What Happens When We Confuse Self-Sacrifice for Caring

For as long as I can remember, it’s been common practice for my family members to act as though any favor or deed, no matter how small, was an unconscionable burden to be born and a great sacrifice. I’ve said before on this blog, we used the term “martyr” liberally and with harsh judgement. Anytime somebody did something that was akin to self-care, it was viewed as selfish. And the person committing the act was made to feel as though they were inherently bad and selfish.

Sacrificing Our Resources for Those Who Didn’t Ask for Them

From what I’m able tell, and since no one in our family ever spoke about how they were feeling was, that we felt resentment for other people doing for themselves. This was due to feeling as though we were already giving everything we had to the other, so why would they need anything else. Wasn’t that enough? It makes sense in a way, but it is also unhealthy. And also a sign of codependent relationship.

And even though we were doing for one another, there was never a sense of feeling grateful for what was being done. It was almost always viewed as an obligation. And seldom were we happy to receive what was being given. Looking back on it, the whole exchange seems so strange. Who wouldn’t be happy to have a loved one do something for them? Or the chance to make someone close to you happy?

Fear & Resentment in Our Relational Ties

From what I can tell, there was a fair amount of resentment tied to the experience of giving and receiving between us. And one thing is for certain, resentment will erode most all bonds in any relationship. So if we were all so unhappy with one another, on such a consistent basis, then why were we still doing for each other?

I’m not entirely sure to be honest. But I’m going to take a few guesses at what our motivations were. Duty was a big one. We felt as though we had to. Because if we didn’t, our very belonging was in question. The fear of not belonging was quite possibly the one constant in all of our connections. There was a lot of validation happening, with rancorous overtones. We were willing to say pretty much anything if we thought it would make us look better than, or to, somebody else. No matter how mean spirited it was.

Also, self-righteousness was another trait that was in abundance. Making ourselves look good at the expense of somebody else was a lesson I learned very early on. We always wanted to have something we could use to make the other person feel bad about themselves. AKA, emotional blackmail.

A good example of this is something I felt often, “all the things I do for you and this is how you treat me?!” I’m not sure that we spoke those exact words, but that was definitely the unspoken message being sent. No wonder there was so much resentment flowing so freely between us.

Why Resentment Leads to Codependent Relationships

The ways we were treating our relational connections were unhealthy. One of the hallmarks of this way of being was by abandoning our needs altogether, to take care of those of another. We then expected the same in return from the other person. The reason for this was, because we were never taught how to take care of ourselves. Or because we were told we were selfish for doing so.

It wasn’t until very recently that I even understood what self-care is. And even more recently since I’ve begun practicing it. But these were not values taught in my family. The values that were taught in their place were, the man takes care of the woman by making money and providing for her. And the woman takes care of the domestic needs, feeding, clothing, cleaning, including the man. There was a whole host of life skills that, as a man in my family, I was just never taught.

And anything outside of these constraints was considered to go against the natural order of what it means to be a family, according to our unspoken rules. But really it was just a thin covering to veil the deep-seated fear of having to take responsibility for our own lives. The fear was of not being strong enough to live this life on our own. So we needed somebody else to do it for us.

Choosing a Partner to Resent

This, sadly, was true for me in the relationships that I chose to be in. I was usually with another who would make all the decisions in our “shared” decision making. When I spoke about past relationships, I would complain about not having a voice in our relationship, and how it led to us braking up. But I was secretly grateful that I didn’t have to accept the responsibility of living my life as my own. I was a coward in that regard. Life is most definitely not for the faint of heart. And what I’ve learned from my experience is, that there will almost always be someone to pick up those reigns for you, if you let them.

So if we’re so used to neglecting ourselves for the sake of another, or because we just don’t want the responsibility of living our own lives, how do we take control of our lives again? For me, following the fear has been a helpful guide to understanding what I’ve been running from.

Self-Sacrifice: Pros & Cons

Self-sacrifice isn’t always a bad thing. If done with good intention and knowing how to recharge afterwards, it can be a rewarding experience. But done to often and without concern for your own emotional needs, it can leave you depleted, empty. The latter was what was most common in my family. And led to unhealthy ways of relating to one another. The following are some of the lessons I’ve learned from the unhealthy ways we would sacrifice ourselves in the name of taking care of each other.

Emotional Blackmail

As I’ve said above, if somebody was sacrificing themselves for somebody else in my family, there was usually a catch. This is where emotional blackmail enters the equation. We were constantly trying to feel better about ourselves by making the other person feel bad for taking our sacrifice for granted and not doing or being enough. And also, making sure they knew how we felt about it. What we didn’t realize was, that this makes both people feel worse. This leads to feelings of resentment towards one another. And trying to control each other using guilt and fear, only breeds more guilt and fear. No surprises here.

This is a difficult habit to break though. Because you have to feel through the fear of what’s keeping your need for control so strong. Finding and confronting that fear is what will set you free from the cycles of using fear and judgement to control and manipulate others. What triggered my fear was, feeling as though I wasn’t worthy of somebody else’s time, love or efforts.

Reality Check Your Fears

For me, love and acceptance was constantly being held just out of reach, over my head. So when I start to feel as though I’m not worthy of love and attention, fear sets in. This is where I need to reality check my thoughts and beliefs. Because the fear is usually coming from a very young place of feeling rejected, and I will want to act in unhealthy ways in order to feel belonging.

