Neglecting your Needs is Not a Sign of Strength: 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. I’ve said before on this blog, we used the term “martyr” liberally, and with harsh judgement. Anytime somebody did something that was in the vein of self-care, it was viewed as selfish and the person committing the act was made to feel as though they were inherently bad because of it.

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 is because we felt as though we were already giving everything we had to the other, so why would they need anything else. It makes sense in a way, but it is also monumentally unhealthy. And maybe also a sign of a 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 to be fulfilled and seldom were we happy to receive what was given. Looking back on it, the whole scenario 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 into 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 a consistent basis, then why were we still in the habit of doing for others?

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 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. In relation to how this frame of mind fits in with doing for each other, we always wanted to have something we could use to make the other person feel bad about themselves. Aka, emotional blackmail.

For example, “all the things I do for you and this is how you treat me?!” was very often the sentiment that was prevalent in our family. I’m not sure that we spoke those exact words often, but that was definitely the message being sent. No wonder there was so much resentment flowing so freely between us.

Why This 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.

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 and the woman takes care of the domestic needs; feeding, clothing, cleaning… 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.

This 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. I would complain about not having a voice in the relationship when we broke up, but I was secretly grateful that I didn’t have to accept that responsibility 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 in your stead.

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 doing something 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 who they are by either not doing or being enough and making sure they knew it. What we didn’t realize is, that this makes both parties feel worse and leads to feelings of resentment towards one another. 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 and present. Finding and confronting that fear is what will set you free from the cycles of using fear and judgements 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.

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 foster 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.

Wanting to Feel Superior by Doing More Than the Other

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

We did this, I believe, because we didn’t understand how to feel valued in relationships any other way. We didn’t even know how to relax without having three or four drinks first! Feeling valued in a relationship for who you 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 doing for the other, we’ll no longer be needed and our self worth would then cease to exist.

This is a sad, but terrifying place to be. I know I felt alone, isolated and without support. It’s no wonder we used each other the ways that we did. We built our relationships on a common fear of one another, all the while trying to feel loved and accepted by the same people we feared! Confusing for sure. So how do we untangle this mess? This mass of confusion?

It starts with understanding our own self worth, absent of the judgements of 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 make us feel about ourselves? Are they overly critical of us and others? When you speak about other people, is it usually negative? These are some clear indications that the relationship may need some tighter boundaries.

But you don’t have to completely abandon the relationship. It’s possible to take care of yourself while connecting with someone who is acting from a place of being judgemental due to a fear of being rejected. You just need to know when to step away from the relationship, to give yourself time to feel strong enough, to be confident enough in yourself again.

Because these cycles are easy to fall back into, it’s best to keep an eye on how you’re acting 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. From my experience, when I was acting from a place of fear in my relationships, 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. They just don’t know what they’re doing. And 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 patiences, try to stay open enough to be connected without draining yourself completely. And most likely you’re going to need to set the boundaries in these types of relationships. Because the other person is literally 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 relational boundaries. And always make sure that you’re taking care of yourself and respecting your own boundaries first. Otherwise we’re back at square one with giving too much of ourselves without reciprocation.

And Don’t Forget, be Kind : )

I know that for me, one of the traps I used to fall into was by belittling others so I could feel morally superior. And those that I surrounded myself with fell right in step with me. This is why 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 judgemental were some of the main foundations of my former relationships. In order to make the shift, I needed to be conscious of how I was speaking about others and also what I was thinking about them as well. Because being needlessly negative is a habit that gets stronger the more it is practiced. And it takes a great deal of willpower to recognize this habit as it’s happening and change its course.

So when old patterns of negative thoughts do come up, don’t try to block them out. Recognize that they are there and reality check them. I’ve also been making it a point to pick out the positive I see in either people or situations. 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 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, and thanks for reading : )

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

Finding Emotional Language in an Emotionless Family: What Happens When They are not Only Taboo, but Just Plain Feared

I was having breakfast with a friend a few days ago, and I found myself feeling very uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure why at first, but then it came to me after I had left the coffee shop to go for a walk in the woods. He was talking about vulnerability and how self compassion was different from self confidence. At the time, this seemed reasonable enough. His wife had just sent him an article about self-compassion and how it leads to success. But the language he was using was making me feel a little frightened.

This seemed strange to me. I often explore my own emotional states, why should talking about them bring up such a reaction? I tried searching my memories for other times I felt uncomfortable discussing emotionally charged topics and realized, I don’t talk about emotions, with my family at all, and friends very seldom. I was stunned.

