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Barbara O'Brien

True Selflessness Is Truly Selfless

By October 5, 2011

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I learned a new phrase today, which is pathological altruism. I take it this is the shiny new thing in psychology.

A dictionary defines altruism as the "unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness." Its opposite is egoism. So what does altruism have to do to become pathological? I found a psychology paper that said pathological altruism has three components --

  1. Acting with the intention of helping others but actually harming oneself or others;
  2. The "self-sacrifice" involved is excessive (I'm not sure how one would measure that);
  3. There is a pervasive pattern of this behavior.

Examples of pathological altruism include workaholism, animal hoarding, anorexia, remaining in an abusive relationship (what they used to call "codependency," I think). A doctor who insists on continuing painful tests and treatments on an elderly, dying patient is another frequent example.

From a Buddhist perspective, however, the individuals described above are not acting in true selflessness. Instead, they are still acting from a belief in a self, even when they don't like that self. People self-destruct or self-enhance or distract themselves from their existential angst all kinds of ways. Sometimes those ways carry good intentions. But that's not selflessness. It's still self-ness.

This takes us back to the oneness of wisdom and compassion. When we are stumbling around without insight and clinging to an idea of self, most of what we do will be attached to that idea.

We may stay in an abusive relationship out of fear or because we may feel we don't deserve any better, for example.  The doctor who won't stop ordering painful treatments may be putting his own emotional needs ahead of the needs of his patient. If you dig beneath of surface of any harmful behavior, sooner or later you come to self-clinging.

I noticed a long time ago that people can develop unhealthy attachments to worthy causes. This happens when the cause becomes a major part of their self-identity and their feelings of self-worth. This is the beginning of fanaticism. Self-righteousness is both intoxicating and addictive. What it isn't, is selfless.

Ironically, often we can't really help anyone else until we take care of ourselves first. Taking care of ourselves includes practice, allowing us to clearly understand why we do what we do. Until then, there's no real selflessness.

Anyway, I suggest to the psychologists that their syndrome ought to be called "false altruism" rather than "pathological altruism," because they're talking about behavior that might be justified as "selfless" or altruistic, but which is not selfless at all.

October 6, 2011 at 5:37 pm
(1) Madeleine says:

In the second to last paragraph it says: “we can’t really help anyone else until we take care of ourselves first.”

I am new to Buddhism, but for many years have felt a kinship with the teachings. I was surprised, but gratified, to read the above, because I have had for at least 30 years a little cartoon framed and hanging on my office wall that reads: “You must like yourself before you can love others.” The cartoon figure is holding a sign saying “I Like Me.”

I have never questioned the wisdom of this concept, and have tried to integrate it into my behavior.

Thank you for your web site.

October 6, 2011 at 7:59 pm
(2) mickey says:

This resonates with me. I began Buddhism in 2000 and it has taken all this time for me to recognize my own Buddhist piety. I worked sooooo hard for the monastery, did everything, knew where everything was, was the most long-staying student when everyone else turned into others.
So, it is good to read . . . yes, I understand false altruism, and I pray for my authentic being to emerge in her glory, complete with the ache of true altruism. Someday . . .

October 7, 2011 at 8:51 am
(3) David says:

It is hard, in this narcisisstic culture, to get the like-youself-first message across correctly. I remember back in the day when (for some weird reason) I took a course in magazine publishing. One of the founders of ‘Self’ magazine came and said, ‘Hey, you gotta love yourself first, right?’ Coming from him, it sounded like love yourself first and last and, by the way, spend a lot of money on yourself by buying our advertisers’ products. The paradox is that, through reasonable attention to our ‘self’, we can, as it were, get it out of the way and realize that it is ultimately an illusion not to be clung to. Maybe an analogy would this this: one assumes a correct seat for meditation–back straight and shoulders back–in order to forget that one is sitting there.

