Is It Selflessness or Are You Losing Yourself?

Is It Selflessness or Are You Losing Yourself?

Nearly everyone can agree that empathy, selflessness, and compassion are inherently good qualities. These are important for individuals to feel seen and valued, and for relationships to thrive. The problem is, many apply false definitions to these qualities and use them in unhealthy dynamics. It becomes even more complicated when you are faced with a crisis with a loved one or are in a caretaking role. In fact, most times, unhealthy dynamics form as a result of feeling deep love and concern for someone else. This is why we must create distinction between true selfless love and codependent martyrdom.

As mentioned in many aspects of Solstice education - codependency is an unhealthy relationship dynamic that is addictive by nature. In a codependent relationship there are two parties that depend on each other for having their needs met. There is a lack of autonomy, accountability, boundaries, and sense of self. Further, Martyrdom is the act of voluntarily suffering death. In this case, it’s used as a metaphor as one who purposely makes themself suffer in the process of taking care of someone else. Here are some questions you can ask yourself if you’re unsure if you’re stuck in an unhealthy dynamic:

  • Am I feeling burnt out or drained frequently in this relationship?
  • Am I walking on eggshells with the person to try and please them?
  • Am I always the one responsible for taking care of everything?
  • Do I feel like I am allowed to ask for help?
  • Am I frequently feeling resentful or even angry towards the other person?
  • Am I able to draw out my responsibilities and their responsibilities clearly? If the responsibilities don’t feel even/fair, can I voice a need to adjust them?
  • Do I feel a sense of obligation?
  • Am I acting out of fear, shame, or insecurity in my relationships?
  • If I wasn’t around to do ____________________, would the other person be incapable?
  • Is it a part of my identity to be the caretaker? (ie - if I stopped playing this role would I feel lost/empty?)

If your answer to any of these above questions is “Yes” - a part of you is being neglected and you’re feeling it. 

The problem with the codependent caregiver (or martyr) is the abandonment of meeting one’s own needs. This person considers their own needs unimportant or less valuable than the other. This leads to a sense of “losing yourself” - losing your identity, feeling like an empty shell, or even feeling worthless over time. (Worthless because no one values you, not even yourself) This is not selflessness.

A big obstacle in this understanding is when someone has a religious background and feels a sense of moral obligation to be selfless… because it’s part of their religious code. Interestingly enough, most religions don’t actually define selflessness as “putting others’ needs above your own”. Rather, it’s defined as “not doing good works for the purpose of vanity or reward”. Or, “loving your neighbor as yourself”. Religious selflessness is to be a humble servant. But this does not mean that you have to neglect yourself in the process. It means you are allowed to love others and yourself. And self love simply means to value yourself, take care of yourself, and to honor your values and your strengths. 

In psychology, it’s an abundance principle. Your selfless acts are a result of you being whole. It’s an outpour of compassion, humility, and love because your cup is full. It’s both/and. You get to take care of yourself, and take care of others. But if you are taking care of yourself first, you do a better job in assisting others in a healthy way. You are less reactive and less prone to act out of scarcity. Additionally, when you prioritize your needs too, boundaries start to come into play. You have a better sense of what your limits are (such as - “I can’t financially support you because I have to pay my own bills and I don’t agree with how you spend your money”).  Boundaries and limits are non-negotiables in healthy relationships, where you get to draw lines in the sand and say “no”, “I can’t take that on”, or “this is your responsibility”. 

To further drive this home - Compassion without boundaries is actually selfish. When you start taking care of others without limits in place, it will start to become all about you:

  • How you are the only one who jumps in to help
  • How you are the one they always call on
  • How you are the one who does it best
  • How you feel if it doesn’t get done / How you feel if it does get done
  • How the person is never grateful for everything you do for them
  • How no one understands all the work you do

Etc. Etc.

When you’re stuck in this role, you’re losing yourself. Stop taking care of others at your own expense and playing the martyr role. You deserve better. There is more to you than how you can make others comfortable. You hold intrinsic value as a human being, and you get to nurture your physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual needs. When you prioritize that, you will be free to be the compassionate, humble, serving person that you long to be. It starts with setting boundaries, allowing yourself to have needs, being willing to ask for help, and taking care of yourself too.

If any of this resonates with you and you’re feeling stuck, it may be time to ask for help. Contact us at 949-200-7929 for our Southern California location or at 214-306-8447 for our Dallas, TX location for more information on treatment options.

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