Pathological Altruism: When Giving Causes More Harm than Good

Giving and putting others first is heralded as a loving act, a way to show how much you care for another person, a way to relieve someone’s sadness, distress, or fear. However, did you know that there are times when giving can do more harm than good?

In the clinical world this phenomenon is called “pathological altruism.” If you google that, suicide bombers come up! While that example is extreme, it’s a useful analogy in the sense that pathological altruism causes harm not only to others, but also to ourselves.

So what does this term actually mean? Pathological altruism is attempting to do good to support the well-being of others that actually results in unanticipated harm. What this means is that sometimes, in our efforts to do good, we accidentally cause more harm and damage. This happens a lot in family dynamics and relationships. One person will have a mindset that giving up their own needs or opinions (eg, time, money, beliefs, values) will be the solution to the current situation. The ideology is this: I will give up me, I will decrease my own importance for the sake of the larger cause (eg, the other person, reduced conflict, everyone else’s happiness), and then I will find self-importance and worth.

How does it play out day to day? I am so glad you asked! It looks like never having enough time to take care of yourself because you are is always running around at the beck and call of the kids, spouse, and dog. The rationalization being something like, “The kids are too busy to help around the house; it’s ok that my son screamed at me, he’s been really stressed out; or I’ll just re-arrange my evening plans since my spouse had something come up.” It looks like always considering how some else is going to feel or what someone else is going to think and deciding that you will adjust (regardless of your own feelings) in order to make them happier, in order to make sure they don’t miss out, in order to avoid conflict. The idea is, I don’t mind sacrificing myself and ceasing to exist as a person with needs and feelings if it helps meet the big picture goal of everyone else feeling better. 

This ideology is detrimental both to you and to those you are giving to.  It is detrimental to other people because they don’t learn that limits, the word no, and going without are really important life lessons. They don’t learn to handle disappointment or to become resourceful on their own. You rob them of the chance to learn to be as emotionally and practically independent as they need to in order to have healthy, mutual relationships with others. It is detrimental to you because you cease to be a person and instead you are a resource. That inevitably results in a decreased sense of self-worth and overall neglect of personal self-care, which would make just about anyone feel depressed, anxious, and lonely. You accidentally teach people you don’t matter because you voluntarily go without.

What seems to make this mindset so convincing and difficult to give up are the positive emotions associated with giving to others. Perhaps at one point in time you were taught to feel good about yourself when you made others happy, or perhaps you learned that giving to others resulted in the higher likelihood that they would approve of you and give back. However, the lesson should have been that this sort of giving is for specific occasions, not a lifestyle. Chances are it’s not really working and others aren’t so giving in return.

For the sake of yourself, for the health of your relationships, and to better equip others for real life, its important to learn to overcome the fear of saying no, of being mean, or hurting someone’s feelings and begin to value the importance of speaking your mind, making your needs as important as others’, and allowing others to be disappointed without running to fix things. This mindset will better support the goal you have for your life and relationships and will allow you to feel as important as you really are.

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