When Good Deeds Go Bad: Have You Taken Altruism Too Far?

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Your heart may be in the right place, but are your good deeds wreaking havoc? (Photo: Nadeen Nakib for Yahoo Health/Getty Images)

Laurie Feldman used to be that mother — the one who redid her children’s homework and called their friends’ parents whenever conflict arose at school. But what seemed like benign attempts to help her two kids, ended up evolving into more obviously destructive behaviors.

“I gave too much of myself to both my children,” Feldman, 51, tells Yahoo Health. “I tried to make everything good all the time.”

When her son, now 24, was in his second year of college, Feldman allowed him to move back in with her — even though he was doing drugs, a problem she refused to acknowledge. “I wouldn’t believe that he was getting in trouble,” she says. So, “I just kept on feeding it. If he needed money, I gave him money. If he needed a place to live, he came back to live with me — at my expense, because I suffered from it.”

Feldman sunk into a depression, and though she’d never struggled with her weight, she packed on 30 pounds. “I punished myself by eating a lot,” she says. Yet the giving continued: She let her son borrow her car, which he crashed. “Then he ended up stealing from a gas station — I couldn’t believe that this was my child doing this,” Feldman recalls. “Once I realized that I couldn’t make it better for him, that’s when things got better for him.”

Given the choice between life on the streets or rehab, her son chose to get help. “That was the hardest thing I ever did,” says Feldman. “He had to make it better for himself, and that was life-changing for me.”

Outside observers might call Feldman a helicopter parent. But psychologists characterize her behavior as a potentially more serious problem: pathological altruism.

“It’s behavior that superficially is helpful to others, but either is harmful to the person who’s doing the helping and/or is actually harmful to those being helped,” says Beth Seelig, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. Simply put, pathological altruism is helping until it hurts.

“It happens much more often than people might expect,” says Barbara Oakley, PhD, co-editor of Pathological Altruism. Examples range from the innocent — say, consistently rewarding your child’s good behavior with cookies — to the enabling — for example, giving your own prescription drugs to an addict in withdrawal. Pathological altruism can even be endangering, as is the case for animal hoarders, who harm their own health, as well as the animals they’re trying to help.

Related: This Fast-Food Worker’s Thoughtful Act of Kindness Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity

In these cases, the most obvious consequences are external to the altruist: Your child gains an unhealthy amount of weight, or your friend’s addiction spirals out of control. “It makes you look good — oh, let’s make these people feel better — but it doesn’t actually do that person any good,” says Oakley. Even more far-reaching examples include parents who attempt to protect their children by refusing to vaccinate them — and, consequently, fuel a whooping cough epidemic that leads to the death of infants. Or consider the government programs, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, that award home loans to under-qualified folks, and ultimately, contributed to the housing bubble and economic crisis in the U.S.

For Feldman, the costs of her ill-advised altruism were varied: The most evident side effect was that her son’s drug habit continued unchecked. But her charity also came with a more personal cost: Her resources were drained, and her mental health took a hit.

In fact, depression is one of the most common signs you may be giving until it hurts. “When you forget the tradeoffs to your own personal life, that’s when [helping others] can cross over to pathological altruism,” Oakley says. “Every hour you put into volunteer work is an hour you may not be spending with your children or spouse or [doing] things that are meaningful for you. Whether you’re feeling put upon, getting depressed, or feel like you don’t have enough time for yourself or your family — those are all warning signs [of pathological altruism].”

Sophia Scott*, 58, considers generosity her gift. “One time, I took a test [to find out] what is your talent,” she tells Yahoo Health. “I’m thinking I have no talents. Well, my talent was giving.” Her successful career in the financial industry has given her ample opportunity to share: She recently paid a friend’s rent after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, frequently plans (and pays for) fun outings for her employees’ families, and often helps strangers in need, once buying a whole ham for a family she saw carefully weighing each slice to see how much they could afford. “If I see somebody that is struggling, or has a need, I want to help them,” Scott says.

