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 importantCodependency: predictors and psychometric issues. Lindley, N.R., Giordana, P.J. Hammer, E.D. Bemont University, Nashville, TN. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 1999. Jan;55(1):59-64.Co-dependency and addictions in close relationships. Theoretical review. Kozma, N. ELTE Pszichológiai Dokotri Iskola, Budapest, Hungary. Psychiatria Hungarica, 2009;24(6):388-413.. 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 lineA brief mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention for nurses and nurse aides. Mackenzie, C.S., Pulin, P.A., Seidman-Carlson, R. Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Applied Nursing Research. 2006 May;19(2):105-9.A mindfulness course decreases burnout and improves well-being among healthcare providers. Goodman, M.J., Schorling, J.B. University of Virginia School of Medicine, Charlottesville, USA. International Journal of Pssychatry in Medicine. 2012;43(2):119-28..