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How To Overcome Self-Sacrifice and Take Charge of Your Emotional Wellbeing.

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

If you’re feeling burnt out, exhausted, running on empty, or resentful, these words are for you. Most days in my practice as a Clinical Psychologist and Couples Therapist, I meet several individuals who are suffering from emotional fatigue. Whilst everyone is impacted, it is more often women that present to me with these feelings. The root of these feelings is what we refer to as self-sacrificing: giving more to others than to yourself because of an ingrained belief that others needs are more important than your own. We don’t want to upset our partner, relative, or friend by saying ‘no’ or prioritising our wellbeing, because we have been conditioned to believe that taking care of others is a core part of being a good human being.

We may have watched our mother before us give tirelessly and over-extend herself, or we may have been shamed for not being there for another in a time of need. I can still remember the day that I said “I can’t today” when listening to a friend in distress, and how their reaction induced incredible guilt within me. I said ‘no’ that day due to my own emotional burn out at the time. There are so many powerful messages that we have all received at different times about our duty to care for others. Think about your own childhood and what your family taught you about duty and responsibility to others, or consider if you were praised for self-sacrificing behaviours. This messaging to self-sacrifice and prioritise the needs of others is often complicated by the fact that many of us serve in giving roles: midwives, nurses, teachers, doctors, therapists, carers, parents, grandparents, and partners. It is an expectation to care for and prioritise others. Burn out is incredibly prevalent in these professions and caring roles. And of course there are times in life, when self-sacrifice is a requirement. However, there are times when it isn’t a requirement at all, but has become an unconscious way of being.

If you’d like to reduce your self-sacrificing tendencies, start by trying to bring some awareness to your feelings of resentment and burn out, and then understanding the roots of your self-sacrifice. And if this is something you’d like to shift in your life because it is no longer serving you, then read on for some helpful suggestions:

1. Know who you truly are: as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised that I’m really an introvert at heart. This means that I get my energy from alone time to self-reflect, and when I do connect with others, I prefer conversations that have depth and vulnerability rather than superficial chit-chat. As such, I allow for one social event on the weekend at most. It allows me to conserve my energy and work at my best.

2. Have standards for people in your life: I choose friends where there is a reciprocal generosity of care and sharing, who respect my boundaries, and do the work. Whilst, I’m up for listening to a good friend vent, I also expect any one in my life with emotional issues to address them. I can’t be a therapist off the clock.

3. Listen to your body: my mentor has taught me that self-care is more than doing things for yourself. Bubble baths, alone time, and taking pleasure in a good cup of coffee helps, but self-care means tuning into your body as a regular practice. Try a daily check in with your body, notice your energy levels, tension, sleep patterns and mood.

4. Giving to others should feel purposeful and energising: If my work is feeling purposeful and energising then I know I am on track with the balance of giving and receiving; however, if I start to feel tense and resentment, I need to slow down and question this. Do explore the balance of giving and receiving in your life, and ask if anything needs to shift.

5. Remember your worth is not in how much you do or give to others: it is enough that you are here and express your authentic self each day. In a healthy relationship we are loved for who we are (funny, wise, loving) not what we do for another.

6. Stop being your own worst enemy: sometimes self-sacrificers struggle deeply, but no one can see beneath the tough or hyper-independent exterior. Practice being vulnerable and ask for help. This is something I have had to work on with my partner because I can’t expect him to read my mind. Ask and you may be pleasantly surprised.

7. Learn to say ‘no’ and set limits on your giving: remember that you don’t have to over-explain or justify your ‘no’. How you are feeling is enough of a reason. Your needs matter just as much as anyone else’s do.

8. Empower others: remember that saying ‘no’ to someone may facilitate them taking action in their own life and ultimately empower them. Each individual is responsible for managing their own emotional pain.

9. Practice empathy: your kind words, rather than actions are most helpful to another. So rather than jumping in to solve someone’s dilemma, start with a “Gosh! That sounds like you’ve got heaps on your plate right now, no wonder you’re feeling stressed”.

10. Ignore or reframe the words of your ‘inner critic’: it would be normal to feel guilt and berate yourself for saying ‘no’ to another in need. Remind yourself of the origins of the ‘inner critic’ (such as your family’s belief system) and why you need to stop sacrificing. Your emotional wellbeing matters! The expression “wear your own oxygen mask first” helps me a lot. If you’re on a plane and in trouble, you always help yourself first. For me, to continue offering the best care to others, I must prioritise myself.

And if you’d like help or support in your journey of understanding or ending self-sacrifice, consider speaking to a skilled therapist or mental health professional. We are often self-sacrificers ourselves, so you likely be working with someone who has had to shift this pattern in their own lives. Burn out caused by self-sacrificing can take a long time to remedy, and deserves your attention now. I often see individuals needing time off work and an extended break to truly recover. This is why I hope for a future generation of empowered women that value themselves, listen to their bodies, and prioritise their emotional wellbeing because this will allow them to achieve their purpose. And that is good for us all.

Phoebe is a Clinical Psychologist, Couples Therapist, and Dating and Relationship Coach who practices in Sydney. She has also had her own journey in healing from self-sacrifice. She lives with her partner and puppy and enjoys her alone time.

This piece was written for all women, and features on Eat Nourish Glow, where Emma Lisa's mission is to support as many women and mothers as she can to take back control of their health! You can read more here:


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