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Empathy, Altruism, and Codependency

As a child, one of my favorite picture books was The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. In the story, the Tree assists the Boy in pursuing his dreams, suggesting that he take her apples, then branches, and finally her trunk. Additionally, the Tree tries to be happy about giving the Boy increasingly costly parts of herself, while the Boy stays away for progressively longer intervals. As a child, I yearned to be as selfless as the Tree and berated myself for not being happy to sacrifice.


The Tree’s selfless giving has been described as the embodiment of agape, or true love. The book has also been criticized as promoting an abusive relationship. My adult reading is that the story is a great synopsis of codependency. In the beginning, the Boy came every day to be with the Tree. The reciprocity evaporates as the Boy’s desires mature and do not include the Tree. When the Boy returns as an old man, he finds a seat on the Tree’s stump,

And the tree was happy. The end. 

We are left believing, “If I just wait long enough, if I give enough, he will come back.”

 Codependency is the inability to tolerate a perceived negative affect in the beloved. The inability to tolerate the negative affect is caused by an overactive—and dysfunctional—empathic response. In other words, some of us have a strong vicarious experience of others’ feelings. If we are unable to recognize and modulate our empathic response to someone else’s pain, we will feel compelled to take action to reduce our stress. This leads to doing something for the beloved that overtly or covertly supports their dysfunctional behavior. If this restores homeostasis in the relationship or for the beloved, we and they may come to believe that we are responsible for the beloved’s distress—either believing we have directly caused it or we have withheld the solution. We believe we can alleviate the beloved’s unhappiness—just like in The Giving Tree, we only need to suggest that the Boy cut down our trunk so that he can build a boat to sail away, “and be happy.”

Empathy and Empathic Distress

I have written multiple prior blogs about empathy (see for example, Empathy: What it is and What It Isn’t, as Empathize is one of the four practices of the LovePOEM (with love, we Pause, Observe, Empathize, and Message). To empathize is to stand barefoot next to the beloved, simultaneously trying to understand their perspective and holding awareness of our separateness. Buddhist teacher and anthropologist Joan Halifax divides empathy into somatic, emotional, and cognitive forms. I have come to realize that I had learned to recognize my cognitive and emotional over-identification with someone with whom I seek to empathize, but that I had less awareness of and had more room for growth in modulating my somatic empathy.  I believe many of us, in our disembodied lives, forget the strong physical resonance that our mirror neurons create in us—our somatic empathy. As Halifax writes in Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom where Fear and Courage Meet, 

Physical attunement can be a medium for our understanding of and care for others. If our identification with someone who is suffering physical pain is too great, however, we may fear the assaults of the other’s misery on ourselves and be flooded with so much sensory information that we cope by getting totally scattered or shutting down.

As neuroscience has shown that emotional and physical pain are processed similarly, I would expand Halifax’s wise words to including that our physical attunement can encompass another’s suffering—physical and otherwise. 

Empathic distress occurs when we identify so strongly with someone else’s anguish that we become distressed ourselves. Our empathic distress will result in becoming over-aroused (our body’s evolutionary preparation for fight or flight) or blunted and numb (our body’s evolutionary preparation to freeze). Wanting to eliminate our distress and being dysregulated, we can easily engage in pathological altruistic behaviors. As discussed with codependency—through a predisposition, environmental training, or both—some of us are more empathically attuned, leading to a proclivity for empathic distress.

Altruism and Pathological Altruism

Altruism is to act for the benefit of another person, often with potential risk or cost to self. There are debates over if anyone can be purely altruistic—seeking nothing, not even gratification, for themselves. I would argue—and most scholars agree—that if the helper’s primary intent was to benefit the recipient, it is altruism. Subsequently, most of us will feel pleasure in being able to improve someone else’s situation—this is adaptive for societies as encourages us to engage in future altruistic actions.

Introducing a book on pathological altruism, researchers Drs. Oakley, Knafo, and McGrath write,

Some of human history’s most horrific episodes have risen from people’s well-meaning altruistic tendencies….Altruism can be the back door to hell.

They define pathological altruism as when there are substantial negative outcomes for the actor or recipient(s), even though the motivation was to help.

Although, at any time, we can inadvertently cause harm when intending to help, pathological altruism becomes more probable and persistent when we are empathically distressed—either over-aroused or blunted in our affect. For example, meaning to help my young child obtain something outside her reach, I could step accidentally on her toes. However, if I was tired and under-resourced, I would be more likely to “help” her do something that she could do independently—depriving her of her agency. My impatience would lead to figuratively stepping on her toes, causing greater pain and a larger rupture in our relationship than literally stepping on her toes.

Besides our situational state, group membership influences pathological altruism. Privilege makes us more susceptible to pathological altruism. As Halifax states,

When we Westerns think we can save the world, we might do so not only from a place of goodwill but from hubris.

The privileged group may believe they have the “answers” for the marginalized group. Within groups, however, it is often the less powerful who are expected to engage in pathological altruism, at severe cost to self. For example, women—and especially women of color and poor women—have been expected to engage in self-sacrificial caregiving for the benefit of the privileged.

Pathological altruism can be driven by insecure attachment. When we are feeling insecure in our attachments, our unmet needs override our ability to provide useful care. We become either anxious in our caregiving, seeking to gain attention for our actions, or avoidant, withdrawing our caregiving. I hypothesize that those of us insecure in our attachments—we who question our lovability—are more susceptible to empathic distress, pathological altruism, and codependency.

I have the trifecta predisposition for pathological altruism: I am prone to insecure attachment thoughts, I belong to many privileged groups, and I am a woman, expected in those groups to be empathic and caring.

So, What Do We Do?

We are all going to experience empathic distress—becoming overwhelmed by the suffering of another. This can lead us to engage in pathological altruism—“helping” in a manner that is less than helpful. And many of us can look back and see moments—or whole relationships—of codependency: taking responsibility for relieving the beloved’s distress. Welcome, once again, to being human!

In all these experiences, we lost touch with our bodies—we forgot what is us and what is not us. A huge first step is that we noticed our disembodiment! Please praise yourself for seeing and holding the pain of empathic distress, pathological altruism, and/or codependency.

To re-regulate ourselves, we need to return to the first steps of the LovePOEM: Pause, and then Observe. Easier said than done! My next blog will dive into how we re-regulate once we have lost our autonomy, and how we can set ourselves up to be aware of early warning signs that we are at risk of empathic distress, pathological altruism, and/or codependency.

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