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 --
- Acting with the intention of helping others but actually harming oneself or others;
- The "self-sacrifice" involved is excessive (I'm not sure how one would measure that);
- 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.