Have you ever noticed how it is often the case that those of us who are dedicated to helping others often do so at our own expense?
We’re so passionate about our cause or the people we support that we often forget to spend enough time on (or choose to not prioritize) our own self-care. And our health suffers as a result.
It’s certainly a pattern that I know intimately myself, even verging on martyrdom in the past. I also see it in my work with clients all the time, and witness it in many of the friends I have in activist circles and among the “conscious crowd.” I’ve found it to be so common, in fact, that I’ve playfully come to call this the Bodhisattva Syndrome.
In the Buddhist tradition, a Bodhisattva is someone who gives his or her life to compassionate service to reduce the suffering of all sentient beings. The term Bodhisattva Syndrome is my way to point to how, in our earnest desire to serve and benefit others, we often sacrifice ourselves in ways that are counterproductive to our intentions.
Self-sacrifice and martyrdom are well reinforced culturally even amongst the most conscious and self-aware leaders and teachers. While these attributes can be very beneficial in many respects, when it comes to our own health, they are often counterproductive.
It honestly breaks my heart to see how entrenched these beliefs and behavior patterns can be. Take my client, Amy, for example. Amy is forty-five years old, married, with two children ages five and ten, and lives in Portland, Oregon, where she has her own business as a life coach. In her words:
“I spend my days supporting others in making choices to create lives they love, and I pour out all of this energy to nurture my kids as they blossom into the unique people that they are, but I feel completely lost. I feel like I should know by now how to find my way back and that I shouldn’t be feeling like I do. Who am I to be miserable and exhausted when I have so much to be grateful for? It’s crazy, right? You know it feels kind of selfish, but recently I’ve found myself thinking, ‘what about me?’”
Amy’s story doesn’t sound crazy to me at all. It is heart wrenching and, sadly, very familiar. I hear so many stories just like Amy’s, from clients, friends and loved ones—so much so that it feels like an epidemic is happening.
On the outside, things look great—a beautiful family, a loving relationship, a fulfilling career of serving and helping others. And yet at a deeper, more foundational level there is something missing—something that would allow Amy, or any of us, to feel alive, vital and thriving.
I can say from my personal and professional experience that that elusive something is directly connected to how we care for ourselves.
If we exclude ourselves from our own circle of care, we shortchange not only our own health and well-being, but also those we want to care for most. My client, Amy, like so many people I know, was finding herself spiraling down and away from her own sense of thriving with such momentum that it felt impossible to reverse. There’s nothing sustainable about this, nor does it benefit her kids, loved ones, clients, or community.
How valuable and helpful are her gifts if she runs herself into the ground trying to offer them?
While some might feel that Bodhisattva Syndrome is unavoidable, I disagree. I know that it is possible to become Bodhisattvas who do not forsake ourselves. We can include our own welfare in our service to life—whether it be as parents, in our work, how we show up with friends or the ways in which we volunteer in our communities.
I’ve found that best way to disentangle ourselves from the Bodhisattva Syndrome is to recognize and embrace the fact that our health isn’t just about us.
The way that I see it, true service is rooted in nourishing our own body and being, stewarding ourselves toward the most alive, vital version that we can be. That enables us to unleash our unique creative offering on the world. And it all feeds back—we will come more alive and feel more vital, both in offering our unique gifts, and in supporting our unique expressions to flourish.
I know this personally in experiencing the alignment that has happened in my life, and I see it all the time with my clients.
It is possible to shift a classic case of the Bodhisattva Syndrome in which we give everything to others and lose contact with our own well-being. We can turn toward ourselves, and find a way to serve and give back that does not conflict with our self-care, but, in fact, nourishes us more and more deeply.
Author: Dr. Deborah Zucker
Apprentice Editor: Mercedes Trujillo / Editor: Renée Picard