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So You Think You're Selfless?
Religious leaders, politicians, and family members tell us acting unselfishly is good. But an unquestioning adherence to altruistic behavior may not always be the best strategy. In fact, in many cases, doing what we think is best for another person may cause more harm than we planned.
Martyrs-R-Us — The Need-to-Know
Psychologist Nancy McWilliams coined the term “pathological altruism” in 1984. Her definition: The compulsive need to offset our own guilt, shame, or other negative feelings at the sight of another’s suffering by devoting our life to humanitarianism. But holding the door for the person behind us doesn’t necessarily signal a problem. Pathological altruism pioneer Barbara Oakley explains selfless acts can veer into pathology when altruists end up hurting themselves or the person they’re trying to help.
Animal hoarders, cult leaders, and partners who put up with abusive mates are three extreme categories of pathological altruists. They may think they’re saving kitties, bringing folks to enlightenment, or demonstrating forgiveness. But really they’re jeopardizing their own — and others’ — physical and emotional well-being.
More mundane cases include baking a diabetic grandmother her favorite sugary cake because you want her to “feel good.” Or writing a pal’s term paper for him so he’ll get a stellar grade. Both behaviors screw over the recipient of selflessness in the long run.
So how do we distinguish between altruism that helps and altruism that harms?
Hurts So Good — The Answer/Debate
The difference lies in the motivation of the seemingly selfless act as well as its consequences. Helping stops being healthy when we ignore, justify, or deny clear evidence that our selfless acts are causing harm. ("I know you say you need some breathing room but you’re better off calling in sick, crying on my shoulder, and letting me care for you.")
From helicopter parents to partners who smother us with too much love, the urge to help out may stem from our own need to feel important  . What appears to be selflessness may also be a subtle way to make others feel indebted to us, says Columbia professor Bernard Berofsky. Remember that coworker who volunteered to take on more than his fair share of projects? Everyone else at the office might still feel like they owe him one. What’s more, continuous attempts to solve other people’s issues can be a clever way to avoid dealing with our own problems.
Luckily, it’s possible for constant do-gooders to take a step back. For Lynn E. O’Connor, director of the Wright Institute’s Emotions, Personality, & Altruism Research Group, there’s a practical solution: Next time you feel the urge to swoop in as someone’s savior, take a moment to consider whether the target of your benevolence actually wants or needs your assistance. More importantly, don’t forget to ask yourself whether it’s in your best interest to offer your help.
Pathological altruists or not, we can all benefit from prioritizing our own problems and setting boundaries on how far we extend ourselves. Learning when to say “no” isn’t easy. But it’s important to think carefully about our knee-jerk reactions to help and figure out where to draw the line  .
Want to continue the conversation? Tweet the author @ktschreib or write a comment below!
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@jordan lampert facebook Yes, we are all alone in this world.
I only help if I think they need my help or advice, and I also ask people if I can tell them what I think and why? I don't push my help onto others. But if hey ask me, I do what I can only ifthey absolutely ned it! This took time though, I m now 52 years old, and I'velearned to say "NO"! When I wasd in my 20's, I thought I was expected to say "YES", and needed to do my very best and then some, if I though I should! I guess I was moreof apeole pleaser then, but over the year, after getting sick with a long-term anxiety disorder of OCD, I had to lesarn to deal with this. I could not really help others or do asd much as I sed to. My disordfer starting at my desdk at work near the end of October 1986 with a spontaneous click I could hear and feel in my brain, nd immediately I had a terrifying fear of germs, I never had before along with severe panic attacks all day long and some agorophobia (fear of open spacesd!), etc. I was so afraid of germs that I practically washeda layer of skin off thatdoesn't seem to want to heal no matter what. When I was wrking, I had hundreds of bleeding cuts on my hands and it was painful to bend my fingers! People at work tried to give me sme hand cream, but nothingworked! To this day, my hands till haven't healed but I used cotton goloves undernath my disposable gloves to do cleaning and housework and cooking. I lov to cook and earn aqbout health information now, but I hate cleaning! Now, after turning 50 and having others issues, such as hormonal imbalances and difficulty losing weight along with blood pressure levels spiking, I decided to devote myself to learning how I can resolvesome of these issues with nutrition! I like to help others wirh what I've learned. I just have to create a better routine of being at the computer and taking some needed breaks, now that both ofour childfren are in University in the science field predominately! They like to learn and help others!
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