October 7, 2011 at 10:47 am
(4) George Deane says:

Is it possible to be certain that one has the capability of acting from purely altruistic intentions, which implies that there is nothing at all in this action “for me.”? It may be nearly impossible to ascertain that the narcissistic element is totally absent. Who is to judge if there is a trace element of selfishness in any alleged act of altruism? The person him or herself or any other external observer of the action? That observer, whether internal or external, is suspect. The best we can hope for is whether the person is sincere in his or her perceived act of altruism. Sincerity to me is the key. That I think is the best one can hope for. But from the Buddhist perspective, an increasingly tranquillized mind attained through meditation is perhaps the best indication of the selfless intentions of our interactions with others.

October 7, 2011 at 11:25 am
(5) George Deane says:

In reviewing my post (#4) , I amend the first sentence. It should read “It is impossible to be certain…”

October 7, 2011 at 11:57 am
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

George — I would say making anyone the “judge” is not the point. I’m not sure “tranquilized mind” is the point, either. Rather, sincere practice gives us insight into what’s pulling our strings; what’s making us want what we want and do what we do. In my experience, as the concept of “self” softens up, the strings get looser and looser. For most of us they are never going to go away entirely, but you very much do become more aware of them, whereas without practice most people don’t see the strings at all.

October 7, 2011 at 2:00 pm
(7) Lynn Blick says:

How do you act with with altruistic intentions without some “good feelings” in doing so? It bothers me to think that the compassionate things I do are “for me”.

October 9, 2011 at 8:22 pm
(8) Rich Conti says:

Since ultimately there is no ‘self’ and ‘other’, does any of this really make a difference? I believe the Buddha taught that it was the intention that was important. Shouldn’t that be what we evaluate?

October 7, 2011 at 11:39 am
(9) Chris says:

“pathological altruism” is not new or shiny, though, Barbara.

Sometimes labeled as “do-goodism”, it is seen in both shamanism and gestalt psychotherapy (and many other fields, too, I would imagine) as being a neurotic symptom, hence the use of the word “pathology”

And thanks for the article, it sheds some light on a huge issue…

October 8, 2011 at 7:37 am
(10) Barbara O'Brien says:

Chris — the concept isn’t new at all, of course, but the term “pathological altruism” doesn’t seem to go back that far. The books and papers on it appear to have been published in the past five years. The psychologists seem to think they’ve stumbled onto something new, or else they’re just promoting it as new.

October 8, 2011 at 6:15 am
(11) Paul UK says:

I`ve heard some Lamas call it “idiotic compassion”, or in plain english…the way to hell is paved with good intentions ?

October 8, 2011 at 12:47 pm
(12) Mila says:

I’ve benefited greatly from maître (loving-kindness) practice which begins with generating loving-kindness for myself. As I lovingly wish that I myself enjoy safety, happiness, health and comfort/ease, I get to notice, first of all, any feelings of unworthiness – feelings that I don’t really deserve those things. Then I get to notice that there’s a part of myself that is genuinely able to wish those things for the part of myself that doesn’t feel worthy of them. Then I get to notice the part of me that feels unworthy slowly opening to receive the kind-wishes from the other part of me.

Somehow this helps immensely in then genuinely wishing that others also meet the causes and conditions for safety, happiness, health and comfort/ease. I can feel devotion for their inherent worthiness – based upon their inherent goodness, i.e. Buddha Nature – while at the same time feel compassion for the ways that their unskillful actions have instead created suffering. I see that others are just as worthy as I am of loving-kindness and compassion. And eventually start to feel these “others” as actually part of “me” – so that to love myself is to love others, and to love others is to love myself — as thought we were all cells within the same body.

October 9, 2011 at 8:17 pm
(13) Rich Conti says:

Well said. Thanks.

October 18, 2011 at 1:55 pm
(14) Yeshe says:

Remember, you don’t have to become a non-self. Just as you are, you are already a non-self. So in a relaxed way, generate enthusiastic practice without trying to become a no-self.

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