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Do you suffer from ‘Pathological Altruism’?


I am intrigued to discover that this autumn, OUP are publishing a scholarly volume of essays on the theme of Pathological Altruism.  The NYT says that: ‘The book is the first comprehensive treatment of the idea that when ostensibly generous “how can I help you?” behavior is taken to extremes, misapplied or stridently rhapsodized, it can become unhelpful, unproductive and even destructive. ‘

I thought immediately of coaches and of our naturally generous disposition – somewhere in the midst of our businesses, we are ‘helpers’.  As such, we need to keep our balance and not lapse into rescuing.  ‘Rescuing’ is a term in Transactional Analysis, which indicates that we are over-doing the altruism, going the extra mile to an unhelpful degree.  What happens as a result, is that we distort the professional relationship and lose presence, awareness and clarity.  If you want to know much more about how this works, see the superb article on the Karpman Drama Triangle by Miriam Orriss on the CSA website (Resources).

So we come back to the importance of Coaching Presence – the ability to stay ’empty’ and present to all that is going on between coach and client – as well as attending to the content of the session. I find in my own coaching and in supervision with coaches, that the difficulty of paying attention to ‘all of it’, without over-trying, is a recurring theme. I also know that when we ‘get it’, that the essential catalyzing/transforming aspect of our work as coaches, is the relationship, we tend to take more care of interpersonal  dynamics and especially, of our part in those. Creating spaciousness in relationship, so that all parties can breathe and where the practitioner is not caught in over-helping, is an essential skill.

Research in professions akin to coaching indicates that it is not our tool kits, our wonderful range of skills, but our ‘being with’ the client that makes a difference.  If you are interested in why this is so at a biological and chemical level, do have a look at a marvellous book called  ‘A General Theory of Love’ by Lewis, Amini and Lannon.

Finally, the Buddhists make a nice distinction between ‘compassion’ and  ‘idiot compassion’. An important question might be: How do I know when I am moving form the energy of appropriate compassion to idiot compassion?  What in my body/mind system alerts me to knowing that I might be crossing this frontier?  What practices support me to stay out of excessive altruism – sometimes disguised and working hard for the client! Interestingly, research shows that empathetic nurses burn out and leave the profession more quickly than do their peers who remain aloof.

Let’s protect our energy and our skills and avoid ‘pathological altruism’.

Edna Murdoch 2011