Altruism or Bust: When Giving Your All Leaves You High and Dry

10.11.2016 Life
Leah Arnold-Smeets
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I used to think my happiness came from making others happy. If you were broken, I was your saving grace… no matter the cost.

What I didn’t know then was that I suffered from textbook “broken wing syndrome.” I would find someone who needed help, and would take it upon myself to do everything in my power to make that person whole again– even if it cost me everything. My mission was to restore the person, and I definitely wasn’t going to fail. I would obsessively fill up everyone else’s “cup” to the point where theirs were overflowing and mine was bone dry. I also neglected to notice one very important thing: I was draining myself of my own happiness and wellbeing in the process.

Some people are altruistic because it feels good; others do it because they feel they need to– I was an unhealthy mixture of both. I was altruistic because it felt good, and because it made me feel wanted and needed by others. I gave so much that I became addicted to it, without even realizing it.

I was addicted to the feeling I had when I was mending the wounds of these “helpless babes” and nurturing them back to health. What I didn’t realize was that my selfless acts of rescuing, healing, and strengthening my “besties” was my own way of compensating for some pretty deep-seeded wounds of my own. I threw myself into fanatical altruism because I didn’t feel as though I was deserving of the same level of wholeness and love that I was trying so desperately to give to everyone else.

And how’d this obsessive-compulsive selflessness work out for me in the end? In short, it didn’t… at all.

I ended up sacrificing my happiness, finances, energy, career, and life for people I felt were deserving of my help at the time. However, in the end, it was I who was left feeling abandoned, betrayed, and empty after I healed my “birdies” and they all flew away when they were whole again.

For years I pinned the blame on the people that I “healed”– people whom I once considered my close friends. Once they left or our lives diverged, I convinced myself that they were the ones who were to blame for my pain, not me. The memories of the relationship may have faded, but the pain definitely remained.  

I wasn’t truly able to see the situation for what it really was: me overextending myself without regard for my own needs or boundaries. I didn’t truly understand the importance of taking care of myself before others, because it simply didn’t come naturally to me at all. All that changed when I was on a plane waiting to fly halfway across the globe to start a new life and career in Dubai.

It was probably one of the most uncertain, frightening, and exhilarating times of my life. I packed up my life to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to manage an interior design and architecture firm in Dubai– and, mind you, I was 24 at the time. As I was sitting in the plane listening to the flight attendant cite the usual inflight safety announcement (and actually paying attention to it for once), she mentioned the bit about passengers securing their own oxygen masks first before helping others with theirs. For years, I’ve never once wondered why that was the protocol. All I knew was it sounded weird to me for as long as I could remember, because my natural instinct would be to, without a doubt, help someone else with their mask before I secured my own.

Then, the flight attendant cheekily said, “… because you can’t help someone else, if you’re passed out, now can you?” That’s when a light bulb went off in my head. I was so busy securing other people’s hypothetical oxygen masks that I didn’t realize I was slowly killing myself by not paying attention to my own oxygen supply. I was the one to blame for overextending myself.

Over the years, I’ve learned that there’s nothing wrong with being altruistic, I just needed to take a step back and ensure that I took care of my own happiness and wellbeing first, before extending myself to others. In doing so, it helped me establish boundaries with myself and with others, so that I am now able to develop healthy friendships that aren’t so one-sided and imbalanced.


Learning how to love and care for myself wasn’t easy, and it definitely didn’t come naturally– but it’s been one of the most positive changes in my life. Here are some of the ways I practice self-love in my everyday life:

1 | Meditation— Every night I take as much or as little time that I have free to sit and quiet my thoughts and stresses. I’m definitely no meditation guru, but the simple act of being still and present allows me to reflect on life and gain clarity on situations that may be imbalanced.

2 | Yoga– The reason I love yoga is because it allows me to challenge myself in a way that strengthens me emotionally, physically, and spiritually. As with meditation, yoga also helps me gain clarity in life… especially when I sweat it out in a Bikram yoga class.

3 | Me time– I used to think it was selfish to take time out for myself because that was time I could be spending healing someone else. However, dedicating time to filling up my own cup has helped me understand and appreciate what I need and want in life and in relationships. Whether it’s a trip to get a mani/pedi, or five minutes to scroll through my Instagram feed, I make it a point every day to do something I want to do.

4 | Gratitude– As you’re probably well aware of, life isn’t always rainbows and butterflies, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find the silver lining when life is getting the better of you. When life deals me a crap hand, I’ve found that jotting down what I’m grateful helps me focus on what’s important in life, rather than what’s going wrong.

5 | Boundaries– As weird as it sounds, establishing boundaries has been one of the most liberating and beneficial things I’ve done for myself. Now, when I extend myself to someone else, depending on how responsive/appreciative that person is or isn’t, I have the right to adjust my boundaries accordingly thereafter. Although, true altruism isn’t about getting something in return, it’s also not about being taken for granted or being taken advantage of, either. Understand your limitations.

6 | Balance– Relationships should never be one-sided, so it’s important to figure out what the natural balance of each individual relationship looks like and maintain it. Healthy relationships can become imbalanced every once in awhile, but they usually correct themselves naturally. I’ve come to see that if I’m the only one doing all the work to salvage a relationship, then maybe it’s not worth it in the first place.

7 | Acceptance– One of the most valuable things I’ve learned in my life is that, while not every relationship is intended to last a lifetime, each one holds a valuable lesson that helps us become the people we’re destined to be. Knowing this has helped me accept that some people come and go in my life and some people stay forever, so it’s okay when relationships drift apart and each person goes their own way. If the relationship is truly meant to be, then it’ll find it’s way back to you both at the right time down the road.

I wish I knew then what I know now because I’d be a very different person– or maybe I wouldn’t. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty in life, so who knows? Looking back, I now see that each relationship that faded out served its purpose and ended up being a valuable lesson learned, and, for that, I am forever grateful. Today, being altruistic isn’t so uncertain and risky for me anymore, because I have a better understanding and appreciation of myself and my boundaries.

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