Now I’m able to take stock of the caring and loving relationships I’ve built and fostered with those closest to me. I remind myself that I can choose to build and keep healthy relationships. Instead of relying on a set of caregivers to provide all my relational needs for me. As was the case when I was a child.

Using Self-Sacrifice to Feel Superior

This was another way we held love back from each other. The more we did for one another, the more we sacrificed, the more material we had to use to feel as though we were better than the other. Because we were being so “selfless” in our sacrifice by not asking for anything in return. But what we hadn’t realized was, that we were expecting something. The feeling of superiority over the other, at the expense of somebody else feeling emotionally indebted to us, because of our sacrifice. Because we never asked for reciprocation, we just made the other feel as though their emotional needs were a burden to us. A part of our sacrifice to the other.

We did this, I believe, because we didn’t understand how to feel valued in relationships any other way. We didn’t know how to feel relaxed around each other without having three or four drinks first! Feeling valued in our relationships for who we are, might as well have been a trig course while we were still trying to figure out basic addition. And again, fear was behind our motivations. If we stop sacrificing ourselves for the other, we thought we’d no longer be needed. And therefore, our self worth would cease to exist.

This is a sad and terrifying place to be. I know I felt alone, isolated and without value. It’s no wonder we used each other the ways that we did. We built our relationships on a common fear of one another not needing us anymore, all the while trying to feel loved and accepted by the same people we feared would leave us. Confusing for sure. So how do we untangle this mess? This mass of confusion?

Finding Self Worth

It starts with understanding our own self worth, absent of the judgements from others. Your value as a person, is not contingent on somebody else’s good regard. When we understand this, then we can take a look at the relationships we’ve been keeping. How do those we keep closest to us make us feel about ourselves? Are they overly critical of us and others? When you speak about other people, is it usually a negative conversation? These are some indications that our relationship may need some tighter boundaries.

But you don’t have to completely abandon your relationships either. It’s possible to take care of yourself, while connecting with someone who is acting from a place of being judgmental. You just need to know when to step away from the relationship. To give yourself time to feel strong and confident enough in yourself and in the relationship. Not giving in to the judgments we used to connect to others with.

Not Falling Back into the Cycles of Petty Judgments

Because these cycles are easy to fall back into, it’s best to keep an eye on how you are being in the relationship, while interacting with these types of people. So as not to pick up where you left off. But try not to close off completely to them either. From my experience, when I was acting from a fearful place, when I would sacrifice myself to gain acceptance, I didn’t even realize I had an effect on others. I was so concerned about how I was being seen, that I was self-absorbed to the point of being oblivious to the hurtful things I was doing and saying.

This may also be the case with others who seem to be self absorbed as well. Maybe they just don’t know what they’re doing. That doesn’t change the fact that what they do can still be hurtful. But it helps to know that it’s most likely not out of malicious intent. So if you have the patience, try to stay open enough to be connected, but without draining yourself completely. And don’t forget to set boundaries with these types of relationships too. Because the other person is most likely incapable of seeing how they are abusing yours.

And don’t forget, it’s not your job to “save” or “fix” the other person. Whether or not they change is up to them, and is in no way within our control. The best we can do is lead by example and by setting and sticking to healthy boundaries in our relationships. And always make sure that you’re taking care of yourself first. Otherwise we’re back at square one. Where we sacrifice too much of ourselves, without reciprocation.

And Don’t Forget, be Kind : )

For me, one of the traps I used to fall into was belittling others so I could feel morally superior. And those that I surrounded myself with followed suit. So if we’re looking to make the change from finding belonging by demeaning others to feeling inherent self worth, we need to be kind. To ourselves and others.

Being petty and judgmental were some of the main foundations of my former relationships. In order to make the shift to kindness, I needed to be conscious of how I was speaking to and about others. And also what I was thinking about them as well. Because being needlessly negative to fit in is a habit that gets stronger the more we practice it. And it takes a great deal of willpower to recognize this habit as it’s happening, and to change its course.

So when old patterns of negative thoughts come up, don’t try to block them. Recognize that they are there and reality check them. Are you thinking this way because it’s how you used to fit in? Or maybe it’s a stroke of bad luck that you’re in a difficult situation. Make sure you’re not just defaulting to negativity out of old habit.

Actively Seek the Good

I’ve also been making it a point to pick out the positive I see in either people or situations too. In hopes that the more I practice this habit, the stronger it will become. And this doesn’t mean I’m being nice to cover over the discomfort of the negative thoughts that do come up. This can turn into denial if left unchecked. Rather allow both negative and positive thoughts to coexist, but choose to practice the positive.

I hope this has been helpful in some way. Making positive changes in our life isn’t always easy. But if you’re looking, you can usually find help and support when you need it. I hope this has been both. And as always, peace & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Ritual Sacrifice of the Gummulate Tribe!” by Grizdave is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Updated: 11/24/22

Author: nolabelsliving

Social worker by day, blogger by night. I have a lot of lived experience which is why I started my blog. I was not given any direction when I started out on my journey, but have been blessed with some amazing support and guidance along the way. Just want to give back a little of what I've received : )

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