I should become upset when other people have problems and feel unhappy when they're sad.

It is a good thing to be concerned for others and, when appropriate, to demonstrate this concern in action. Unfortunately, many people carry this to the point where they lose sight of the boundary between themselves and others. Do you become over-involved in the other's emotions or difficulties - joining in their depressions, anxieties, or feeling unhappy when they have problems?

Not only will this detract from your own happiness, but it can also lead to anger with others because they have problems and are, therefore, 'causing' you to be unhappy.

It can also create what I call the 'social worker' syndrome. When two or more people relate, it is because each perceives the other has something to offer. Giving but not (apparently) taking contravenes this reciprocal nature of relationships. Are you available to help when your friends want you, but seem to expect nothing in return? Paradoxically, your selfless behaviour may really be for yourself. It puts you in a one-up position to the other person, enabling you to boost an otherwise poor ego. It is yet another sign that self-acceptance is lacking - you ‘help’ others to convince yourself you are OK. Unfortunately, your ‘selflessness’ can create distress - the unequal nature of the relationship means you give support but don’t get it in return.

Where does it come from?

Belief number 10 indicates a lack of boundaries between oneself and others - a difficulty in seeing that while it is good for human beings to help each other, they still remain separate entities.

It may also indicate emotional irresponsibility: a belief that one's emotions are caused by one's circumstances - 'How can I be happy when someone in my environment is sad?'

It may also indicate over-dependency on others. If those on whom we depend are unhappy or in difficulties, we might perceive this as a threat to our own wellbeing. If we have a worrying tendency, then we will become preoccupied with their troubles.

There is an expectation - absorbed by most members of a society - that people help each other. Such mutual aid is functional for the survival of social groups, and, in turn, for the benefit of individuals. Unfortunately, we humans have a tendency to escalate rational preferences into absolute demands, exaggerate the negative consequences of the demand not being met, and rate ourselves if we do not feel and behave as our demands tell us we 'should'. Sub-beliefs involved are usually along the lines of the following:

  • If people allowed themselves to be happy when others are sad, this would lead to uncaring individualism and the breakdown of society.
  • To be happy when someone is in difficulties would show that I didn't care.
  • It is wrong and uncaring to be happy when someone else is sad.
  • If I did, this would show that I was a callous person.
  • If others saw me being happy when someone is in difficulties, they would think badly of me, and I couldn't stand that.

The solution

The solution is to be concerned for others - but know that your emotions are separate to theirs. How would this show? Do what you can to help the other person - in the way of practical assistance and/or emotional support - but don't take on board their emotions.

There is a very useful principle that can help you here, called enlightened self-interest. Meaningful relationships are based on mutual self-interest (reciprocity). You give - in order to receive. You attend to others’ interests - because they will be encouraged to attend to yours. You consider not just what others have to offer you, but what you have to offer them - and vice-versa.

If you want help without having to give anything in return, see a professional counsellor. If you want to be a social worker yourself, go and get trained, then obtain a group of clients separate from your friends (professional counsellors know how to show empathy, warmth and respect toward their clients - without feeling their misery).

Otherwise, you help others as far as practical and appropriate. What constitutes appropriateness? When others want help (they may not always), and when what you give them is useful and not harmful to yourself. Becoming over-involved with their problems and their emotions is not usually helpful to others. Do you really think that it helps a person who feels depressed, anxious or guilty for you to become depressed, anxious or guilty also?

What is enlightened self-interest?

Enlightened self-interest refers to the ability to act in your own interests - while taking into account the interests of others:

  1. You place your own interests first.
  2. You keep in mind that your own interests will, usually, be best served if you take into account the interests of others.

