Humans are social species who have reciprocity baked into their psyche. Most people want to contribute to their society because doing so raises them in the eyes of others, thereby raising their self-esteem.
A society in which members contribute to each other survives and thrives, benefitting each member. It increases the cohesiveness of the group.
Humans are wired to increase the cohesiveness of their social group. They want to contribute as well as benefit from the contribution of others.
This contribution or altruism needs to be balanced with selfishness, though. One’s own survival and reproduction are of prime importance. When selfish needs are met, individuals next prefer helping their kin.
Helping your genetically close relatives means helping your genes. After that, individuals worry about helping their broader community.
What makes someone a burden?
Some degree of reciprocity exists in all human relationships. Humans don’t want to help if they’re not helped.
When we get more than we give, we feel like a burden to others who give us more than they receive from us. We feel like a burden because the principle of reciprocity gets violated.
Any situation where we take more from others than we deserve or incur unnecessary costs on them can give rise to the feeling of being a burden. People can feel they’re a burden to their:
Some people feel like they’re a burden to everyone around them. They feel like they’re overly dependent on those around them.
Specific reasons for feeling like a burden include:
- Being financially dependent on others
- Being emotionally reliant on others
- Suffering from mental health issues
- Dumping your problems on others
- Letting others down
- Bringing shame to others
- Being stuck in a bad habit (addiction)
We all need care and support from our loved ones, but there comes a point where our need for their support crosses a line and violates reciprocity.
As long as we support them back, we don’t feel like a burden. When all we do is seek their support without supporting them back, we feel like a burden.
Feeling like a burden leads to feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and shame.1
These negative emotions motivate us to stop violating reciprocity and rebalance our relationships.
There’s a subtle difference between feeling like a burden without really being a burden and feeling like a burden because you are being a burden.
In the former case, feeling like a burden could be all in your head. You may think you’re violating reciprocity, but the helper is glad to help you because they like you. Or because they care about maintaining a relationship with you.
Feeling like a burden and suicidality
What does a society that wants to survive and thrive do to its non-productive members? If these non-contributing members are cheaters, i.e., they take without giving anything, society punishes them.
If these non-contributing members want to give but can’t, society can’t punish them. That would be an injustice. But they’re still a burden to society. So evolution had to figure out a way to make them eliminate themselves.
Feeling like a burden can thus lead to suicidal ideation. If you’re not contributing anything to your group, you’re wasting the group’s resources. Resources that the other members could expend on themselves to survive and thrive.2
The person who feels like a burden and is contemplating suicide tends to think others might be better off if they end their life.
Some groups in society are particularly vulnerable to feeling like a burden, such as:
- The elderly
- Those with disability
- Those with a terminal illness
Studies have shown that when people with an advanced illness feel like a burden, they express their desire to hasten death.3
How to stop feeling like a burden
Feeling like a burden is a sign of high social intelligence. You’re violating reciprocity and incurring costs on others. You’re sensitive and considerate of them enough not to be a burden.
They probably see you as a burden too but have enough social grace not to say it to you.
At the same time, feeling like a burden can have drastic negative consequences. When you feel like your mere existence is a burden to others, you see ceasing to exist as a viable option.
The best way to stop feeling like a burden is to restore the sense of reciprocity.
The mind has an availability bias, meaning we tend to focus more on what’s happening now, ignoring what has happened or what could happen.
Just because you’re dependent on them now doesn’t mean you’ve always been dependent on them. If you can recall the times you helped them, it will help you restore reciprocity.4
On the same note, once you stop being dependent on them, you can always return their favor in the future.
If you’re an elderly or a sick person, I’m sure there are ways you could still contribute and feel worthy. You could share your wisdom, for instance. Even having a hearty conversation with someone is a contribution.
There are countless examples of people who managed to contribute to the world despite their disabilities. Stephen Hawking and Helen Keller come to mind.
If you cared for your loved ones when they were sick, you aren’t violating reciprocity. They ought to help you without you feeling like a burden.
My point is that it’s easy to get fooled by our evolutionary programming into thinking that we can’t contribute and are a burden to others.
Pay attention to those in your circle who feel like a burden and help them see the light. You might save a life.
- Gorvin, L., & Brown, D. (2012). The psychology of feeling like a burden: A review of the literature. Social Psychology Review, 14(1), 28-41.
- Van Orden, K. A., Lynam, M. E., Hollar, D., & Joiner, T. E. (2006). Perceived burdensomeness as an indicator of suicidal symptoms. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 30(4), 457-467.
- Rodríguez‐Prat, A., Balaguer, A., Crespo, I., & Monforte‐Royo, C. (2019). Feeling like a burden to others and the wish to hasten death in patients with advanced illness: A systematic review. Bioethics, 33(4), 411-420.
- McPherson, C. J., Wilson, K. G., Chyurlia, L., & Leclerc, C. (2010). The balance of give and take in caregiver–partner relationships: An examination of self-perceived burden, relationship equity, and quality of life from the perspective of care recipients following stroke. Rehabilitation Psychology, 55(2), 194.