Is there perhaps a word or phrase that describes negative selfless behavior?

Generic Behavior:

If a person looks after the needs of others to such an extent that their own needs are not met then not only will their own well-being suffer but over time this person will also fail to take care of the needs of others (due to the lack of energy/motivation).

Simple Example:

Samuel enjoys going to concerts once a month. Susan likes Samuel and wishes to please him but she does not like music at all, especially not concerts. But she goes and pretends to enjoy the experience when in reality she only enjoys pleasing Samuel. Over time Susan begins to associate her negative feelings of music with Samuel. So Susan's selfless act was initially performed to please Samuel but over time this has eroded her desire to please him.

It could then be argued that this type of selfless act should be avoided. Each person should behave selfishly and express their own desires. Altruistic acts lead to an erosion of desire/motivation/and positive feelings for the recipient.

Any counter examples where altruism leads to increased well-being of both parties? Perhaps the altruistic behavior in this example is only penalized due to self deception. He is unable to respond appropriately due to misinformation. So, altruism is not the culprit, self deception is. Thoughts?

Update: It appears so far the best word given so far is by stoicfury


This word does fit what I outlined in Generic Behavior. But unfortunately I believe I've left out a bit of information. Sacrifice is often viewed in a positive light. Suffering for the greater good. I'm wondering if there's a word that is kind of like an analog of sacrifice. Sacrificing for someone else and then feeling bitter about it.

So, to rephrase: Is there a word/"effect" that describes someone sacrificing for someone else and then feeling bitter about it? I'm wondering if there's any studies which have described the phenomenon. An example of a phrase that describes a complex social observation: Dunning-Kruger effect

And the reason I'm looking for this word is so I can do more research into this behavior.

  • 1
    See also Moral Duty and Happiness: Are Both Achievable?
    – stoicfury
    Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 4:08
  • 2
    I am a bit confused. In your comment to my answer, you said, "I'm looking for information on this specific scenario. I've updated my question." If by "this specific scenario" you meant the one I proposed, in which altruistic behavior becomes self-reinforcing and leads to increasing happiness, then why are you seeking information on "sacrifice" that leads to bitterness and thus less happiness all around. BTW, if it's really the latter you seek, then you might look into the phenomenon of "codependency". If it's the former, then say so and I will augment my answer. Commented Apr 17, 2012 at 20:27

5 Answers 5


The general behavior would be described as selflessness or altruism. But you're talking specifically about being selfless or altruistic to the extent that one's own needs suffer. In that case, the behavior would be a negative one. And in clinical psychology, that is often denoted by the use of the word "pathological". That indicates that such behavior has become a pathology, or in other words, that it has become chronic to the extent that it resembles a mental condition/disorder. So I'd probably call this pathological selflessness, or pathological altruism. There is indeed some corroboration to either of those terms in the literature, but not anything that emerges as a clear winner.

Better yet, this is commonly known in philosophical circles as self-denial, self-abnegation, self-sacrifice, and/or self-effacement. But again, those terms don't necessarily connote (and certainly don't denote) this as negative behavior, or one who does so pathologically, so you'll still need to clarify.

I would also say that this type of behavior is just a special case of self-destructive behavior, which is used extensively throughout the applicable literature, so perhaps that's what you should call it generically, and then explain the specific type of self-destructive behavior where necessary.

  • 1
    Good answer. I'd only add that Derek Parfit treats of this topic in his classic work Reasons and Persons (amazon.com/Reasons-Persons-Oxford-Paperbacks-Parfit/dp/…). Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 6:46
  • Good response. I really like the special case of self-destructive behavior. I added more detail to my question
    – coder
    Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 16:10
  • It is a good response. I suspect one is more likely to hear among humanist psychologists, such as feminists, Rogerians, or even in CBT,the term dysfunction (APA) use. Pathology is a pretty rare, strong diagnosis and one that absent underlying physical symptoms that present, condemnatory. Whole schools of therapists, like R.D. Laing and other anti-psychiatrists reject that sort of language entirely. Most psychologists deal with dysfunctional altruism, not pathological altruism...
    – J D
    Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 16:59
  • Besides, pathological altruism has no entry in the APA's dictionary and seems to have some popular currency with an alternative meaning.
    – J D
    Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 17:01
  • I do see that the use of emphasis and italics might substitute for links in my own style. Thanks!
    – J D
    Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 17:02

I want to expand my answer in regards to the OP's update:

Most generally, the word you are looking for to describe the phenomenon you mention is sacrifice: the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable [e.g., one's own well-being] for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim [e.g., someone else's well-being].