Let us note two important facts about human beings. The first is that we are fundamentally self-interested. Notwithstanding any precepts that say we ‘should’ be otherwise, human beings appear to be intrinsically concerned first with their own welfare. Hans Selye, a key researcher in the field of stress management, has argued in his book Stress Without Distress (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1974) that the desire to maintain oneself and stay happy is the most ancient - and one of the most important - impulses that motivates living beings. All living beings protect their own interests first of all. Selye points out that this begins with our basic biological make-up, in that the various cells in our bodies only co-operate with each other to ensure their own survival.

The second fact to note is that as well as self-interest, we also possess social interest (or what Selye calls altruism) - the wish to ensure that the social system as a whole survives and develops.

How is that two apparently contradictory tendencies can co-exist? The answer is that we help others in order to help ourselves. In other words, our self-interest is enlightened.

It appears that like self-interest, social interest is also inherent within human beings - both have biological roots. Collaboration between body cells promotes the survival of each individual cell and enables the total organism to function.

In effect, individual interests are best served by mutual cooperation. Accordingly, self-interest without social interest is misguided. So is social interest without self-interest. Always putting others first leads to resentment or a martyr attitude. People who believe they are acting purely in the interests of others are dangerous. By denying (to themselves) that their own self-interest is involved, such people may justify all types of manipulative and controlling behaviour toward others.

You are both self-interested and socially-interested. This dual tendency is built in to your very being and begins with your basic biology. By accepting this about yourself, you will be able to do a better job of acting in your own interests - in an enlightened manner.

What is it to be ‘enlightened’? The word ‘enlightened’ has several related meanings. It is humanitarian - charitable, liberal, and idealistic; and at the same time utilitarian - useful, beneficial, and practical.

Can you see how merging an enlightened attitude with innate self-interest can apply at all levels - to yourself, to your family, to your town or city, to your country, and to the world as a whole? Consider the effect on this planet if every person acknowledged their self-interest and then practised it in an enlightened manner. What if every country based its external and foreign policies on the humanitarian and practical principle of enlightened self-interest?

Why enlightened self-interest is important to emotional health

If human beings did not have an inherent will to protect themselves and further their own interests, they would not survive. If you don’t attend to your own interests, who will? Knowing what is in your interests will help you get what is best for you and avoid what is harmful. It will keep you moving toward your goals - and ensure that your goals are the right ones for you.

But you had better simultaneously take into account the interests of others. Getting people to have positive feelings toward you is a good idea. They will be more likely to treat you well and less likely to harm you. Contributing to their welfare will encourage them to contribute to yours. And contributing to the development and survival of the society in which you live will mean a better environment in which to pursue your interests.

If you acknowledge that self-interest is inherent in your nature, you will feel less guilty about looking after yourself. If you acknowledge that altruistic behaviour is in your interests, you will be more likely to co-operate with others. If you do both, everyone gains.

Developing enlightened self-interest

Begin by practising enlightened behaviours, even though at first this will not come naturally. Here are some ideas to get you started now:

  • Go out of your way to show positive feelings towards others - gratitude, respect, trust - which in turn will arouse goodwill from them.
  • Choose some new activities in various life areas - work, family, leisure - that will bring goodwill.
  • At the same time, act assertively. Ask for what you want, say ‘No’ to what you don’t, and tell others (when appropriate) what you think and how you feel.
  • Make a point of doing something just for yourself each day for a while. This will be especially useful if someone in your environment is unhappy. You will show yourself that while you are concerned for them, having done what you can to assist, you are going to get on with your own life.

Until enlightened self-interest becomes part of you, consciously seek to get more of what you want while facilitating the interests of the other people in your world.

If you have trouble with guilt getting in the way of your unhappiness, use the technique of rational self-analysis to move yourself to rational concern.

Other helpful resources

Links within this programme

Further reading

  • Selye, Hans. Stress Without Distress. Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1974.


From over-involvement to appropriate helping

Change how you view others' problems, then you can help without joining in their unhappiness. Here is a new belief to help you:

'It is good to empathise with and help others, but I can’t change their problems and bad feelings by getting myself upset.'