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Selflessness... or Self-Sabotage?

When generosity goes too far.

We often hear that if we could all be a little more helpful—a little more attuned to others' needs—the world would be a much better place. And this old saw is true, for the most part: Studies have found that reaching out to benefit others also tends to be an effective way to maintain our physical and mental health.

Even so, there is such a thing as being too selfless. What starts as a genuine desire to make a difference in others' lives can sometimes morph into pathological giving, leaving us feeling wrung-out or resentful—or even hurting or offending intended recipients. If you're naturally inclined to reach out to others, how can you figure out when you've crossed a line?

Look carefully at your motivations. Are you helping the other person because you genuinely want to, or are you helping mostly out of externally-influenced obligation (“I have to do this because it's what my mom [boss, minister, etc.] would expect”)? Helping acts in which the helper him- or herself is not fully invested are the kind of acts that often lead to burnout and resentment.

Similarly, do you already have a healthy sense of inner confidence, or are you helping others in an attempt to garner approval, shoring up your own self-image by courting praise? The problem with the latter approach is that when others show signs of not being 100% pleased with your efforts, you'll be right back where you started. Basing your self-worth on others' opinions is a recipe for stress and dissatisfaction, according to social psychologist Jennifer Crocker.

Assess your current life balance. Is your helping mission interfering with your relationships with friends and family or infringing on your work performance? If so, you might need to re-envision your generous efforts in such a way that you can maintain them and thrive in other areas of your life.

Observe the other person's reaction to your generosity. As much as possible, helping should be a two-way street, with open communication to ensure the help offered is both wanted and constructive. Even if you have a gift or skill another person could use, proffering that gift after the intended recipient tries to turn it down is worse than misguided—it's actually disrespectful. If you offer to cover a young relative's college tuition and he says he's not interested in higher ed, insisting on giving the money sends the message that you know better than he does what his life path should be.

“Helping” that interferes with others' development or self-determination—the dreaded “enabling”—should also be avoided. If your teen gets in trouble for skipping class, for instance, it might be tempting to swoop in and rescue her with a belated excuse note, but it's better to allow her to experience the natural consequences of her actions. In the same vein, it might be more genuinely helpful to drive an unemployed friend to job interviews than to spot her cash you know she's unlikely to pay back.

Ask yourself how you feel when you help. Most of the time, helping should be a win-win endeavor—you should feel good about working to give someone else a leg up. If your helping efforts are more draining than inspiring, see if you can find another helping situation that adds to your life satisfaction. If your volunteer position working with inmates is getting you down, for example, you could try working on behalf of another population instead. And as psychologist Susan Newman points out, you shouldn't feel bad saying “no” to someone's request if helping will cause undue strain—mental, financial, or otherwise. While leading a selfless life is one of the greatest gifts you can give others and yourself, you need to foster your own well-being at the same time. Otherwise, you'll have little fuel in the tank to power future helping efforts.

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