The Myth of Doing for Others

Welcome to Format Free Fridays at, the one day a week when I break the format of answering your questions and I dispense that which we rarely welcome in life: Unsolicited advice.

Today I want to talk about the concept of doing for others. I believe that everything we do, regardless of how selfless it may appear, is for self-interest.  In clinical language, we call this a secondary gain. The first gain is the obvious one:  You hold a door for someone and it appears as though it’s done exclusively for the other person.  The secondary gain refers to how holding that door for the other person made you feel, and it is my belief that the feeling that is triggered by the secondary gain is the main motivation in everything we do.

That’s not to say that our actions are never useful or helpful to others.  As a therapist, I witness how my actions help others, but I’m here to tell you that I’m in it for a payoff which has nothing to do with an exchange of money.  My job is rewarding.  I get a high when a client has a breakthrough, and it’s that feeling that drives me to build my skills every month; to raise the bar on my clinical standards.  The fact that my clients get better is nice, but my primary motivation is to feel the high I get from their breakthrough.

Now let’s talk about you.  You are always doing for yourself.  Every move you make, every word you say, is in reaction to a need you have.  Parents always tell me about the sacrifices they’re making for their children.  Parents, you are not sacrificing for your children.  Your children did not ask to be born.  You had children to fulfill a need in you.  Then you decided what type of lifestyle you wanted to live and you convinced yourself that you’re making sacrifices for your children’s welfare when in reality, your kids don’t give a shit how many video games your workaholism can buy them.  They’d rather have a happy, emotionally and spiritually balanced parent.  Your elderly parent feels the same way.  The care that you give your mother has a direct emotional correlation – either positively or in staying-off a negative emotion, on you.  When you visit your mother, you either feel good for the company you’ve provided her with or you feel good because you don’t feel the guilt that comes from not visiting her.  Either way, you do it for yourself.

I say this to you because I am always looking for additional ways in which we can take full responsibility for our lives.  It is only in doing so that we can heal emotionally and become the people we are meant to be.  As long as our pain and suffering is someone else’s fault or is a result circumstance, we remain victims and stagnate our growth. I invite you to note your actions, if only for today, and to begin reminding yourself that everything you do is for you – for a feeling you get in response to what you do.  Take this step and you won't regret it.