My mother, who had a degree in social work but chose to leave the profession, spent some part of every day being helpful. There was always someone she was thinking about, beyond our family. I loved and admired this about her.
She also used to say, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
As far as I could tell, she meant this in a general, almost superstitious way. Your good deed could draw you into a sad or overwhelming situation. That made sense. But she also seemed to mean that the universe would punish you—some other event would occur, only remotely related, that would hurt you.
Growing up, I didn’t understand that when most people said “no good deed goes unpunished,” they meant the punishment would come directly from the recipient of the good deed.
Here at Psychology Today, you will see citations to tons of research that helping others, in small ways and big, is a path to happiness as well as success. If you feel isolated, become a better listener. If life feels meaningless, volunteer. Doing good deeds is stimulating, and you develop a happy spiral in which you want to do more good deeds. Especially if you do things you’re good at, you’ll be happier. Favors may be returned with more favors, and you’ll feel socially connected, which is good for your happiness and health.
And — not least — alongside the benefits to yourself, you can actually help others — which is a good way to spend your time.
But helping others can backfire, too.
In my thirties, I considered becoming a social worker myself. My mother was adamantly opposed. She flew into a rage: Her daughter was meant for better paid, more intellectually demanding work. Then she began to cry.
Today, I’m close to the age my mother was then. She is no longer alive for us to have this discussion, and I’m writing this blog instead.
I want to say, “Mom, what did they do to you? How did they punish you? I am so sorry.”
Because now I understand.
You can say that I’ve been punished because I helped people who didn’t want to be helped, or for the wrong reasons, or picked the wrong battles, or didn’t preserve my boundaries, or am tactless, or untrained. I can blame myself.
But I think it’s just true. Many people don’t like being helped — and they withdraw. They may punish you. Not everyone, and not always, but when it happens, it hurts and I can identify that precise pain.
Here’s one example. Through a mentoring program at my job, I met for three years, twice a month, with a junior high school student who was fighting hard for a better life. Let’s call her Tina. Her single mother used to demand that Tina do all the daycare instead of homework. Tina ran away to live with her grandmother. She wanted to be the first person in her family to go to college. We figured out exactly what grades she needed to achieve in each class to get into the most prestigious college in New York City’s public university system. Her grades went up. She had a boyfriend who was trouble. She broke up with him. She applied to college.
One day Tina came to my office and said, “I have a confession.” I listened. I don’t remember feeling judgmental. I felt sympathetic. She told me something vague about getting into trouble with the law. It didn’t sound serious, though.
Then, out of the blue, she didn’t show up to our next regular appointment without letting me know. Was Tina in real trouble? Was she in prison? She didn’t answer my calls.
I fretted. I also understood that maybe she wanted to end the relationship and didn’t know how to tell me directly, so she made up a story.
After a while I called her grandmother to ask how she was. Her grandmother was cheery, “Oh, Tina’s upstate in college,” she said, proudly. “I’m so proud of her.” That was a relief. “Could you let Tina know she can get in touch with me any time? I just want to hear how she’s doing. I’m really proud of her, too.”
“Oh, you’ll hear from her,” her grandmother said. “She told me that you saved her life.”
It’s now 15 years later, and I haven’t heard from her. Tina didn’t actually punish me, she just told me a scary story and disappeared.
Three times I have had friends sleep on my couch for weeks at a time. We didn’t fight, we had long conversations and many laughs, and we are in touch, but we didn’t become dramatically closer as you’d expect. In fact, less so. There is a distance, I think, and I believe it's partly because they don’t want to feel they owe me anything.
These are cases of withdrawal when people become uncomfortable with being helped. But sometimes they become hostile. A friend I loved told me her husband was hitting her. I gave her a set of my keys. She lived only a few blocks away. I said, “You can come here if it’s ever too much for you.”
How did this end? A few years later, she had in fact divorced the husband. But she broke off our friendship, saying that I was selfish and didn’t care about her happiness. She wrote a thinly veiled blog about what a bad friend I was. I found out later that she was still going on vacations with the abusive husband.
My moral: I am learning to be a better helper. There are ways to do it that don’t backfire as often. I am not going to stop helping. It is good for me, and I sometimes do good. But I know that the recipients may sometimes withdraw and sometimes go out of their way to hurt me.
It's not true that "No good deed goes unpunished." But some good deeds are.
A version of this story appears on Your Care Everywhere.