The Baggage Breakdown (Part 3): Self-Sacrifice
So, maybe you are not the one who won't let your anger take over because of your traumatic event, and you also are not about to allow yourself to repeat your mistakes and self-sabotage. But then you say to yourself, "I won't stoop to their level," so instead you decide to "kill them with kindness" or be a better person in general. This angle of of course proves them wrong. They hurt a completely innocent person who still has the strength to rise above their abuse. This form of baggage might be the most deceiving of all because it doesn't seem like baggage at all. In fact it is said to be the kind of behavior we all should aspire to, and I would agree because it is the least overtly destructive. This is, in fact, the exact problem. It doesn't appear to be a problem until honestly examined, which means this behavior that hurts us and others can continue for our entire lives and never be confronted.
Being too nice
You might be thinking, "Really?! So being nice is a problem too?" What's wrong with rising above your past? To that I would say there is nothing wrong with rising above, it's when the focus is on competing with your past that it becomes problematic. You still give the power to the past when your primary motivation is to beat or fight against the past. This fight against our hurts is baggage we carry.
"So how exactly is being nice a problem?", you might ask. Well, have you ever met (or been) someone who was super giving, and super selfless, yet, somehow, you almost start to feel as if you or they were actually a selfish person? They would give you a gift, yet dictate how you were to use it, or offer to help you, but insist on doing it their way which actually was not that helpful to you? You may find yourself thinking, "how can this person be at once so kind, but also feel so selfish or inconsiderate?"
Often this has to with a person trying to manifest themselves as a giving person in order to feel relief from a feeling of inadequacy they have. They really want to be that good person, but they are doing it from a selfish place. Dealing with a person like this leaves you with a sense of confusion. Being this person, however, is even more confusing, because you are dealing with a sense of low self worth. You may feel like the only way to build is through giving to others or sacrificing yourself. You might now ask, how can a person give from a place of worthlessness? They can't! So, you will notice that in giving, they are seeking something from you; affirmation, gratitude, recognition, or actual return of favors. There is nothing inherently wrong with this in general; it is when it is extreme or excessive that you can start to see that this wounded person is lugging around heavy baggage.
Selfish selflessness (aka martyrdom)
The idea of this excessive selflessness is known in many circles as martyrdom. This selfish selflessness, or martyrdom, is sacrificing yourself for a purpose with the expectation of something direct or indirect in return. The martyr's behavior is fueled by the thought or premise that a person in need has not had their needs met because someone has not adequately contributed to, or sacrificed for their situation. The giver in this case hopes that through this sacrifice, they will receive satisfaction or gratification from the recipient's improvement or relief. The giver may have thoughts in this situation such as, "All this person really needs is a friend and they will get better," or, "No one has ever really been there for this person. They just need me to do this and everything will be ok," or even "I will do this for this person, because this sacrifice was never made for me".
Now, there are actual times where there is a genuine crisis taking place, and someone actually does need a friend for support, or a helping hand through a difficult transition or time, but in a lot of cases, there are a few issues with this selflessness. Firstly, we often ignore the other potential factors that may be contributing to the situation. Why is the person in this difficult situation? Why does she have no friends to speak to? Why does he need help paying the rent again? These are some things to watch for in order to discern between a crisis where intervention is genuinely helpful, or chronic poor decision making where our natural tendency to help may actually be enabling rather than empowering. A lot of times, giving in this case does not lead to the resolution of a problem, but simply the relief of a symptom. This is like taking Tylenol to relieve the pain of a headache, but if the cause is a brain tumor, then the problem has not at all been addressed.
Ulterior motives: Why are we really giving?
The second issue with this selflessness is not only do we ignore the other factors surrounding the issue of the recipient, we often ignore the surrounding issue of ourselves. What are the ulterior motives that may be satisfied by helping? It may not be as obvious as a financial gain or having someone "owe you," but there may be a personal satisfaction you may be trying to gain by helping in this case. Are you trying to prove to yourself or others that you are a nice or generous person? Are you trying to develop self-righteousness by doing the right thing? This is often where our baggage comes in, and this is why it's important to even ask yourself if the person is even asking for help! Inserting ourselves into situations, giving unsolicited advice, and other related behaviors are often a sign that we have some baggage surrounding a compulsion to help others, which in the end is often primarily suited to meeting our needs rather than theirs.
If you find yourself saying, "what kind of (parent/friend/spouse... etc) would I be if I allowed (insert person/situation) to go through this without my help?", you will notice the primary subject of this statement is about you or your role and worth in the situation, rather than the person who is experiencing the problem. This points out a problem. It points to a need to pause and reassess how your baggage might be causing more problems in life for you and for those around you.