But her well-intentioned deeds, she’s realizing, can sometimes come with a cost. Case in point: When one of her employees, Mary, was struggling financially, “I would randomly give her bonuses,” Scott says. “Multiple times, [I] gave her cash.” But then Scott found out Mary had taken an expensive weeklong vacation with the money — the first sign that her altruism may have been misplaced. After Scott passed her over for a promotion—another candidate was more obviously qualified — Mary found another job and mailed a scathing three-page letter to H.R., accusing Scott of sexual misconduct in the workplace. “I was devastated,” she says. A few months later, Scott was shocked to receive an invitation to the former employee’s bridal shower.

Related: How to Be OK With Saying “No”

“Everything I had tried to do — the talks we’d had — it was all done in sincerity, with my heart in the right place,” Scott says. “I guess that’s what hurt — I don’t want to be somebody that just gives money.” It’s a painful lesson she’s still learning. “That’s where I struggle: Where is helping good? And where is helping too much? Where is helping enabling people? I don’t just leap in there now [to help people]. I try the get the whole story first.”

Like Scott, many pathological altruists are driven by the desire to do good — but Seelig suspects that more self-serving motivations are often at play. “Nothing we do is done for only one reason,” she says. “There’s always more than one motivation involved in helping others.” In fact, psychologists view any altruism — however pure-hearted it may seem — with some degree of suspicion; early researchers even posited that all good deeds involve an element of masochism or narcissism.

“It makes us feel good to give this help, this largesse,” says Oakley. “Good intentions plus this narcissistic sense that you know what’s best for them can combine to [become] this one-two punch that’s harmful for others, even as it makes us feel better.” In some cases, helping others may even be a clever way to divert attention from your own emotional neediness.

“I was always a pleaser my whole life,” admits Feldman. “I just wanted people to like me, so I would contort myself and do a lot to be liked.”

Virginia Beach-based psychotherapist Laura Dabney, MD, who treated Feldman, believes that all unsolicited altruism — assuming you know how to fulfill another person’s needs — is pathological. “Whenever you help somebody without being invited, you’ve crossed the line,” she says.

This is a common problem among parents, who continue to “help” their children into adulthood. “They keep giving and giving and giving, thinking that it’s helpful, where the kid wants to make their own mistakes, get through their own problems in order to grow up,” Dabney says. This misplaced magnanimity drains parents — and cripples children. “If you don’t allow your child to fail,” says Oakley, “then, as a consequence, your child isn’t going to develop grit. Your child is going to think everything should be given to them.”

So how can you avoid good deeds gone bad?

Think Long-Term
Before you offer your aid, consider the long-term consequences of your actions. “The things that temporarily make people happy in the short term aren’t often things that make them happy in the long run,” says Oakley. Will your altruism ultimately enable a bad habit? Put you or your family at risk? If so, you should reconsider your good deed. “You get yourself in trouble when you equate altruism with self-sacrifice,” says Seelig. “Every time you get on an airplane, they always tell you to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you help anybody else. That’s because, if you faint, you’re not going to be able to help anybody else.”

Offer Tough Love
Stepping in to save the day may look loving, but sometimes, saying “no” is the biggest favor you can do for a person. “What if the best thing for you to do is not to be publicly kind?” asks Oakley. “Setting limits, setting high expectations, can actually cause people to do better.” This is the lesson Feldman learned when she sent her son to rehab, instead of indirectly funding his drug habit by offering him a place to stay and cash on demand. “In order [for the person] to develop a little bit of grit and gumption, sometimes you simply need to say ‘no,’” Oakley says.

Check Your Emotions
Emotional thinking is often the starting point for pathological altruism — for example, you feel sorry for your child (or feel guilty saying no), so you give him candy whenever he begs for it. Oakley challenges people to think rationally, not emotionally, about altruism, analyzing whether an act of charity is truly beneficial for all parties.

Ask Before You Act
Unless a friend has explicitly vocalized a need, check in before you step in. “If you want to help somebody who hasn’t asked, it’s better to say,‘I feel compelled to do something for you, but I don’t know how you feel about that,’” says Dabney. That way, your altruism doesn’t seem overbearing — or end up harming the person you intended to help.

*Name has been changed.

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