Sacrifice ≠ Love
One of my clients said this today in session, and this powerful insight is paving the way towards her healing, towards the freedom to feel peace within herself, and to finally allow and demand her own self worth.
I had to write those simple and beautiful words down, because even though most people might assume at first glance the statement as obvious and rational, ironically, it is not what many people, especially women, actually believe deep inside.
As young girls, we are taught to be kind, nurturing, and empathetic. All beautiful virtues to have as a human being. After all, I still believe in my favorite words from the beloved Thoreau- “would not the greatest miracle be to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” These words and my belief in empathy as one of our most powerful tools are actually part of what guided me to become a therapist.
But it took me awhile, even in my own life, to see that it was also important to allow myself that same courtesy of empathy. Just because you can understand another person’s perspective, whether it be your partner, a friend, a family member, a stranger— doesn’t mean that your perspective, your EXPERIENCE of a thing, then has to be brushed aside and dismissed.
Your voice matters. What you feel and desire matters. You have the right to say these things without fear of retribution, judgment or shame. How someone else feels about what YOU feel, is not actually YOUR problem. It’s theirs (and they are allowed to feel what they feel too). You are allowed to feel sick, tired, sad, unmotivated, irritated. You are allowed to want to be alone, or to not want to be sexual when you don’t want to. (I put this in here because the number of women who still have sex just to appease their partners is alarming and sad). You are allowed to be hungry for things that your own body craves. You are allowed to be interested or not interested in something. You are allowed to have an opinion. YOU are just as important as the person/people you are trying to please.
I understand that it feels good to make someone happy. We love that feeling of seeing a smile on a loved one’s face when we go along with what they want. I’m not suggesting you stop being kind. I’m suggesting you stop giving of yourself when you don’t actually have it to give. Especially when the cost is something that chips away at you. And even the kindest, most well meaning resilient souls can’t avoid the holes those chips create. If you’re doing it in a relationship, these chips slowly build into resentment, apathy, or loss of feeling connected to your partner. You might already know exactly what I am talking about.
So look for a minute at your own life. Your own relationships. What do you allow for the sake of your partner’s ease? What do you acquiesce to? The little things you think are harmless, you think are compromises for the sake of the relationship, they add up, and those little bits soon become a wall. Are you not expressing sadness, frustration, or some feeling you think might disrupt the state of things? Sift through your current situation- how do you cause yourself pain for the sake of being loved? Did your critic immediately retaliate with some rationale for this?
The woman who experienced this insight this morning was raised in an environment where appearance, attitude, grace, and handling everything with a smile on your face, never cause a problem or a stir, or bring any sort of negative attention to yourself, were the rules of living that now operate the voice of her inner critic. And just like the “rules” of the critic in your own head, they get in the way and wreak havoc on our self esteem, sense of peace, and even keep us from having authentic relationships, and authentic meaning in life. It is our responsibility to ourselves, to recognize that critical voice when it tries to shame you away from taking care of yourself. It is vital to recognize those moments when the critic tells you this other person’s feelings/ desires are more important than your own, and you acquiesce, hoping your sacrifice will be recognized somehow and will be paid back. The truth is, if you are never voicing your actual truth, the people you are sacrificing for will never actually learn what it is you really want, and will continue to expect this sacrificial behavior of you, not even seeing it as a sacrifice in the first place. Be true in your voice. From little to big. Stop saying you don’t care, and you don’t mind. What you want matters too. Ask yourself this question when faced with a decision— “is doing this thing going to cause me to resent this person? Even a little bit? Is it going to take away from me and make me feel worse, tired, or irritated? But if I just buck it up and stop complaining I’ll be ok?” If the answer is yes, try saying “no” to the thing, and yes to taking care of what you actually need in that moment.
All of this acknowledging your own feelings has a wonderful consequence by the way. You might be fearful that doing so and resisting your inner critic might turn you into a selfish monster, but the irony is, two beautiful things happen instead. One, by recognizing your own worth and valuing yourself, others will too. And two, when you stop hurting yourself in order to love others, you will actually end up feeling full of the love and energy you wanted to give in the first place.