Why Do We Put Others Before Ourselves?
Published on 15th July, 2020 by Janna Lim
Kim is married and lives away from her parents. She often worries about their well-being. She would always answer their calls and comply to their requests despite her busy work schedule. Kim also has two other siblings but she is the only one accompanying her parents to their medical appointments. She feels that it is her duty to care for her parents and does not voice out when her siblings push most of the responsibility for caregiving to her. Kim also wants to provide and give the best to her teenage son. When he expressed his wish for a family trip to Europe after a major examination, she sold her car and used the proceeds from the sale to pay for the holiday. Even though Kim is constantly worn out and fatigued because she busy caring for others, she finds it a challenge to say ‘no’ to others. She also wonders at times if she is experiencing depression.
Kim is relatively extreme example of a self-sacrificing person, or a self-sacrificer. A self-sacrificer possesses virtuous traits, such as dependable, altruistic and patient. However, being a self-sacrificer also has its drawbacks. The self-sacrificer may get burnt out, and feel isolated and frustrated in their efforts to meet other people’s needs. Tan and Carfagnini (2008) highlighted that women who adopted self-sacrificing attitudes in intimate relationships possess increased risk of experiencing higher levels of depression.
Although the prevalence of self-sacrificers in Singapore is unknown, a study by Stalmeisters and Brannigan (2011) found that 25% of individuals in a non-clinical sample in the United Kingdom possessed significant levels of self-sacrificing attitudes. It will not be surprising if the rates of self-sacrificers is higher in Singapore, where the culture is collectivistic in nature.
Signs you are self-sacrificing
• Feeling overwhelmed or burnt out doing things for others
• Constantly taking responsibility
• Forgetting to look after yourself
• Wanting to solve other people’s problems
• Having trouble delegating work/chores
• Constantly trying to be helpful to others
You may also refer to this article discussing the signs that you may benefit from a mental health break
Reasons you sacrifice your needs for others
If you are a self-sacrificer, you are likely to be aware that you are being overwhelmed with responsibilities. Self-sacrificers who had attempted to break away from their self-sacrificing behaviours may find it challenging to do so. This is because the need to put the needs of others before your own lies deeper than just wanting to be helpful.
1. Learnt to sacrifice in your social role(s)
Growing up, you may be forced by circumstances to step up and take care of other family members. This could be because there were chronic illnesses in the family, or your parents weren’t around to take care of you. During the period of hardship, you had to work at an early age to put food on the table, or stayed in to look after siblings. Through these life experiences, you learnt to be responsible and to put others’ needs before your own (Young et al., 2003).
As sacrificing might have helped the situation in the past, it is challenging for you to start putting your needs before others even after circumstances have changed and your loved ones are able to care for themselves. (Young et al., 2003).
2. To feel good
You do good to others, to feel good. Helping others leads to an enhanced wellbeing, a sense of pride, and increased trust between people (Spitzmuller, & Dyne, 2013). For Kim, being there for her parents provides a form of reassurance that she is a good daughter. The praise she gets from her parents, the compliments she receives from her friends leads Kim to feel good about herself. It is also common for self-sacrificers to feel guilty when they put their own needs first.
3. Passive communication style
You can’t say no. Giving in and compromising seems like a good solution because you don’t want to aggravate the situation. Or worse, there is fear that others might get angry or leave you if you are deemed to ‘not do your part’. For example, it is easier for Kim in the short-term to agree to her siblings request for her to accompany their parents for their medical appointments or to give in to her son’s demands instead of risking their anger or disappointment. Self sacrificers often hold themselves up to high standards which could cause them to believe that others expect the same of them. Feelings of guilt or selfishness could surface if those standards are not maintained. Hence, voluntarily sacrificing needs and wants enables avoidance of conflict with others.
In addition, constantly being compliant may reinforce the message that you are able to cope with handling the tasks at hand. Those around you could continue assume that you are able to handle it, leaving you feeling frustrated and even putting you at a risk of depression.
What can you do to care appropriately for yourself and others?