Growing up in my family, we never spoke about how we were feeling, or how a certain situation had an affect on us. I actually only recently found out there was a difference between the words affect and effect! So it was no surprise that I was as uncomfortable as I was, my friend was speaking another language completely.

And I’m learning now looking back, that in my family emotions were something to be used, or manipulated to get something from someone. This bred distrust and fear of emotions, especially vulnerability. It was like opening a wound over and over again to get whatever was inside and leaving the person to bleed out. It was uncomfortable to say the least.

And with this type emotional practice between “loved ones”, it’s amazing that any of us were able to feel anything at all. We were all so hyper-vigilant about what the other person was going to say of or about us, that it was close to impossible to build trust and love in the relationship. Fear and resentment were bi-products of this type of environment. I also remember feeling like I was never adding up to their expectations.

So, in lieu of love and understanding, my family fell back on the old standby of drinking and other forms of distraction to numb the pain of not feeling accepted or belonging to the family as we were. Shopping was also another way we chose to numb. By fitting into whatever trend was popular, maybe we could feel the acceptance we were lacking from those closest to us.

Though neither method worked to ease the pain of not feeling belonging, drinking worked to make us mean. Something my family excelled at. Drinking was a way for us to turn off our “filters”, so we could say how we were feeling, but in a way that would make the other person feel as unloved and afraid as we had felt. And how we felt was cut apart. If you’ve ever seen a copy of Bacon’s “Man with Meat“, it was akin to feeling split wide, tender and vulnerable.

Shopping was a way to make us feel as though we had worth. As though fitting in with whatever trend was happening, and how we were seen by others, would compensate for our lack of feeling self worth, fostered by the ways we were treating each other and ourselves. It’s a wonder we were able to feel anything at all!

And as I’ve said in previous posts, I didn’t know what feelings were until my early thirties. A large part of that had to do with the traumatic events that happened to me, and there were plenty. This left me in emotional shock, but what is a life’s time worth of critical, cutting and mean natured remarks, intended to wound on impact, if not traumatic?

With this quality of relationship between family members, it’s no wonder that we were so afraid of ours, and others emotions! Why would you want to explore the areas of yourself that have been so thoroughly rejected, abused and manipulated, with so much prejudice by those who were supposed to love and support us? This is how I learned to abandon and neglect my emotional self.

Everytime I had an emotion that reminded me of the ways that I cared for my family, fear came up, front and center, and larger than life. This made it almost impossible to feel comfort or care for myself. Because anytime those feelings would come around, I would then be bowled over by fear for not feeling like I was worthy of self-care and love. But also, I had few memories of what it meant to feel loved by those who were supposed to show me how.

My job then, became learning the language of my emotions, especially those closest related to love and care, without knowing what they were. It was like trying to give shape and names to what was right in front of me, but hidden from my senses. It was maddening.

But I made the journey regardless of how difficult it seemed, having faith that things would work out. And I had a lot of help along the way, without which I don’t like to think about where I would be. But my journey began with giving up what Tara Brach calls, the false refuges. One of the biggest ones for me was drinking, because that’s when I was most self-destructive, mean spirited and critical of others.

I now have a beer with my Self-Care Sunday dinner, and once and a while when I’m out with friends. But the difference between now and then is, now I’ve set healthy boundaries with my drinking and I only have one or two. I also check in with how I’m feeling while drinking because my boundaries were so poor and self-destructive, that in a way, I need to regain some trust in myself to do the right thing when it comes to the areas of my life I had abandoned for so long, i.e. my emotional life.

And it was jarring. Reawakening to my emotional life was strange, scary, and at times just plane terrifying. And it took time. It wasn’t a one shot where I felt loving and gentle to myself and others, and never felt fear or re-lived past traumas again. It takes time. Because healing is a process. There’s a phrase in the meditation community that goes, “sit, stay, heal,” which encompasses this sentiment with accuracy.

Learning how to be patient with myself was probably the turning point for helping me to learn and give name to my emotional life. It was the one tool that helped me to allow the emotion to just be, without using something to push it away, long enough for me to give it name and know it’s presence. It was then that I was able to recognize them for the emotions they were, and not the fear provoking trauma they were attached to.

And finally, it taught me to go slow. Emotions can be overwhelming, so when in doubt, stand back and give yourself some space to see a little more clearly. So if you’re on your own healing journey, be kind and go slow. It takes time to learn to love again. Peace, and thanks for reading :]

Image Credits: “Closeup on the Linen Book/Mummy Wrappings of the Lost Etruscan Language” by Curious Expeditions is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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