How to End a Pattern of Unhealthy Sacrifice
Healthy sacrifice is a different story. To be happy in a relationship, you have to be willing to sacrifice fear for love, independence for intimacy, defenses for joy and resentment for forgiveness. To be successful at work, you have to be willing to sacrifice being in control to allow for innovation and sacrifice chronic busyness for genuine success. Healthy sacrifice helps you to let go of what does not really work in order to embrace what does work.
So, how much unhealthy sacrifice are you in right now? Sometimes the habit of unhealthy sacrifice is so unconscious we are the last to recognize it in ourselves. Would you be willing to give up unhealthy sacrifice so as to shift your life and experience greater joy, love and abundance?
Before you can begin to heal a pattern of unhealthy sacrifice, we must first identify your martyr profile. Here are ten common types, plus an exercise for letting go.
I’m afraid to be true to myself, even in my closest relationships.
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 with 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.
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.
I often end up being the caregiver in relationships.
"I've fallen in love with the most handsome man, and I want you to help me not turn into his mother," said Stella, a 36-year-old human resources director of a global company. Stella had had two previous long-term relationships. "Each time the big, strong man became a little, helpless boy," Stella said. "And the gorgeous, sexy woman [i.e., Stella] ended up in employment as a full-time carer." This was Stella's first serious relationship for six years and she didn't want to fall into a role again.
Roles in romantic relationships are usually a projection of roles first forged in childhood. When I asked Stella who was the martyr in her family, Stella replied quickly, "My mother, big time." If a family has one martyr in it, then unhealthy sacrifice is something everyone will have to deal with. Classically, everyone in the family tries to heal the martyr, and they usually end up in unhealthy sacrifice trying to do so. The authentic, unconditioned self is lost as you take on the job/role of being the helper, the good child, the peacemaker, the healer, the responsible one, the grown-up one, the hard worker, the strong one, the invisible one and the martyr.
Letting Go Exercise: Take a look at your family. Identify the roles everyone played when you were growing up, including you. Notice if you still play these roles in romance, with friends, in work and on your spiritual journey. Notice what this costs you. Playing a role leaves you feeling like a cardboard cutout of your real self. You feel flat and lifeless. You try to be positive, but really you feel removed, unappreciated and resentful. Remember this: Roles are self-appointed. No one said you must take on this role. If you are in a role, there must be a better way. It's time to make a new choice.
"I've met a new girl, and I think this time she could be the one," said Dan, a 34-year-old firefighter based in New York.
"You don't sound very happy," I said.
"I am very happy," Dan replied. "I'm also very scared."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because every time I commit to a girl, I end up giving too much," Dan said.
"Is that really true?" I asked.
"It feels true," Dan replied.
"Is the problem that you give too much, or is it that you give yourself away?" I asked.
The unhealthy sacrifices you have made in the past, it not healed, can put you off relationships for life. Or they can put you off taking the next step in commitment and intimacy in your current relationship. When you are in love, you recognize that love wants to give everything, totally, and there is no feeling of loss. However, when you are in unhealthy sacrifice, giving always feels like loss. Why is this? Well, partly it is because unhealthy sacrifice is an attempt to give without receiving. Also, unhealthy sacrifice is a covert operation of "giving in order to get" (e.g., "If I give myself away to you, you will keep me, won’t you?").
Letting Go Exercise: When you play the role of the "giver," you usually also end up playing "the loser." Inevitably, your relationships end up feeling one-sided. People seem to take more than they give. Your relationships seem to take a lot out of you. The first step in letting go of the role of "giver" is to inspect the role more closely. You may find, for instance, that "giving too much" hides feelings of unworthiness, a desire to please, a fear of rejection, wanting to be the one in control, a reluctance to receive and a lack of authentic presence and openness on your part.
I find it difficult to ask for what I really want.
"Whenever I need something from someone, I buy chocolate," said Carol, a 44-year-old schoolteacher.
"Why's that?" I asked.
"Chocolate never says no," Carol replied.
