- People with self-sacrifice schema feel responsible for other people’s pain and find it hard to tolerate without trying to fix it.
- Self-sacrifice schema comes from living in a situation of having too much responsibility before one's time.
- The difference between self-sacrifice schema and just being compassionate is healthy boundaries.
This is one part of the Schemas: An Introductory series of 18 posts covering each of the 18 schemas outlined originally by Jeffrey Young. Refer to this post for more background on the definition of schemas, which I call the "DNA” of your personality.
Do you feel bad about yourself when people you care about are hurting, even though it’s not your fault? We all feel empathy for others. But people with self-sacrifice schema feel responsible for other people’s pain and find it hard to tolerate without trying to fix it. You feel an intense need to make that pain or discomfort go away, and if you don’t, you can be hard on yourself—blaming yourself, criticizing yourself, and even demeaning yourself.
Causes of Self-Sacrifice Schema
Like all schemas, this one forms during childhood experience, as a way for the child to learn “the rules” of how life works in the family. Schemas are rooted in emotion and stay with us into adulthood.
Self-sacrifice schema comes from living in a situation of having too much responsibility before your time. As a child, you may have had to take care of an adult, such as a parent, who was coping with mental or physical challenges. These could range from serious incapacitating illness to a parent with depression, who always seemed too preoccupied to be present for you. The child’s logic of such a schema is moving and sad: “If I just take care of my parent, they will get better enough to take care of me.” That’s a huge burden for a child, and the stakes are high, because the belief is, “If I don’t take care of my parent, then they won’t be OK and it will be my fault!” You may not have explicitly said this to yourself as a kid, but it’s the logic of how your emotions worked at the time.
Over time, this schema starts to feel like an intense need to take care of others and feel responsible for them—like being there for others is a calling.
You may be familiar with subjugation schema, which is similar to self-sacrifice schema. The difference, though, is that with subjugation, the child felt deep fear or guilt around the caring relationship because the adult was being emotionally neglectful, manipulative, or abusive. With self-sacrifice, there is no open coercion; the child just wants to help. So, often adults with self-sacrifice schema don’t feel the anger or resentment that comes with subjugation schema. If anything, people with self-sacrifice schema just wish they could do more. They are never enough.
8 Signs You May Have Self-Sacrifice Schema
- You find other people’s emotional pain to be unbearable and feel a responsibility to help.
- You may have similar intense reactions to animals in distress.
- You feel guilty and selfish for having your own needs.
- You have a hard time saying no.
- You have a hard time talking about yourself.
- You get anxious when others try to help you.
- You’re realizing people take advantage of you but feel like you can’t address it.
- You feel chronically unfulfilled because your needs aren’t being met.
Coping With Self-Sacrifice Schema
You may be reading about self-sacrifice schema and thinking, “What’s wrong with having compassion for people and animals and wanting to help?” And the answer is: Nothing’s wrong with that! The difference between self-sacrifice schema and just being compassionate is healthy boundaries. When you have poor boundaries, the self-sacrifice behavior promotes an imbalance that leaves the helper suffering from self-neglect: tired, frustrated, and being taken advantage of by others. And this dynamic can lead to associating compassionate work with being unhappy and unfulfilled, which, in the end, helps few.
You may see this dynamic with individuals who work in nonprofits, health care, or psychotherapy. They find fulfillment from the compassionate work they do with their clients and patients but find they are in a system that takes advantage of that compassion, so they are compensated poorly, taken advantage of with their time, and driven to burnout. In the end, being part of such a system causes poor care for patients, drives good staff away, and degrades the helper's ability to help.
At a more personal level, self-sacrifice schema has an opportunity cost. By sacrificing your time and effort for others in ways that take away from yourself, you realize time is going by and you aren’t living the life you want to in key areas such as rest, hobbies, or personal fulfillment.
Most importantly, people with self-sacrifice schema are neglected at the level of emotional need:
- Are others supporting you enough?
- Are you receiving gratitude from others?
- Are you accepting emotional nurturing from others who treat you like your feelings are important?
You can overcome the limitations of self-sacrifice schema while sticking to your values and preserving your compassion. Here are five steps:
- Consider areas of life where you make sacrifices for others which make you feel good, but which others don’t really need. Try to limit them to provide yourself with more free time.
- Make a list of the things you would like to do in your life but keep putting off and then start planning ways to do them with the time you saved by using a planner.
- Remind yourself that you don’t need to sacrifice in order to receive love and be fulfilled. You deserve those things without being transactional.
- Journal about how you find meaning in life. Allow yourself the possibility that you can be a good person while also taking care of yourself and accepting care from others.
- Practice standing up for yourself when you believe you are being exploited or taken advantage of. Start small and work your way up.