Is it possible to have too much selfless concern for others?
Of course, but it’s not that simple.
We all know ‘helicopter parents’ who coddle their children too much.
And we’ve all heard of doctors who burn themselves out caring for their patients.
So clearly there’s such a thing as too much selfless concern for others.
But, where do you draw the line?
When does selflessness, generally considered a good thing, become a bad thing?
And, if you are being too selfless, how do you be more selfish but in a good way?
Here’s a youtube video I made about the topic:
Why People Fall Into The Trap Of Being Too Selfless
In Western culture, there is the idea of ‘original sin’. Deep down, humans are bad, selfish, and need to be saved.
Hence Jesus’s most famous teaching to treat your neighbor like you would like to be treated yourself.
Essentially, Jesus is saying to stop being selfish and think about others.
This worldview – that humans are deep down selfish – has also traditionally spilled over into the science fields as well.
For example, Richard Dawkins wrote an infamous book titled “The Selfish Gene” in which Richard argues that our very DNA makes us humans greedy and selfish.
Whether for religious or scientific reasons, Western society has basically concluded that humans are both bad and selfish.
Selfish has become equated with “bad”.
Popular culture reflects this as well, with movies like “Wall Street” having well-known evil characters like Gordon Gecko saying that “Greed is good.”
Of course, since the bad guy is saying greed is good, we actually get the opposite message:
Being selfish and greedy is bad.
And this cultural message has been deeply imprinted on us.
In fact, in my most recent podcast episode, my guest Alex actually talks about a phenomenon called “Selfless Syndrome” where people show too much concern and burnout.
Unique Combination Of Parenting Trains Some Children To Become Too Selfless
So we have this widespread cultural message that is impacting parents who are having kids.
That’s one factor.
Another factor that breeds too much selfless concern for others is the combination of good, logical parents who provide for their children’s material needs but fail to connect with their children to meet their child’s emotional needs.
Basically, good parents who don’t quite ‘get’ emotions.
In the diagram above, this would be the top right and the bottom left squares.
Basically you don’t have the best parents, but you don’t have the worst parents either.
What comes to mind is the example of an engineering father who helps his son with homework, but is unable to help his son with dating or other disappointments.
Or a mother who trains her daughter to look good and wear the right clothes, but isn’t able to connect with her daughter on a more emotional level about what’s really important in life.
It’s this particular combination of good parents who aren’t very skillful with emotions that oftentimes will lead to their kids struggling with too much selfless concern for others.
Or as Alex would like to say, Selfless Syndrome.
This is a common trend that The Greater Good Center at UC Berkeley dives into more detail within this article here.
Let me go into detail:
Good parents who aren’t very emotionally attuned will still have children who love them, despite their flaws.
But oftentimes, the child will end up compensating for the parent.
If a parent is ‘bad’, then the child will give up.
But if a parent is ‘good enough’, then the child will still try to connect with their parent.
In fact, a child will oftentimes try extra hard to connect with their ‘good enough’ parents.
This trains the child at a young age that they have to work extra hard for their parents love and affection.
It trains the child that they can get their parents attention, but only at a high cost.
For example, the son of an engineering father might try really hard to please his father with good grades, even though his father only gives a small pat on the back for recognition of his son’s hard work.
The son works so hard for his father’s love, and only gets a little in return.
This type of pattern is what I see in so many people.
From working at Eating Disorder Centers, to helping people with food addiction and binge eating, I see the same pattern over and over again.
There are some people who are not selfless at all. They are selfish and don’t really care about others.
But so many people are too selfless. They care too much about other people.
What Can You Do To Find Balance Between Selfishness and Selflessness
For starters, we need to get out of the paradigm that being selfish is bad.
I really like the approach mentioned in the book, “Self-ish Is The New Selfless!”.
In this book author Brittany deliberately re-defines the word selfish, with self-ish.
And coming from this linguistic, cultural perspective I really agree with her.
We need to drastically re-think on a fundamental level what being self-ish actually means.
The bottom line is simple: we cannot really help others unless we help ourselves first and consider what we really want.
Burnout is unavoidable if we don’t put some worth in our sense of self.
How can you care for others if you are burnt out?!
We need to take time to make sure our batteries and hearts are full, so that we can give fully to others.
This is what it means to be ‘self-ish’.
You believe in yourself. You believe that you are worthwhile of care and rest.
And most of all, you believe that you are worthy of your own attention.
Finally, I’d like to wrap things up by suggesting a great book if you’d like to learn more.
I’ve used this book myself and have recommended it dozens of times so it makes sense to mention it hear.
Using Nonviolent Communication To Stop Being So Selfless
What do you think about the difference between “selfish” and “self-ish”?
Conclusion – is being too selfless a problem and can you have too much selfless concern for others?
The answer is yes, you can be too selfless. If you’re always putting others first and never taking care of yourself, eventually you’ll burn out.
It’s important to take care of yourself so that you can take care of others. As the saying goes, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” If your cup is empty, you won’t be able to help anyone else.
So if you find yourself always putting others first, remember to take some time for yourself too. Fill up your own cup so that you can keep on giving to others.
Many caretakers burnout from “compassion fatigue”. Compassion fatigue is when you give so much of yourself to others that you eventually become emotionally and physically exhausted. If you’re constantly giving without taking any time for yourself, you’ll eventually reach a breaking point.
To avoid compassion fatigue, it’s important to set boundaries. Let people know what you’re comfortable with and what you’re not. Say no when you need to, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
It’s also important to make sure you have a support system in place. Find someone you can talk to about your experiences. Having someone to vent to can make a big difference.
In the end, remember that you can’t pour from an empty cup. Make sure to take care of yourself so that you can take care of others.
If you cannot take of yourself then you are being too selfless and ultimately, it will cost you and you won’t really help anyone in a significant way.