The issue of altruism, however, is not as simple to cover, because altruism in many (arguably all) cases can be shown to be a merely a genetic predisposition, known more specifically as biological altruism. "True altruism", it is argued, does not exist, and evolutionary biology seems to confirm this, as well as physics (causality) and other theories which impugn upon the notion of a completely free will (which would be required for "true" altruism). (see the article for references)

When you ask "[Are there] any counter examples where altruism leads to increased well-being of both parties?", I find it difficult to answer without some definition of "well-being". Consider the altruistic act of childrearing. Taking care of a child from birth is a huge sacrifice to a family at the basic level — they incur the cost of having to spend time with, cloth, and feed the child (some people see this as a rewarding experience, and I don't deny that, but in terms of biology and evolution parenting is a (personal) cost). But it is not a cost on all levels, because the benefit is that the child is more likely to survive and thus it is more likely that his/her genes are passed on, and while we generally do not consciously care about that ("yay, my genetic material is being propagated, wohoo"), it is a huge win from an evolutionary perspective. But even on a more general level, having parents can be rewarding to us, and I imagine you will find that most people will say that overall, their parents were a benefit to them (i.e., they increase their well-being).

So, the short of it is that from an evolutionary perspective any form of altruism as an evolutionarily stable strategy is only statistically likely to exist if it promotes the survival-rate of offspring up to reproduction; it will incur a cost on the investor, but is it actually a cost? If "well-being" is defined as survival rate, then no it is not a cost in the long run, and thus any such form of altruism would lead to "increased well-being of both parties". If it is anything else, then from a biological perspective the answer is yes, it is a cost; and thus it would not be a counter example where "altruism leads to increased well-being of both parties".

  • So then, there are stable and unstable forms of altruism. nice.
    – coder
    Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 13:13

Or how about a different scenario...

Susan continues not to particularly enjoy the concerts, but she gets a big kick out of seeing Samuel happy, so it's more than worth it to her. And Samuel, being happier and recognizing Susan's sacrifices starts making sacrifices of his own, and he too enjoys Susan's happiness so much that... etc. IOW, why not assume a virtuous cycle rather than a vicious one. It is possible to enjoy making another person happy -- it's called genuine altruism, vicarious pleasure, etc.

So, bottom line, your scenario is based on a set of unspoken premises, that human nature is fundamentally selfish and self-centered, that true altruism does not exist and cannot even be cultivated, and so on.

These are not only mere assumptions, there is a lot of evidence that they are false. Many couples are more like my scenario than yours, though I will admit that in modern western culture yours is statistically predominant. But so what -- truth is not a statistical phenomenon. At one point a majority of the American adult population smoked cigarettes, but what did that prove about human nature or philosophic questions? And, of course, we managed to change that for the better.

For another example, recent studies of Tibetan Buddhist monks and lay practicioners have shown distinct neurological correlates of genuine altruism, apparently as a result of their intensive meditation practices focusing on love and compassion, not that we need brain scans to confirm what we can observe directly in their behavior. These are not born saints but ordinary people who commit to developing their best instincts -- and succeed. Those practices as well as the practices of Christianity and other traditions are quite accessible to ordinary people.

So, I'm not sure what your point is, other than assumptions hostile to altruism lead to... guess what... negative conclusions about altruism.

  • I'm looking for information on this specific scenario. I've updated my question. Thanks!
    – coder
    Commented Apr 17, 2012 at 16:41
  • It's offtopic..But I'm just curious... "At one point a majority of the American adult population smoked cigarettes" Is this true? Any references?
    – AIB
    Commented Apr 21, 2012 at 19:55
  • This page says it peaked at 45% in 1954 -- not quite a majority, but pretty close. BTW, it's 24% today, which seems high to me -- but maybe my circle is different. Commented Apr 22, 2012 at 1:12

I don't see how your conclusion follows:It could then be argued that this type of selfless act should be avoided.

Your example is designed to lend credence to your conclusion. A comparable example would be Susan not enjoying concerts nor music, but self-sacrificingly going with Samuel to please him, and over time begins to enjoy it. Is this any more or less likely than the setup you've given?

Also the psychology of the situation is a bit simplistic. I suggest an altruistic Susan would give out subtle hints that she's only attending the concert to please Samuel, and that this form would be partly unconcious. Not actively misinforming.

  • That wasn't meant to be a conclusion. I'm looking for more information. I've updated my question. Thanks!
    – coder
    Commented Apr 17, 2012 at 16:41

The concept of "burnout" (Wikipedia) isn't specific to altruistic activity but often arises in that context. It's a word used essentially to describe when someone's dedication to something is so extreme that it actually becomes counterproductive, because they begin to neglect their own needs and their ability to contribute suffers as a result.

It's also a risk among people who work too hard for their own gain, but I most often hear about it in the context of political or social activism. Activists often refer to the importance of "self-care", with the aim of finding and maintaining a sustainable level of contribution, which sometimes means focusing on replenishing your own mental and physical resources and paying attention to your own health and wellbeing.

This doesn't exactly match your example which is more of a social situation than an occupational one, but if someone were to talk to me about "relationship burnout", I'd understand them by analogy.

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