Pathological Altruism, When helping is not the best answer

Pathological Altruism is Helping That Hurts


Pathological Altruism is helping people to your detriment. Some people are conflicted about their neediness.  On the one hand, they know needs are normal, but on the other they feel ashamed about having them. To defend against this conflict, some people over-give to others as a way to cover up their neediness. I hear this often from my patients who fall prey to this, “I’m a giver not a taker.”


Most people don’t realize they are doing this. When I ask my patients their thoughts about it, they have the wish that goes something like; “If I help someone a lot, then eventually they will help me without my having to ask.”  But, of  course, this is a form of magical thinking because no one’s a mind reader, so this never works.  What ends up happening is the givers become furious because no one is helping them.


They don’t realize that their acts aren’t really altruistic in that there is a string attached to the help they give. They want help given in return for help taken. The unwillingness to verbalize their needs ends up being very disruptive to a relationship. Those who engage in wishful thinking eventually become angry when nobody gives back.


Many people have this conflict with neediness. Instead of stating it clearly, they cover it up by saying, “I’m a helper, I don’t need anything.” This is of course impossible.  We all have needs, it’s a normal human emotion to be needy.  And humans also can’t read minds.  So, we have to help our patients here to become comfortable with accepting their neediness, that then helps them become comfortable with clearly stating them.


Many people fight me on this. They insist their partner “should know” their needs because they know each other well. Again, this is a wish and not a reality. If we don’t tell them our needs, they don’t realize them. They may pick up that you’re upset about something but without you specifying, they’re going to miss the mark most of the time.


You hear this all over the news and talk shows, “I got divorced because he didn’t know my needs… she couldn’t anticipate my needs.” That’s not love, that’s Fantasyland. Love and relationships are about the opposite of this. If you’re in love and it’s your partner for life, why wouldn’t you be able to talk to them about your needs? Why would you take the chance of having them guess when you are an adult who can speak clearly? In fact, relationships are based on neediness, “I need you, and you need me.”


I hate to use this overused saying but it’s too applicable here to ignore: put your own oxygen mask on first. Taking care of your needs is taking care of yourself.  It is not anything to be ashamed or guilty over, it is not selfish.  In fact, the definition of being an adult is to take care of yourself. Your needs, the need to keep infections at bay, eat, sleep, lose a few pounds, take the blood pressure medication…is your body’s alert signal that you need to attend to yourself to be at your best for your partner when he actually needs your help.  And to be clear for all of you who engage in pathological altruism, that means being clearly asked and not pretending you can read their mind.


So, if you find yourself persistently irritated because your partner consistently isn’t doing enough or doing it right, then ask yourself if you made your needs clearly known.  If not, you may be suffering from misplaced shame over your needs, and it’s time to speak up.



If you found the information on this page helpful, you may also want to check out the article “Who Should Be Your Number One Priority–Your Partner or Kids?” in which Dr. Dabney’s advice is featured.
For more parenting topics and helpful information, go to www.drldabney.com.



Follow me on social media!






Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share this post with your network!