Help or Harm? Telltale signs of ‘pathological altruism’

Agnes Otzelberger
The Good Jungle
Published in
4 min readOct 15, 2020
Image by Andrew Martin

Altruism is good, right? After all, it’s what, in the world of doing good, we’re here for — we’re here to help, in service of other beings and the planet. Not so fast, says Joan Halifax with her book ‘Standing at the Edge’: There is a dark side to altruism.

A while ago I picked up a book that I ended up reading in one big sigh of relief. With her book Standing at the Edge’, Buddhist teacher, priest and anthropologist Joan Halifax gave me the gift of a clarity and language I needed to make sense of a confusing paradox and questions I‘d been grappling with: As someone who’d very much constructed her identity around the idea of helping others and changing the world, it had been slowly dawning on me that, the more tightly I held these altruistic ideals, the less helpful I sensed deep down I actually was being. Were my well-intended efforts to speak on behalf of the world’s least fortunate people a way to really change things, or did they perpetuate an inequality of voice? Was rushing to everyone’s aid whenever I could a genuine act of service or was I burdening others with my need to be needed? Was there even a point, I wondered, in setting out to ‘do good’ and be altruistic, when being focused on that seemed to have so many unintended consequences, between individuals and at an organisational level, too? Where, I’d begun to ask myself, was the line between help and harm?

When this book fell into my lap, it turned out someone else had come a long way in living these questions. Joan Halifax’s earlier journey had had many parallels with mine. She had travelled far and had had plenty of exposure to the kind of work well-to-do, white Westerners with an appetite for exotic climes conceive of as ‘doing good’ in the world, as well as to some of the large activist movements in the 20th century.

Over time, as she turned toward Buddhism, she’d developed a deep wisdom about the complexities and pitfalls of the desire to ‘do good’. Buddhist psychology is great at bringing both discernment — shining a light on uncomfortable home truths — and compassion to our afflictions. Good medicine for the mighty world of ‘doing good’, where selfishness, coercive power and our own neediness are so frowned upon that we fail to detect that they too are the water we swim in.

The crucial proposition in ‘Standing at the Edge’ is that all the qualities we need for a life of purpose — altruism and empathy, for example — have an edge to them, and while that edge represents the high point of these qualities, when we tip over that edge, we fall on to their shadow sides.

This is where empathy turns into empathic distress, engagement into burnout, and altruism into pathological altruism. It’s where the line is that I was wondering about — that line between help and harm.

Pathological altruism is what happens when we try so hard to be good and selfless that the parts of us that challenge that self-image go underground and get acted out unconsciously. When our actions are driven by

  • an unconscious need for social approval
  • a compulsion to fix others, or
  • unhealthy power dynamics.

This, then, manifests in resentment, shame, and guilt — sometimes both on the giving and receiving end –, or in disrespect, burnout, and moral suffering on the part of those pushing themselves over the edge. On a systemic level, we then see abuses of power and ethical violations of the more subtle and more obvious kind, rearing their ugly heads in places we’d never thought they would.

‘What serves?’ instead of ‘How can I fix this?’

What do we do when we find ourselves on this shadow side of altruism? The main message I took from Joan Halifax is that in order to be truly helpful, we need to let go of our compulsion to be so. We need to recognise when our compulsion to fix is a way of distancing ourselves from the suffering of others and, ultimately, from our own pain. When we ask ourselves, ‘What serves here?’ rather than ‘How can I fix this?’ (and, less consciously, ‘Will this action make me a good person’?) — when we invite our full selves, warts and all, to serve rather than help, then our limitations, our wounds and our darknesses don’t have to live in hiding and they, too, become part of serving. We then no longer find ourselves ‘reaching down’ to help, but linking arms, in solidarity, and in mutual humanity. Because, in Rachel Naomi Remen’s words,

When you’re helping, you see life as weak

When you fix, you see life as broken

When you serve, you see life as whole.

I highly recommend the book.

Joan Halifax (2018). Standing at the Edge. Finding freedom where fear and courage meet. New York: Flatiron books.

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