The Self-Sacrifice Schema
For years I was a people pleaser – not wanting to hurt other people’s feelings, not wanting to appear selfish or mean.
It wasn’t that I was submissive in any way. In fact, I was quite outspoken and would voraciously stand up for the rights of others and myself, especially if I thought there was some kind of injustice being perpetrated.
I’m not sure I was even seen as a people pleaser – I certainly didn’t really consider myself to be one. I just ‘liked’ doing things for other people. I liked listening to people’s problems. I liked being the person people could turn to for help. I liked ‘fixing’ people and helping them to solve their problems.
I think I was always on some kind of mission to ‘save’ someone.
What I didn’t realise back then was the person that needed saving was actually me
Often, when we spend our time overly focused on other people, it's not necessarily out of altruism it’s more likely because of a deeply wired pattern in our brain called the Self-Sacrifice Schema.
This schema develops when we grow up in a home where the primary care-givers are unable to take care of us or themselves very well. They might have been physically or mentally unwell, struggling with addictions or overworked and stressed.
As a result, we end up taking on adult responsibilities at an early age – perhaps looking after younger siblings, cooking and cleaning because no one else is going to do it, or emotionally supporting the adults in the family – propping them up – sometimes literally - and listening to their problems, trying to make them feel better and their lives easier.
When we grow up in an environment like this, there is no space for our own feelings and needs, so without even realizing it, we start to ignore them or suppress them. We never really explore what we want out of life, what interests us or what we feel and need.
Our brain starts to wire around focusing on others. Our sense of purpose and meaning is tied up with our role as care-taker; our self-worth attached to how much we are needed. We develop a heightened sensitivity to other people's feelings and needs and our identity is built around being 'good', 'kind' 'selfless', 'a rock' or 'a trouper'.
Over time, the way we think and act becomes so deeply wired into the automatic subconscious part of the brain that it feels like this is who we are.
Our ‘personality’ traits include:
- Feeling responsible for other people.
- Never saying ‘no’ to people in need.
- Going above and beyond the call of duty.
- Listening to others and rarely talking about ourselves.
- Constantly giving advice and suggestions.
- Feeling guilty if we can’t help someone.
- Trying to fix and rescue people not as ‘strong’ as we are.
For years we can happily continue like this but eventually, self-sacrifice takes its toll.
One of the first things we tend to experience is an underlying emptiness and dissatisfaction with life that feels like depression or shows up as a lack of energy and lethargy. It feels like something is missing – and there is, it’s YOU. YOUR feelings and needs – who you are at the core - have been ignored for so long.
We also start to experience a lot of emotional difficulties, which is quite alien to a self-sacrificer. When our emotional needs go unmet – we are biologically programmed to experience uncomfortable emotions such as stress, anger, sadness, frustration and loneliness.
But we have learnt to suppress these from our conscious awareness – we have been so busy ‘doing’ that we never really feel. The thing is – these emotions don’t go away, they build up until there is nowhere left for them to go but out.
As we start to feel more and more exhausted, empty, and dissatisfied, we start to feel resentful of people taking up our time and not showing appreciation for the things that we’ve done for them. And this resentment rubs against our ‘values’ of selflessness, service, loyalty and generosity – producing a level of guilt that’s difficult to bear.
We just don’t know what to do with this emotional pile up and we start to experience anxiety and confusion. We become depleted - stuck in an emotional swamp and we don’t know where to turn for help. Asking for help has never been our forte. It just feels too - well - needy.
Self-Sacrifice will eventually erode your physical health.
Dr Gabor Mate – an expert in the field of stress and disease has this to say.
Emotional stress is a major cause of physical illness, from cancer to autoimmune conditions and many other chronic diseases. The brain and body systems that process emotions are intimately connected with the hormonal apparatus, the nervous system and in particular the immune system.
If any of this resonates with you, you very likely have the self-sacrifice schema.
It’s initially hard to let go of at first -as it feels so wrong to think about what YOU need. But let go you must.