"How much chocolate do you eat?" I asked.
"A lot," Carol said.
Unhealthy sacrifice leads to dysfunctional independence. If you are a DIP—a Dysfunctionally Independent Person—you are trying to do your life all by yourself without help from anyone else. This is your way of declaring to the world: "I have no needs." Truthfully, you have plenty of needs; it's just that you suppress them. Why? Probably because you are trying to avoid a repeat of past disappointments when some of your needs were not met. Inevitably, you end up more needy than most, but you cover it up by being strong, being a giver, being cool, being independent, being cynical, being busy and being dishonest with yourself.
Letting Go Exercise: When you let go of your dysfunctional independence, you feel so much more alive, open and abundant. You also discover that asking for what you want is a chance for others to connect with you, to know you and to love you. Being willing to forgive and let go of old wounds helps you to move out of separation and unhealthy sacrifice. Now, instead of expecting people to read your mind and know what you need or want, you can actually tell them. Doing this feels emotionally risky, but it's a risk that's worth taking. Now you're ready for a real relationship.
"I hate birthdays," said Phil, a 38-year-old doctor from London.
"All birthdays?" I asked.
"God no! I love other people's birthdays," Phil said.
"You hate your own birthday," I said.
"I don't like the attention, and I don't like being given presents," Phil said.
"I love presents," I said, being a bit provocative.
"When someone gives me something I feel like I owe them, and I can't relax until I've paid them off," Phil said.
Unhealthy sacrifice promotes a kind of giving that blocks receiving. There are usually two underlying dynamics at work. The first dynamic is unworthiness. Your self-worth creates a personal allowance that judges how much you will let yourself receive from others. With especially low self-worth, receiving from others leaves you feeling indebted, obligated, owing and duty-bound to give back. The second dynamic is pride. And hidden beneath pride is competitiveness, superiority, egotism and other murky feelings. According to pride, to receive is unnecessary and to receive is to fail.
Letting Go Exercise: In my book Shift Happens!, I wrote a chapter saying there are no shortages, only a lack of willingness to receive. Being willing to receive starts with letting go of your fear of receiving. Complete the following statement 10 times: "One of my fears of receiving is..." After you have finished, look at each fear and discern for yourself if the fear is really true or if it is just a fear. At least 90 percent of fears are just fears that dissolve the moment you give them some attention. Next, make a decision to be a great receiver. Really! Make this your new affirmation: "I am becoming a great receiver."
I say yes when I really mean no.
"I drank too much coffee this morning," said Julia, a 40-year-old media executive, holding her hand over her heart.
"Why did you do that?" I asked.
"I ordered a small coffee, and they gave me a large coffee."
"Tell me more," I said.
"The barista recognized her mistake when she handed me the coffee. She said to me, 'This is a large one, but you ordered a small one, right?' I said yes, and she said, 'Are you okay with that?' And I said yes."
"But really you meant no," I said.
"In my language, yes means yes, and it can also mean no," Julia said.
"And then you drank all of the coffee," I said.
"Yes," Julia said.
Unhealthy sacrifice is inauthentic. It means you are not really being true to yourself. When you are not true to yourself, you get confused about what is real and unreal, what is important and not and what is a yes and what is a no. This lack of clarity in you creates pain and conflict in your relationships and your work. People don't know where they stand with you. You give out mixed messages. You are ambivalent. You try not to make decisions. You procrastinate. No one knows what you really feel or what you really want.
Letting Go Exercise: The desire to be more authentic, and to be more real with yourself and others, will help you to give up unhealthy sacrifice. One way to do this is to focus on the word "yes." Get out a pen and a blank piece of paper and write down on the top of the page: "My Sacred Yes." Now list everything that is a sacred yes for you, for your life, for your work and then for one important relationship (you can do it with other relationships later). The clearer you are about a sacred yes, the easier it will be to say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no.
"Hi, Robert. Sorry, but I can't make our session this afternoon. I'm too tired to get out of bed. I'm too tired to drive anywhere. I'm too tired to do anything. I'm taking a duvet day." That is a message left by my client Tina, a 41-year-old senior personnel manager.
Exhaustion forces you to stop, and above all it wants you to stop being in unhealthy sacrifice. Unhealthy sacrifice is exhausting: you lose touch with your original energy; you override your real feelings; you don't listen to your wisdom; and you end up feeling out of sync with yourself. More symptoms of unhealthy sacrifice include scattering yourself, wasting your energy, chronic busyness, overcrowding your schedule, feeling overstretched and overcommitting yourself. The last thing you want to do is let people down, but that is exactly what eventually happens.
Letting Go Exercise: Exhaustion is a sure sign that you are in sacrifice somewhere in your life. Exhaustion is an internal memo that is asking you to stop trying to do everything, for everyone, all the time. Exhaustion is telling you that you have to sacrifice what isn't important for what is. One of my favorite mantras is: "You can always do one thing less than you think you can." Yes, you'll probably feel a bit guilty about doing less, but the guilt will wear off fast if you hold your nerve. Be wise, be courageous, remember your sacred yes" and prioritize accordingly.
I find it difficult to put myself first.
Sian is a 42-year-old mother of two children under the age of 5 and also the vice president of a well-known global healthcare brand. She came to see me after her doctor had prescribed her antidepressants. Sian disagreed with her diagnosis. "I'm not depressed; I'm exhausted," she said. Sian told me about the challenges of her role at work combined with raising a young family. "I have no time for me," Sian said. "The only way I can get my haircut is to book a group appointment with my kids' hairdresser." My first task as Sian's coach was clear: to help Sian get a proper haircut!
Unhealthy sacrifice forces you to leave yourself out of your own life. You think something is missing in your life, and it is. What is missing is you. The real you. Every day you fill out your to-do list, and you are nowhere to be found on your own list. You make no space for you, no provision for you and no time for you. Be clear that this is you doing this to yourself. When you catch yourself saying, "I never have time to do what I want to do," what you are really saying is, "I don't take time for my needs." In truth, you are depriving yourself. Therefore, you are the solution.
Letting Go Exercise: "If I had but two loaves of bread, I would sell one and buy hyacinths, for they would feed my soul," said Prophet Muhammad. To heal unhealthy sacrifice, you have to be willing to let go of the habit of depriving yourself. Take a pen and paper and answer the following questions: "What feeds me?" "What inspires me?" and "What do I love?" Next, make a commitment to stop neglecting yourself and to treat yourself better. Everyone will benefit from you doing this. Life always gets better when you treat yourself better.
I had been coaching Emma, a 38-year-old lawyer, for nine months when she was offered a promotion to the board of her firm. This was the first time in the long history of this firm that a woman had been offered such a position. "I'm so happy, but I've decided not to accept," Emma told me. When I asked her why not, she told me, "I'm afraid the position will demand too much self-sacrifice." I agreed with her. And I told her that, "So long as it's healthy sacrifice rather than unhealthy sacrifice, you have nothing to fear."
The next level of success and happiness in your life, your work and your relationships does require sacrifice. Specifically, it requires you to sacrifice unhealthy sacrifice. In other words, you have to learn the difference between giving yourself away and giving more of yourself. You give yourself away when you are not true to yourself, when you play a role, when you don't ask for what you want, when you don't prioritize properly and when you deprive yourself. Remember: Whatever you try to achieve with unhealthy sacrifice can be achieved without it.
Letting Go Exercise: Success and happiness require you to let go of your unworthiness, to let go of your wounds, to let go of your defenses, to let go of your story and to let go of your ego. The more you let go, the more you inhabit your authentic, unconditioned self again. And now you are more present, more connected, more open and more able to give yourself without giving yourself away. The more grounded and centered you are in the truth of who you are, the better you understand that to give yourself simply means to be yourself, and in "being" there is never any loss.
Robert Holden, PhD, is the author of the best-selling books Happiness NOW!, Shift Happens!, Success Intelligence and others.