When Selflessness Becomes Harmful
“I’m sorry,” said the tree, “but I have no money. I have only leaves and apples. Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in the city. Then you will have money and you will be happy…I have no house, but you may cut off my branches and build a house. Then you will be happy…”
“Cut down my trunk to make a boat,” said the tree. “Then you can sail away and be happy.” And so the boy cut down her trunk and made a boat and sailed away. And the tree was happy…but not really.
”I am sorry,” sighed the tree. “I wish that I could give you something but I have nothing left. I am just an old stump. I am sorry…” (The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein).
Altruism, by definition, is a positive construct. From a developmental perspective, altruistic behavior is a sign of maturity and advanced socioemotional attainment. Recent theorists, however, are saying that altruism, like fitness and other positive life choices, can be taken to an extreme.
When the altruism pendulum swings beyond the normal range, health can become compromised from emotional, behavioral, and environmental perspectives.
These theorists are examining the concepts of altruism and selflessness explored in a light that is no longer bright and cheery. Rather, theorists and researchers are considering the prospect that being selfless can take on a negative meaning. More than just the old identity of being a “doormat”, excessive selflessness is now being implicated in cognitive disturbances and pathology including hoarding, intrusive self righteousness, and codependency.
Barbara Oakley, Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhaven, and David Sloan Wilson are the editors on a recently released book exposing the dark side of altruism. “Pathological Altruism” opens with the definition:
Pathological altruism might be thought of as any behavior or personal tendency in which either the stated aim or the implied motivation is to promote the welfare of another. But, instead of overall beneficial outcomes, the “altruism” instead has irrational (from the point of view of an outside observer) and substantial negative consequences to the other or even to the self.
In the extensive research discussed in “Pathological Altruism”, combined disciplines emerge to construct a continuum of prosocial behavior that can be considered pathological on both ends.
Significant research has been dedicated to studying those who exhibit a lack of prosocial behaviors (antisocial personality disorder, narcissism, autism). But perhaps due to the inherent nature of the positive implications behind altruism, few have dedicated resources to the exposure of the negative aspects of selflessness.
Extreme selflessness has been shown to be a trait that is first evidenced in childhood. Knafo quantified findings for pathologically altruistic children as those who rated in the top 20% in prosocial behaviors while simultaneously rating in the lowest 20% for self-actualizing behaviors such as exhibiting pleasure through successes.
The combination of these traits can be shown to create a hotbed of emotional disturbance including worries, unhappiness, fear, nervousness, and somatization. These children have a high desire to please, without the commensurate feelings of success and self satisfaction brought on by performing the selfless acts.
Because there is no enduring feeling of actualization achieved through the selfless acts, the need to engage in new “giving” behaviors is continual.
This perpetual cycle can turn to victimization. Oakley states, “Caring feelings can be manipulated and exploited by emotional bullies to more easily harm their victims.” The altruist has a need to “do good” for a temporary feeling of self worth.
Exploiters take advantage of that altruistic drive by taking on the role of a person in need. Just like the Giving Tree, the pathological altruist will give the shirt off their back during a snowstorm for someone they sense needs it more.
Codependent relationships, for example can foster repeated scenarios where a pathologically altruistic person gives of themselves to the point of poverty or abuse. The altruist may not be able to separate the empathic feelings for the dependent loved one from self-defeating behaviors.
The need to self protect and sometimes even to protect others, including children, is second to the fulfillment of the empathic psyche seeking release through the expression of codependence.
So what is responsible for the over-expression of selflessness? Dopaminergic influence is implicated in studies on prosocial behavior and compliance. Bachner-Melma, Gritsenko, Nemanoy, Zhoar, & Ebstein found relationships between young women’s self-reported selflessness and polymorphism on a Dopamine influencing gene.
The researchers have shown that this genetic influence is heritable. Oxytocin and Vasopressin receptor genes are also implicated in prosocial behaviors. This suggests that there are biological, not just psychological, mechanisms that play a role in the need to be selfless.
Altruism and empathy are often given as the guiding principles for “caregiving” occupations. If left unchecked, however, these constructs lead to burnout and an inability to relate to patients. Nursing schools, for example, teach that a detachment during interactions with patients is necessary if a nurse wants to have longevity as a goal.
In extreme cases, the fulfillment of the altruistic need can warp the cognitive processes, leading to conditions such as animal hoarding. The “savior complex” supersedes reality and distorts the ability of the altruist to recognize that they are no longer doing good.
The perception of the environment can even become distorted as evidenced by the inability to see or smell the sickness of diseased animals and decaying carcasses. Even when confronted with the illness around them, these altruists insist that they are “saving animals”, dismissing the horrifying conditions of the animals they hoard.
Their brains are simply incapable of processing the reality of their own destruction.
Beth Seelig and Lisa Rosof define psychotic altruism as the “sometimes bizarre forms of caretaking behavior and associated self-denial seen in psychotic individuals, and often based on delusion.”
This type of self-denial is evidenced in anorexics, who typically show an extremely high level of interpersonal intuitiveness combined with a need to serve others while in a state of pathological self-denial. Anorexics are notoriously “giving” people. They are aware of the needs of others in their environment, while in blatant denial of the self-starvation they fight to continue.
While altruistic behavior is a clear sign of developmental maturity, it is not necessarily all good. People can become extremists with altruistic behavior, putting themselves in victimized or unhealthy positions. Perhaps as we emphasize the importance of empathy and service in our children, we should strive for balance through development of self-worth and control.
After all, the last thing we want is for our children to become “Giving Tree” stumps.
Image source: Jack Batchelor