In our first coaching session, Claire, a 28-year-old classical pianist, told me, "I want you to help me prepare for a conversation I need to have with my parents." Claire grew up in a musical family. Her father was a well-known conductor. Her mother played first violin. "Classical music is a religion in our family," Claire said. Claire was an accomplished classical pianist. "I'm good at it, but my heart's not in it," she said. "I really want to play jazz. That's what my soul wants. But I'm afraid it's not what my parents want."
The story of sacrifice usually begins in the family. The primary sacrifice is a movement away from your authentic, unconditioned self to a more adapted, pleasing self. Early on, you notice what wins smiles, applause, approval and love, and also what doesn't. Being adaptive is normal and healthy, but too much of it can cause a pattern of unhealthy sacrifice later in life. The movement away from your authentic self to a pleasing self is a fall from grace that leaves you chasing happiness outside of you. Other symptoms include feeling unworthy, being afraid of rejection, always giving your power away and ultimately feeling unloved and unsuccessful.
Letting Go Exercise: Meditate on being true to yourself. First, ask: "What does being true to myself really mean?" Second, notice how good it feels to listen to your heart, to follow your joy, to trust yourself and to be authentic. Third, look at where you could be truer to yourself. Fourth, notice any fears that arise and question: "Are these fears true, or are they just fears?" Be willing to let go of being "good," "nice" and "pleasing" so that you can be real and so that people can see who you really are. Remember this: When you are true to yourself, you cannot betray anyone else.
I feel guilty if I am happy and others are not.
Lucy was 22 years old when we first met. She had fallen in love with a man she would eventually marry. "I'm in love, very happy, and I feel guilty as hell," Lucy said. Growing up, Lucy's father suffered from depression and alcoholism. He was occasionally violent toward her mother. "It was me who helped her to be strong enough to finally get divorced," Lucy said. Lucy's mother fell into two more abusive relationships. Each time, Lucy helped her mother untangle herself. "We bonded together through adversity," Lucy said, "and now I'm afraid that my happiness will somehow tear us apart."
Unhealthy sacrifice is often perpetuated by an erroneous fear that your happiness is selfish. If you believe this fear, then too much happiness will feel wrong, bad, illegal, blasphemous and harmful to others. Is this really true? Here's what I believe: You can't get depressed enough to make somebody happy; you can't get ill enough to make someone else well; you can't get poor enough to make somebody rich; and you can't betray your heart to save someone else.
Letting Go Exercise: To help you let go of the belief that sacrificing your happiness makes everyone else happier, make a list of all the people who are truly grateful for your self-sacrifice. This list should take you two seconds to complete! Next, consider this affirmation: "My happiness is my gift to others." Think about how this might be true for you. Reflect on how your happiness can help you to love others more. Letting go of the fear that your happiness is selfish creates new possibilities of growth and joy for everyone.
Next: Are you the caregiver in your relationships?