1. Know what you want
Tune into your feelings and gain awareness of what you want. Even though helping out your parents might seem like a good deed, you also have your own needs and tasks to complete. Assess the short and long term consequences if you do decide to help out. Your needs, goals, wants, aspirations deserve to be met too.
There is no shame in getting sufficient rest for yourself or working hard for a promotion. You may also pause and examine the origins of your self-sacrificing attitudes. You may assess how the situation has changed now and tell yourself that it is ok to meet your needs.
2. Set boundaries
Identify your physical and emotional limits, consider how much you can tolerate and accept from peers, family members, colleagues, friends and loved ones. Reflect on past experiences where there were feelings of discomfort, hurt, anger or frustration. These unpleasant emotions could be cues that the other party is violating a boundary. With that being said, boundaries are not permanent and likely evolve over time. Your own needs and wants change with you. Hence, redefine and update your boundaries with each experience faced.
Putting yourself first is a sign of respect that you do not need to feel guilty for. Affirming your boundaries is an act of protecting your needs and feelings. It allows you to recharge and achieve your own goals, building on your identity. After all, it is only when we are energised, can we be a better partner, daughter, husband et cetera.
3. Be assertive and say “no thanks”
Being assertive does not mean that you are rude to others. Be honest with those around you and communicate your boundaries in a respectful manner. One simple way to do so is by saying “No, thank you” or “No, it’s not possible for me”. This may be followed by a short explanation of your reasons, especially if others ask you why. Practice by saying no in simple situations before saying ‘no’ in more challenging situations. It will gets easier with time. For example, Kim may ask her parents to call her siblings instead if they need help with simple tasks before she starts requesting for her siblings to do their part in accompanying their parents for their medical appointments.
4. Let others be independent (within their means)
By constantly trying to meet the needs of the loved ones for them, you are enabling dependency in them. Especially for your children, they may not see the need to be independent if they know you are going to be there to provide and protect them.
Your loved ones are actually stronger and more capable than you think. Allowing them to face hardship and perform tasks themselves would enable them to mature and develop essential life skills. Kim’s son may learn the importance of financial security or working hard to obtain what he wants if Kim was honest with him about her financial situations. Her siblings would also learn to manage their time better and know that they have a part to play in caring for their parents. This is not to say that you should throw your loved ones into the deep end by simply letting go suddenly. Rather, ease them into independence. Start by letting them do simple tasks, and gradually let them take ownership over their projects or problems.
Self sacrificers are often highly empathic and caring individuals. However, putting others before yourself leads to your own needs and wants not being fulfilled. It is important that you set your boundaries to ensure your physical and mental health.
It will be difficult at the start- trying to be more assertive and seeing others trying to cope with the responsibilities that you had performed in the past. However, it is important that you strike and maintain a healthy balance in helping others and ensuring that your own needs are met. Remember are not losing significance in the family if you allow others to be be independent. Self-sacrifice does not have to be the answer to show your value and contribution (Dugas et al., 2016). There are other ways to show care that do not entail sacrificing your needs. Stepping up was a role that was internalised in the past and the present is the time for you to be kinder to yourself.
Dugas, M., Bélanger, J. J., Moyano, M., Schumpe, B. M., Kruglanski, A. W., Gelfand, M. J., . . . Nociti, N. (2016). The quest for significance motivates self-sacrifice. Motivation Science, 2(1), 15-32. https://doi.org/10.1037/mot0000030
Spitzmuller, M., & Dyne, L. V. (2013). Proactive and reactive helping: Contrasting the positive consequences of different forms of helping. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 34(4), 560-580. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.1848
Stalmeisters, D., & Brannigan, C. (2011). A preliminary exploration into the prevalence of early maladaptive schemas in a group of people with myalgic encephalomyelitis/ chronic fatigue syndrome. Counselling Psychology Review, 26(1), 34-42.
Tan, J., & Carfagnini, B. (2008). Self-silencing, anger and depressive symptoms in women: Implications for prevention and intervention. Journal of prevention & intervention in the community, 35(2), 5-18.
Young, J. E., Klosko, J. S., & Weishaar, M. E. (2003). Schema therapy: A practitioner's guide. The Guilford Press.