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I spent a lot of time when I was younger fighting against the label of being called selfish.
I was single, living on my own, and travelling to my heart’s content with money I earned from a career I had worked hard to have. Yet, I was unable to shake the hurtful feeling of hearing those closest to me, refer to me as being selfish. I didn’t think I was being selfish. But I needed their approval so much that I was willing to sacrifice my needs and prioritize theirs over mine.
What drives our tendency to prioritize the needs of others over our own, even if it is damaging to our health and well-being? Our compulsive self-sacrificing that constantly leaves the giving and receiving ratio completely off balance. We give more than we receive and despite all the “I am not getting anything out of this” conclusions, we never seem to be able to change the pattern.
The truth is, it is good to give and there is no doubt being caring and giving humans is great for our mental health. There are many payoffs for caring for others. We can feel purposeful and fulfilled knowing we are making a difference.
However, compulsive self-sacrificing is where the virtue of giving has become excessive. We feel overly responsible for the well-being of others. In most instances, it does not even have to be family or friends that we assist. It can be anyone who is experiencing distress, and we are acutely moved by their pain to want to fix things and make the situation better for them.
We do this out of our own choice, and nobody is holding a gun to our head forcing us to be so giving. But for some reason we feel compelled to please and save, everyone. We please even the stranger that we barely know. The saddest part in all this wholesome human goodness is that we never please ourselves.
We are so accommodating and eager to please that we are willing to put ourselves out, overextended ourselves, happy to help, and just do what makes others happy. In fact, we are the noble peace price winners on a daily basis. We just cannot say No to even unreasonable requests, and we wouldn’t dare ask people to change some of their annoying behavior no matter how annoying their behavior truly is.
At least, after all is said and done, we are still awesome humans serving others. We have the gift of being empathic and attentive to the needs of others. We may even find ourselves working in helping professions. But again, what we seem to be is inattentive to our own needs and wants, and our own rights are neglected. Our needs and rights seem unimportant because “others have it so much harder and tougher” than we do.
So, we are easygoing and do not want to appear difficult to anyone, as others have their plates too full. We want to give others what we never got enough of. We lose ourselves in others, in individuals, and even groups, and become heavily invested. We can dedicate all our time to causes and groups that we have no time for ourselves or things that are important to us.
Work is no different, paid or unpaid, we can self-sacrifice in this area especially if we spend more time in it or are in helping professions. We gain recognition here; we want to make a valuable contribution to other people’s suffering, and we want to provide the highest quality of giving to the vulnerable because it is the right thing to do.
So, we take on more when we are short-staffed, we do ungodly hours of work to show we are team players, we never take that lunch break because there is no time to eat. It is okay, we are superhuman. We can juggle family life, work life, and even our holidays are not restful because we are too busy making sure everyone’s comfortable and enjoying themselves.
Essentially, we work ourselves to the bone. Little rest, little help for ourselves, and little peace of mind. Compulsive self-sacrificers earn the right to burnout, to experience chronic fatigue, autoimmune diseases, and chronic medical conditions in extreme cases.
Addressing this compulsion in my own life has forced me to reflect on what drives this exhausting self-sacrificing behavior.
I think it is saturated and motivated by guilt.
>> Guilt for meeting our needs and feeling selfish because of it.
>> Guilt that others might not think we are really good.
>> Guilt for experiencing pleasure and joy while others suffer.
>> Guilt for not being able to fix things.
>> Guilt that others might be suffering or put out because we chose to cater to our needs.
>> Guilt for feeling anger when we realize that we are not able to change other people’s opinions of us no matter what we do.
>> Guilt that others will be so disappointed in us and may possibly reject us
>> Guilt for being seen as a failure as a father, a mother, a sibling, a daughter, a son, a partner, a friend, and a colleague.
>> Guilt for not being enough.
Instead of addressing the anger we feel, we put on our cranky pants and we do some things that can really piss others off, but they will never really know if we are trying to piss them off, as our halo of being good still shines brightly. We are not aggressive. We feel ashamed when we lose our sh*t. But the anger bubbles beneath the surface.
Our cranky behaviors are the passive-aggressive patterns we express instead of just prioritizing ourselves, guilt-free.
>> We pretend we don’t get their phone calls or messages.
>> We tell them we going to do something for them and procrastinate.
>> We b*tch about them behind their backs.
>> We cuss till the cows come home because we are so frustrated and hurt that others do not consider us and our needs and just want more.
>> We show up late to appointments with them to get back at them for standing us up the last time we went out of our way to make time to see them.
>> We lose our cool in big ways for things that are so small.
>> We do not even acknowledge we are angry, and we do nothing about the anger in the first place and deny it even exists.
>> We tell people what they are doing is okay with us when it actually isn’t.
>> We take to social media with memes and quotes hoping they will get the message that way.
>> We continue to do more until we collapse in a heap of despair and hope that when we are finally sick to death and in tears, others will feel sorry for us and tend to us the way we tend to them.
If only we could tolerate the guilt and give constructive voice to our anger and understand the importance of balancing between the needs of others and our own, maybe we could actually serve others and ourselves and create a life of balance for the better of us and those we serve.
These eight steps draw on the research in therapeutic interventions that serve to assist us in our journey of putting ourselves in the picture and no longer on the sidelines:
1. Having a strong sense of ourselves is a core aspect of being able to break the compulsion. ‘To thine own self be true” requires us to get in touch with who we really are under the mask of what we would like others to believe we are. When we are accepting of all of who we are, we can stop needing others to accept us. Our primary acceptance begins within.
2. We need to make a list of all the areas of our lives where we are willingly choosing to sacrifice our own needs to others.
3. Checking in with ourselves when we notice our passive-aggressive behavior. It is at these moments that we can hit the pause button and act assertively rather than the sugar-coated crap we spend most of our time investing in. We can tune into our own needs and wants and say it assertively, not sneakily, angrily, demandingly, or resentfully.
4. We can make a list of all the things we can do that are new ways of balancing the giving and receiving ratio in our lives. Learning to ask for what we want. Exercising our ability to speak up rather than keep quiet and go along with what others want.
5. I have found that asking myself questions in a mindful way can also assist.
“What am I getting from this relationship?”
“What can I ask of this person to get my needs met?”
“Can I ask for help when I need it?”
Reciprocal relationships can replenish us and allow us to be more balanced.
6. In relationships that are feeling one-sided or excessively selfish, we might need to step away, change our giving pattern, ask for things we need from them, or even end these relationships if they take more than they give. We cannot make people more giving by being the only ones who gives.
7. We can get mad but we do not need to get even. We can, in calm ways, tell people when they are being inappropriate or draining and even when they irritate us. Anger doesn’t have to be explosive and often, those who matter can tolerate us being upset with them.
8. We can take credit for the good things we do. We do not have to be meek and mild and humble sunflowers. We have strengths and abilities and we can feel proud, and we do want to be appreciated and valued for them.
The world needs awesome humans, but the world can do with less exhausted, guilt-ridden, and cranky human beings. If we can get the giving and receiving ratio balance in our lives right, we can give the world our awesomeness and allow others to grow in their awesomeness too. We cannot do all the giving. We cannot do all the receiving. The world grows and heals with balance.
Another excellent one by Giselle: 4 Mindful Choices for Getting Unstuck from our Emotional Sh*tstorms.
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