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Tuesday 24 January 2012

The Pathologizing of Altruism

Over the past two decades, much has been made in the mental health field of the phenomenon of “people pleasing.” Such folks, it is said, have an extremely fragile sense of self-esteem and make up for it by putting themselves out for others.
We're in this together.

This is a genuine phenomenon. It is close to the concept of the “mirror object” or false self. A mirror object is a person who discards their own interests and opinions, feeling them to be faulty, insignificant, or simply inadequate to the task of attracting the love, interest, and care of others. Instead, they simply mimic the opinions, attitudes, and styles of others. When asked their opinion of a movie, their immediate reply will be “What did you think of it? … Oh yes, I thought so too.”

Similarly, the person who adopts a false self looks to their social milieu to determine what is most valued, and then attempts to embody that. I’m reminded of a young man I saw many years ago who had a pet boa constrictor which he confessed to me he disliked and feared, but which was extremely useful in convincing his friends that he was “cool.” A more conventional example: the adult who adopts all the trappings of success – the country club membership, the boat, the luxury car – despite not really liking golf, sailing, or driving.

Rather than collecting status symbols, the people pleaser occupies his or her time doing favours for others. They may run errands, give unexpected gifts, volunteer for admirable causes, serve on committees, and take up the slack for everyone around them. At the extreme they may do so to their own detriment – leaving themselves with little time to relax, sleep, or care for their own needs. The faulty assumption underlying this idea is “I am only worthwhile as long as I am doing something for someone else.”

The problem with all of this is a common one in mental health: Border creep. What starts out as a label for the far extreme becomes a way of characterizing all related behaviour. So gaining much of one’s self-esteem from doing things for others becomes a sign of a weak character rather than a strong one, an example of unsuccessful development rather than resounding success.

In truth, the creation of a person who gains much of his or her sense of worth from the contributions he or she makes to others is the fundamental goal of childraising. Such a person is a boon to humanity, not a candidate for corrective psychotherapy.

Implicit in the pathologizing of people pleasing is the idea that a truly successful person should feel fully worthwhile despite not doing anything to benefit anyone: A person capable of living as an island, taking much but giving back nothing. This person would be an icon of consumerism, fully worthy of the term: one whose entire life is characterized by consumption rather than production.

Not all of us are suited to the throwing of birthday parties, or the staffing of soup kitchens. We contribute in the ways that match our talents, interests, and abilities. But the idea that a fulfilling life is available to those who reserve all of their potential contributions appears to be false.

The opposite of a people pleaser is not a healthy human being. It is a sociopath. Rather than pathologizing this behaviour, we need to help people celebrate it, and round it out with care for the self as well. To this end, the Christian injunction to “love one’s neighbour as oneself” can be useful. The phrase is an equation, and like every equation, it works both ways. Some of our clients can benefit from treating themselves as well as they treat others.

But it is also the role of therapists to help clients find their inner resources – the talents that they can offer to the world. People with low self-esteem often believe that they have no such abilities, and that any attempt they might make to help others would be scorned. Of the people I have seen with low self-esteem, the problem has not been a surplus of doing things for others, but a deficit. Assisting them to contribute to the surrounding world has been an enormously positive step.

Rather than helping to stamp out people pleasing, then, a more appropriate therapeutic task is often to help people to access and actualize this tendency. We need to find and honour our inner people pleaser, not shame it out of existence.


  1. Great article!! Thank you. Do you know anyone else who has written on this subject? It is one that really interests me.

  2. I'm sure that others have written about this as well, but I'm not sure who. I wrote this post largely because I see so many remarks in the opposite direction. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Interesting perspective. I have also read about the pathologizing of people pleasing... I agree it's more about balancing your needs with those of others. Thanks for your post. I really enjoy reading your blog!