers in need, says depression and guilt researcher Lynn E. O’Connor.
“Guilt is a prosocial emotion,” O’Connor explains. “We’re hardwired for it. Guilt holds us together by prompting us act on behalf of others and to forgive.”
Without empathy and empathy-derived guilt we couldn’t form those meaningful interpersonal bonds that help us survive, reproduce, and preserve the integrity of our own kin and community. But if the more rational areas of our brain which give rise to planning and self-control don’t temper our empathic instincts, they can undermine our own — and others’ — physical and psychological health.
Think of a mother who insists upon writing her son’s college application because she wants him to get into the best Ivy League college. Or the dutiful daughter who buys her obese mother sugar-laden sweets to placate the latter’s cravings.
Then call to mind the overzealous surgeon who insists upon invasive procedures to fix a patient who would rather die in peace, nd the ill-informed neighbor who turns his home into a kitty haven — to the detriment of his and the kittens’ health and the safety of those living nearby.
Not convinced? How about the men who plunged 747s into the World Trade Center, or the ever-growing roster of suicide bombers wreaking unpredictable havoc in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and other areas across the globe? These individuals certainly believed they were acting on behalf of what was right, good, and ultimately in everyone’s “best interest.”
So Should We Be Meaner?
Unbridled selfishness certainly is not the antidote, caution experts like applied ethics professor Arthur Dobrin. That said, there are a few key tips that all of us can keep in mind next time we have an impulse to make everyone else but ourselves feel better.
Oakley recommends stepping back from our knee-jerk reactions to immediately fix the problem(s) we see in front of us (in the way we see best), reevaluate what would really work for the other person, and consider whether our attempts to intervene would worsen the problem at hand.
Mindfulness meditation — especially the type Tibetan Buddhists (PDF) practice — is a great place to start. O’Connor’s research shows that those who meditate on behalf of all sentient beings’ benefit experience less of the guilt that leads us to try soaking up everyone else’s woes. Thinking good thoughts may satisfy meditators’ urges to alleviate others’ suffering by convincing them that altruistic sentiments alone constitute enough of an effort. Or the continual practice of mindful awareness may train practitioners to reappraise what’s actually in another person’s best interest and just how they can most effectively — if at all — help before impulsively intervening. (O’Connor and her colleagues are still investigating just how Tibetan Buddhist meditation achieves such impressive effects.)
Another route to preventing the worsening of another’s suffering by trying to swoop in and help is learning to say no. Co-dependency expert and coach Carl Benedict recommends attending a Codependents Anonymous meeting, or working with a therapist to reprogram those brain areas that make you believe your own needs should never come first.
Of course, setting boundaries also means telling someone else if and when their attempts to help you are hurting. Prepare yourself in advance that their feathers might be ruffled by a confrontation, but keep in mind that this feedback is necessary to help stem their not-so-helpful behavior.
We needn’t question every one of our urges to lend a hand. But pausing to consider the perspective of someone we’re trying to help, as well as the long-term consequences of our seemingly selfless behavior, may lead us to deem breathing room a more benevolent antidote than smothering someone else with our love.
Oakley, B., Knafo, A., Guruprasad, M., & Wilson, D. S. (2011). Pathological Altruism. Oxford.
O’Connor, L.E. et al. Empathy, Guilt and Altruism: Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Practices. Poster presented via The Wright Institute’s Emotions, Personality, and Altruism Research Group. Berkeley, California. http://www.eparg.org/tibetan-fs.pdf
O’Connor, L.E., et al. (2011). Empathy-Based Pathogenic Guilt, Pathological Altruism, and Psychopathology. Pathological Altruism. Oxford.
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Knafo, A., Waxler, C.Z., et al. The Developmental Origins of a Disposition Towards Empathy: Genetic and Environmental Contributions. Emotion. 2008, Vol. 8. No. 6, 737-752. http://psychology.huji.ac.il/.upload/articles/KnafoWinningArticle.pdf
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Schreiber, K. (2018). Too Much of a Selfless Good Thing: Pathological Altruism. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 5, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/too-much-of-a-selfless-good-thing-pathological-altruism/