Were you told as a kid that self-sacrifice is noble? Many of us were, even if it was indirect. For one, our culture tends to think of directly communicating our needs as aggressive, even if it's a key tool for setting boundaries and sustaining healthy relationships. Perhaps, though, you were taught that self-sacrifice is born out of a misguided caretaking impulse, one that might even be manipulative ...
So does self-sacrifice mean turning yourself into a martyr in a disguised attempt to get what you want? Both sound plausible — so which is accurate?
The answer is simple: It depends on the situation.
When self-sacrifice is loving:
The heroic narrative of self-sacrifice is actually true, as opposed to a myth, when it is born out of deep, genuine love. For instance, self-sacrifice is loving when ...
- You get up numerous times at night to feed and care for a crying infant, even when you are exhausted. You may be sacrificing sleep, but you are not sacrificing yourself: being loving is what you want to be and need to be in those moments, and you are rightfully taking responsibility for the child's well-being.
- You tend to an ill or disabled person because you care deeply for them, even when it's hard.
When self-sacrifice turns into martyrdom:
Your impulse to be self-sacrificing confuses itself with martyrdom when you fundamentally give yourself up and do what someone else wants you to do, in order to avoid their anger, withdrawal or disapproval. You may think on the surface that this isn't manipulative, but rather self-sabotaging. And strangely, both of those things can be true at once.
You have sex when you don't want to, you go to movies that you don't want to see, you spend time with someone when you don't want to, you listen to a talking addict go on and on when you are bored out of your mind, you listen to others complain on and on, you stay up late "processing" emotions with someone who has no intention of helping themselves, you take responsibility for others' feelings rather than for your own … and so on.
So how do you change? What do you do?
The answer: intent makes all the difference.
You may still feel a bit confused about the difference between these distinct self-sacrificing impulses. But the answer all comes down to one thing: intent.
When your intent is to love yourself enough to do what feels right inside — what is in your highest good — then self-sacrifice is noble and loving, both to yourself and to others. But when your intent is to control someone by giving yourself up in the hopes that the other person will love you (because you are not loving yourself) then self-sacrifice is anything and everything but loving and noble.
- When your intent is to love, then self-sacrifice is loving.
- When your intent is to control, then self-sacrifice is ultimately manipulative.
It is likely that all of us have done both. I was certainly sacrificing my sleep, my time and much of my freedom when I chose to be there for my babies, but since I was being true to myself, and to them, as dependent infants, it was loving to me and to them alike.
Other times in the past, I gave myself up to try to get love and approval, and avoid conflict and anger. It was a shock to me to discover that I wasn't being loving when I was sacrificing myself in this way. I was stunned to realize that I was being manipulative and controlling. Thankfully, I learned not to keep doing this.
Sometimes, it's hard to differentiate these impulses, as being honest with ourselves can be a tremendous hurdle. But there are certain questions that can help guide you to more clarity. For example, are you putting up with another's unloving behavior and sublimating your needs out of fear (of being alone, of anger, etc.) or is there a deeper reason? Do you connect with their soul and know that, with enough love, they will let go of their controlling behavior and open to love?
Sometimes, with enough love, we can hold the door open for another to walk through, but at other times we are hoping for something that will never come to pass. I have had both experiences, and I can tell you that self-sacrifice from fear and self-sacrifice from love feel very different inside. And with these different feelings, you will see very different results.
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