Sometimes we are affected by moral obligations that cause us to view situations in black-and-white ways, which makes us ignore issues to our peril. From a mental health perspective, this is very unhealthy, as black and white thinking is a negative thought pattern that contributes to depression and anxiety. We can look at a situation and ask, "why was I treated so badly when trying to do the right thing?," or, "why do bad things always happen to me? I'm a good person." These thoughts, though they may be logical and understandable in a lot of situations, are a fast track to depression, and it goes back to this black-and-white thinking. But, what is the start of this thinking? Where do we get our baggage from that we must do the "right thing" in order to have good things come to us, or to keep people close, or to "save" others?
Throwing your life away
Do you know an excessive or compulsive giver? Are you this type of giver? What is the motivation? Is it felt that the only way you or they could possibly be worthy of love is through piles and piles of one sided giving and self-sacrifice? You see, in a lot of cases, you're only willing to give up your life (literally or proverbially) so easily because you do not consider it be of much value. How much do you esteem yourself if you are willing to give up years or months of your time to someone who may only consistently take from you or take you for granted? How much are you worth to yourself if you are willing to give up piles of hard earned money, time, or pieces of yourself to someone else's problem? Also, who will be there to take care of your own problems?
Now, please understand that this article in no way espouses stinginess or selfishness. What it does promote is balance. Give, but give freely. Give freely in the sense that you can help someone and hold no strings over them. If you do not think the way they are using your help is beneficial, stop helping if you cannot bear to watch. On the flip side, if someone is constantly helping you and simultaneously controlling or dictating you, you may not need their help anymore.
Now, these dynamics get further complicated by factors such as family being helpers or recipients, or cultural norms, but understand this:
You are not selling your identity or autonomy by receiving help, and you are not buying someone else's by giving help. Help is just that, HELP. Nothing more, nothing less.
Think back to your childhood, and to how you grew up. What experiences in your past gave you the feeling that if you sacrificed more of yourself, by giving more, listening more, caring more, behaving better, working harder etc. it will make everything better? Did you have a depressed, addicted or stressed parent that you cared for? What experiences gave you the sense that all you have to offer to others to have their friendship or companionship is to cut pieces of yourself and hand them over? Often, copious amounts of generosity, even of the completely unselfish variety, stems from a lower self-esteem. Sometimes we develop the belief that in order to gain the closeness of others, we need to give and give and give in order to get them to want to be around us and give us their attention.
The problem with caring (too much)
A common symptom that we may be doing this can be an obsession with caring. Have you ever had someone in your life constantly question or comment on your choices because they care? These may be concerns of a religious nature, or on any standard they deem is "the best way." There is usually a surprising ulterior motive here, which is to relieve their anxiety. You see, according to Sage Robbins, caring is worry based. Have you ever had someone you truly care about? A significant other, or a child in your life? You can obsess over their well-being! Will anybody hurt them? What if they get sick and die? Are they not calling me back because they're in an accident in a ditch on the highway? A byproduct of caring for someone is worrying about them. To an extent, this is normal, but in cases where we have significant anxiety, or obsessions/compulsions, we can apply pressure on others to make them behave in a way that soothes our anxieties. This may feel like a service because we are guiding them towards what is "best," but this behavior is actually selfishly motivated, because it prioritizes our comfort over another's personhood.
Is it worry or care because I fear my loved ones lack because I'm not doing enough? Am I worried about the vision of what caring for them would look like? Do I worry about looking like a bad parent, friend, partner, spouse, etc? Do I find myself worrying about security?
We often equate love with worry. Love is allowing someone to suffer in the short term for their long term benefit. How often do we spare them that necessary suffering in order to soothe ourselves? What necessary lessons and experiences are depriving our loved ones of in order to save ourselves from our own worries, fears, and anxieties?
What are you worth?
The old saying goes that if you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it's yours. If not, then it was never yours to begin with. Imagine how free you can be when you adapt this mindset to your relationships and friendships, understanding that you do not need to buy anyone's loyalty through acts of kindness, and that no one can buy yours, either. Take some time to reflect on your value and self-worth in your eyes. How healthy is your self-esteem? Does your belief system even allow for the idea of a healthy self-esteem, or are you pricked with guilt at the thought of valuing yourself higher than you currently do? In the answers to these questions are your next steps.
Some helpful questions to ask yourself to figure out is you may be negatively self-sacrifiicng:
- How many times have I helped this person with the same problem before?
- Did this person directly ask me for help and specify exactly how they needed my help?
- Are you willing to help indefinitely (is there a end point of your help in this situation)?
- Do I seem to find people "in need" of help in similar predicaments pretty regularly?
- Do I seem to have a constant string of "burnt bridges," with a story for each one?
- Is this an isolated event, like an illness, death, layoff, etc., or is this part of what may be a pattern?
- Is there professional service that I can recommend that could better help this person?
A key to joy in life is to give freely. But, you will only be able to give freely when you yourself are truly free, unencumbered by compulsions and baggage pushing you to give either what you don't have or can't afford within.
How to move forward
We've created resources designed to help you assess and begin to deal with this specific issue. We have a free community area that gives you access to guide sheets relating to the topics discussed in this blog. Check out our free community resource area to access downloadable PDF guide sheets for this blog and much more: