The tragic myth of self-sacrifice

Loving mind

Sree Mitra

March 4, 2024

Author: Dr. Steve Hickman

“Don’t be selfish!” I’m 64 years old and my mother is no longer around, but when I hear those words in my head (or spoken by others) I still feel a little shudder of shame or guilt. Mom (and many others) have exhorted me to think of others first for all my life, and frankly, it’s not a bad lesson for us to learn early.

But that important lesson also tends to cast a long and ominous shadow on an equally important lesson: “Take good care of yourself!” Somehow we learn an implicit connection between these two lessons as if they are a seesaw. If one is up, the other is down. If you take care of yourself then you are being selfish, and if you are concerned about the welfare of others, then you must sacrifice yourself. In the end, it feels like a choice and we hear a very clear message that the more important thing is to care for others and “sacrifice yourself.”

To complicate matters, some of us get extra messages that self-sacrifice is actually “baked in” to who we are. Specifically, women are often raised in many cultures to be the primary caregivers and learn the very clear message that their needs are secondary to the children, partners, parents, students, and patients under their care. Many women labor their entire lives with this myth, and pay the price in so many tragic ways. There is, of course, reward in self-sacrifice, but the penalties are often huge.

How is this impacting us?

The impact of this false dichotomy ranges from the benign to the malignant. On the lighter end of the spectrum I have memories of my former mother-in-law (whose husband once wrote and submitted her letter of resignation for her when she agreed to marry him and bear his children!) serving dinner to the whole family and then scraping the last of the food from the bottom of the dish for herself.

On the darker side, there is the devastating burnout and accompanying depression, anxiety and health effects of caring too much, for too many, for too long (whether as a mother, wife, doctor, teacher or daughter). Caregivers of all sorts (more predominantly female in most cases) have higher risks of illness, psychological disorders and death than their non-caregiving counterparts. These risks mean that the term “self-sacrifice” isn’t simply a metaphor for the typically female role, it has actually become quite literal as people sacrifice themselves (and their lives) in huge numbers in the service of others.

And even if the stress in your life is not primarily revolving around the care of others, the same myth (that caring for ourselves is somehow less important or a sign that we are selfish) gets in the way of us being able to properly give ourselves what we need – to grow, to thrive, to endure and to achieve. By inhibiting ourselves to not appear selfish, we make it harder for us to achieve our goals and pursue our dreams.

What can be done?

The solution here is not to swing the pendulum in the other direction and stop caring for those who need our care (which is both cruel and impossible) or selfishly pursue our dreams without considering the needs of those around us. Instead, we begin by recognizing that it is not an either-or proposition, but instead a both-and opportunity to care for others without losing ourselves in the bargain.

Asking yourself “What do I need at this moment?” is the fundamental question that can shift the inner conversation toward self-compassion and self-care, and is akin to following the flight attendant’s guidance to put the oxygen mask on yourself, so that you can then assist the child traveling with you. By meeting your own human needs, you make yourself stronger and more resilient and ultimately MORE able to provide love and care to others as well.

It will require a lot of practice, but the results are worth it

Don’t get me wrong: while this is a simple idea and practice, it is not an easy one at first. If you’ve had a lifetime of self-sacrifice, shame and self-criticism, when you start to identify and pursue what you most need, it will feel at first like self-indulgence and you may hear those echoing voices that I mentioned I hear sometimes, telling me not to be selfish. But little by little, with patience and persistence, you will discover that inner voice that whispers now but needs to be listened to. This is the voice of your core values, your deepest wishes and your true self.

There are many resources available to support anyone in developing greater capacity for self-compassion (start with the non-profit Center for Mindful Self-Compassion for ideas). It’s not easy, but it’s well worth the effort, and research suggests that people who are more self-compassionate are actually seen as more kind and caring to others, tend to try harder and persist longer at valued goals, and make important changes in their behavior (like quitting smoking, changing diet, increasing exercise, and others activities of greater well-being).

Let go of self-sacrifice in favor of self-compassion, and you will find that you and everyone around you will benefit from the shift.

  1. Cozette Haley says:

    I came across this and I have to say I felt a bit sad and encouraged to keep doing the work of self-compassion. I am 71, and come from a well conditioned and mind patterned Hispanic family. I continually am walking gently with my self as I curiously look at the mis-beliefs, meanings and patterning developed through out my raising. I’ve had a whole life of this and a now choosing a kinder walk in my life.

  2. LouAnne Foley says:

    I read it. Spot on! I’m better now, but I can fall into old habits easily. The problem is definitely worth contemplation and effort to overcome.

    P.S. well written, Steve!

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