‘Pathological altruism’ is a phrase coined by the writer Barbara Oakley, in her book of the same name. In it she argues that caring behaviour sometimes represents an unhealthy focus on the needs of others – to the detriment of oneself. In fact, she goes on to claim that such altruism underpins many personality disorders – including eating disorders.
‘I have come to believe that, for my fellow liberals, empathy, altruism and caring for others have become a kind of secular religion that is actually harmful, because it can be used as a cover-up for nefarious, corrupt and self-serving action. People can be blinded by their caring into doing things that hurt those they hope to help…altruism is only seemingly beneficent’. (Source: Times Higher Ed Supplement, 1-7 Sept, 2011, ‘Violence of the Lambs’)
On a personal level, claims Oakley, too much empathy can result in depression, perfectionism and burnout. She argues that it is the selflessness of patients with eating abnormalities, that underpins the drives that go into creating them. Once entrenched, it’s hard to think of a more selfish disorder than say anorexia – but perhaps that’s part of the attraction. From being someone who lives to please others, you create a world where all that matters is the self.
On a global scale too, the book argues that pathologies of altruism underpin everything from genocide to ineffective social programs that end up doing more harm than good.
What are we to make of this?
As humans we come equipped with a built-in system of self-justification. But there are two ways of expressing it – both of which look very different, but are actually the same.
On the one hand, there’s the reactionary and judgemental arch-conservative. ‘Kids these days – they’re all gun-toting hoodies. Taking our jobs and eating our Maltesers. Yada yada yada’.
But the other side of self-justification is bleeding-heart liberalism. ‘I’ve knitted my own bicycle from hand-reared Llamas. How dare you power around in your car. You’re killing the planet’.
In both cases however, what looks like goodness masks selfishness instead. It’s not about justice or saving the planet. It’s about justifying myself and saving my ego. I know this, because I’ve got a foot in both camps.
Ironically, if I feel like I need to be good or to justify myself, then whenever I help, it’s all about me. If, however, that justification is given to me as a gift, then everything is reversed. Because God loves me first, I can truly start to love other people. It’s a work in progress, but it’s a world away from pathological altruism too.