synopsis: The Myth of Altruism — it’s actually pretty hard to find a selfless act
Examples abound about the idea of altruism. Let’s first define the word:
The question arises: is it possible to commit a truly selfless act? I suspect that it is so, but it happens rarely.
Regard for others, both natural and moral; devotion to the interests of others; brotherly kindness — opposed to egoism or selfishness. — : Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, ? 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.
“Nonsense!” people scream. “Day in and day out I make sacrifices for my (parents, spouse, kids, customers, employer, employees). The real question is, why don’t they ever appreciate my sacrifices?”
As we listen, we are supposed to nod knowingly, and think or say, “What a saint! Look at all (s)he puts up with. And doesn’t even get a thank‐you, let alone payback.”
Which then requires us to ask, if payback was expected, how could the act be altruistic?
Altruism might also be defined as “an action without thought of reward.” Our first Australian Shepherd was named Nishka, short for Nishkamakarma, which means, “Do your duty, with faith in“god,” without attachment to the fruit of the action.” Altruism.
Let’s get real and look at how life generally is:
- Most people have not been taught to stand up and go for what they need. Most people do not even know how to ask for what they need.
- Other people, when they ask, expect 100% compliance. If they get rejected by their parents, spouse, kids, customers, employer, employees, they simply stop asking and start manipulating. As opposed to asking someone else, or meeting their own needs.
What the majority call altruism is actually manipulation. It’s acting or speaking in a certain way, in order to get what we want or to get a reward.
As usual, our parents teach us how to do this.
“When you behave like that, you make mommy sad.” I’ve actually heard parents use this line, as opposed to, “If you do that again, here is the consequence,” and then applying it.
The first approach teaches the child that their goal in life should be to “make mommy happy.” To which I ask the question, “Why the hell should I or anyone else care if you choose to make yourself unhappy? Besides, no one can make you feel!”
Most folk, however, have heard variations on this theme since they were hatched, and actually believe they have the power to affect another’s feelings. From there, it’s a short leap to, “It’s my duty to make others happy.”
Parents utter this line for only one reason — they want to stop a certain behaviour. They, as children, were taught to look to their parents for cues about what pleased them; if they were wise, they then did the pleasing behaviour. Interestingly, most children comply not out of a fear of consequences, but because they were trained to avoid displeasing.
Paradoxically, we learn from this to manipulate others through our behaviour. If I behave a certain way, mommy will love me and smile at me. And vice versa. So, if I want something from mommy, I’ll do all the things she likes, and then she will owe me what I want.
I did what she wants; she’ll have to do what I want.
Initially, when we are small, this often is how it works. You’re sulking, daddy says “lighten up,” and you do, and we gives you a treat. Except, by the time we get to be teens, it seldom works that way.
We do something that’s supposed guarantee that good old dad will be obligated to give us the car keys, and he doesn’t. Then we scream that dad’s not being fair. (See myth # 2) We either try again, (and again, and again) or declare dad to be hopeless. We decide to find a spouse to manipulate instead. Or we have a kid, and play the same game with their heads that were played with ours.
Phony altruistic acts are done in the name of love, yet are methods to manipulate others into doing what they aren’t doing, or don’t want to do.
I had a client who grew up with parents that criticized everything about her. Her looks, clothes, choices, all were judged to be lacking. They continued to do this all through her sessions. She wanted her mom and dad to love her, so she kept telling them all she accomplished, hoping for praise. She never got what she was looking for.
She had a 19‐year‐old son, who got by, by the skin of his teeth. She considered him irresponsible. One time, she heard a rumor that his college course was going to start early. She told me how she’d called the college, found out it was true, made several calls to the school and to her parents to find the money, and got everything sorted out for her son.
She was beaming as she told me what she had done. I asked her if she could explain to me how doing all of that helped her son to be more responsible. She said, “I really resent you for pointing that out to me.” I congratulated her for being honest. I also said that her resentment was not going to cause me any loss of sleep. My job was not to get her to like me.
After some thought, she admitted that she had been looking for praise from me, and what she wanted praise for was for being a good mother (better than her mother.) She realized, however, that by acting as she had, and by then letting her son know how she’d bailed out his chestnuts again, she was saying, “See. You can’t get along without me!”
This was exactly the opposite of her avowed purpose of getting him out on his own, standing on his own two feet. Her action, far from altruistic, was a manipulative rescue, meant to keep her son in his place as an incompetent.
Most “altruistic acts” are exactly like this.
True altruism is not a bargain of the “I’ll do this so that you do that” sort. If I do the laundry, fold the clothes and put them away, that could be construed as an altruistic act. If I say to Dar, “I did the laundry (again) and put away the clothes (your clothes, again)” there is nothing altruistic about it. I’m either trying to make her feel guilty, or I’m sucking up for a compliment. If the former, I want her to have guilt, so she’ll do something for me. If the latter, I’m trying to manipulate her into saying something nice that (I judge, without asking her) she wouldn’t say otherwise.
The alternative to all of this is being aware of myself.
It’s being totally honest. So, in the above example, I might say, “I notice, Dar, that I’m about to point out to you that I did the laundry. I want you to feel guilty and tell me what a wonderful person I am, so that I can feel good about myself. Rather than be manipulative in this way, I’d like to skip the laundry speech and ask if you’d mind cutting to the chase and simply telling me I’m wonderful.”
Knowing Dar, she’d likely say, “Sure. Wayne, you’re wonderful. Now, get over yourself.” And I’d laugh.
This week, ask for what you want, directly. If the person refuses, ask the person if they know why they are refusing, and whether they’d be willing to dialog doing something else. If the people you are in relationship with continually refuse your direct, non‐manipulative requests, ask yourself why you are in relationship with them.
This week, notice when you are trying to manipulate people into doing what you want — by lying, misdirection, false complements or endless criticism. Ask yourself why you need to play this game. Stop being a martyr, just for an hour or so. Stop feeling sorry for yourself for an afternoon. Stop whining about how awful the world is for a whole day. Ask yourself why you have set your life up to be like this. (Who’d you think set it up???) Tell a few people about the games you play, about your insecurities, about the manipulations that you give in to attempting. Then vow to stop yourself.
Go where you need to go to get what you want. Do what you need to do for you, not to make someone else happy. Give up on “I’ll wash your back if you wash mine.” Wash. Don’t wash. Because you choose to, not for what you hope you’ll get. (You’ll be disappointed. Even if you get it, you’ll know it was coerced, not freely given.)
This week, get over yourself.