Humans are a social species where survival and wellbeing depend upon cohesion with the social group. People are programmed from a young age to see that when they do bad or are bad according to the social group, their survival and needs are threatened. The only way to survive and to get one’s needs met is to do and be good according to the social group. These opinions about rightness and goodness become morals and ethics, which exist as a way for people to keep social order. From the very get go, we are trained to be good for the sake of our own survival and wellbeing. And it becomes rather ironic because we begin to engage in what would seemingly be self-less and altruistic behavior for purely self-centered reasons. Self-sacrifice is considered to be a human virtue. It is considered to be the ultimate act of selfless altruism. But what if self-sacrifice was in fact self-centered?
A basic definition of self-sacrifice is the giving up of one’s own best interests for the sake of someone or something else’s. This is where we run into a problem right here. It is not actually possible to give up your own best interests. People only think it is. Therefore, there is actually no such thing as self-sacrifice. It is only possible to be more or less inclusive of the wellbeing of others by taking their best interests as a part of your own best interests. When you do this, acting in their best interests becomes self-serving and does not feel like you are giving yourself up in any way. For example, a person who takes the best interests of a cause as a part of their own best interests will act in the best interests of that cause, even putting his or her own life on the line and not see or feel that as a sacrifice because they ARE acting in their own best interests by doing so. In other words, the minute you take someone or something’s best interests as a part of your own, there is no giving up of your own best interests when you act in theirs.
We think it is possible to give up our own best interests because we are taught as children that to be good, we must give up what we want or need for what our parents and siblings want and need. We are rewarded for doing so and conversely punished for being selfish. But even when we do this as a child, we are actually doing this for the sake of our own self-preservation and to get closeness and approval from them, so even that is a self-centered act of prioritization. So basically because we believe it is wrong to be self-motivated, we can’t see or admit to the self-motivation behind our altruism.
The only reason anyone does anything is because they think it will make them feel better if they do it. This is not bad. This does not mean that the entire universe is narcissistic. The truth of this universe is oneness. So the most enlightened being will be moved towards acts of altruism because they experience all things in the world as themselves. In a universe that is one, you could say that every act is self-centered because there is nothing that is not you. So, swallow the truth that there is nothing wrong with self-centered motives and that you can’t escape them even if you try and that the more enlightened you become, the more you experience that everything is you and so the more motivated you become to do things to increase the wellbeing of “others”. But you won’t really see it or feel it as altruism because you see the self-service in all of your actions relative to others.
To use an example, other people would have seen Jesus’s death on the cross as a sacrifice. But if he was enlightened, he would not have. He would have seen it as self-serving. He would have seen it as a risk he would have to take in accordance with the prioritization of what mattered most to him specifically. There are times when people find that the loss of their own life in the name of something they believe in would make them feel better than living out of alignment with their own values and beliefs. This is part of what makes people so fascinating and inspiring.
There are times that what we call “self-sacrifice” (but that is actually not) can be a free and loving choice and there are also times that what we call “self-sacrifice” can be morally reprehensible, a disowning of one’s free will and abusive. We could debate each case until the cows come home. But for the sake of your understanding, it could be said that canceling your tennis match to stay home and take care of your sick child can be a loving act as long as you see that doing so is acting in your own best interests rather than holding your sacrifice over the child’s head.
But now that you have accepted that there is in fact no such thing as self-sacrifice, I want to focus your awareness on how seemingly self-sacrificing behavior can be self-serving in incredibly destructive ways. I’m going to list some of these ways for you now.
Self-sacrifice can be used as an alibi in order to avoid taking responsibility for your life choices. When this happens, you abandon your own personal compass for the sake of closeness with people; where remaining close to them and meeting their needs would cause you to go in a different direction than your personal north star. This can be seen very clearly in co-dependency. This occurs when someone gives up all other personal desires and needs and purpose in exchange for the feeling of being close, wanted, needed and approved of by serving other’s needs and wants. When doing so does not pay off because they do not get the closeness or approval or most especially, the recognition or appreciation for their sacrifice, they grow resentful and bitter and even depressed. They lose the meaning in their life. They blame the other people for the reason they are not living according to their true wants and needs and purpose. They disown their free will. They have to swallow that what they really did was prioritize. They prioritized the feeling of being close, wanted, needed and approved of by serving other’s needs and wants to the detriment of everything else in their life and it may not have been a prioritization that paid off.
The best example of this is probably mothers. Many mothers prioritize caretaking their kid’s needs and desires and purpose. They ‘sacrifice’ their own needs, desires, goals and career purpose to do so. There are many self-centered reasons why they tend do this that range all the way from wanting to be seen as good by a society that considers career-oriented women to take away from or deprive their children. To wanting validation, praise and gratitude from their child for their ‘service’ to them. But when they don’t see that they are doing it for their own sake, if they don’t get enough closeness, validation, praise, gratitude and recognition for their sacrifice, they detest their life and turn against their own children. They use their self-sacrifice for their children as an alibi to avoid taking responsibility for not having chosen a life that was truly reflective of their actual desires, dreams, hopes, needs and purpose.
Dovetailing off of this last point, self-sacrifice can lead to martyr complex which hurts people. Martyrs are people who must feel victimized and persecuted and as if they have given up their own best interests to fulfill an emotional and psychological need. This is an extreme addiction to the feeling of rightness and goodness. As such, martyr complex is a coping mechanism. Martyrs sacrifice what does not need to be sacrificed just so they can see themselves as a good person and be seen by others as a good person. They put themselves in situations where they are seen as the victim just so they can see themselves and be seen as a good person. They also do this to avoid responsibility in any situation where responsibility would make them feel like a bad person. They must make everyone around them into a villain and selfish in order to feed this personal need. Self-sacrifice and being in situations where they can see themselves as a victim becomes a consistent and reliable way to avoid their deep, lifelong feelings of shame and guilt. The worse people feel about themselves, the more they tend to try to cover it up by making believe that they are kind, loving, compassionate and caring. Seeing ourselves as the victim who sacrificed our self for others removes the need for us to take responsibility for our lives by scapegoating other people as the cause of our pain, failures and disappointments.
Self-sacrifice can be used as a means of emotional manipulation. When people see themselves as self-sacrificing, they can portray themselves as the “noble sufferer”. This makes other people feel guilt and bend to their will in order to avoid their own feelings of guilt and shame. Self-sacrifice becomes a way of “buying” your needs and wants from others. For example, a child did not ask their parent to be born and yet some parents act as if parenting in and of itself is an act of altruism rather than love. Some parents consider clothing and housing and feeding and giving their child opportunities an act of self-sacrifice. They then hold that over their child’s head as a form of leverage. Any time they want the child to do something, like go to a specific school or get a specific job or marry a specific person or give them money or take care of them when they are older, they remind the child that he or she owes them because of how they sacrificed for him or her over the years. It’s actually a form of abusive entrapment. Self-sacrifice can be used as a form of manipulation and control in any relationship. For more information about this watch my video titled: cut the invisible strings.
- Self-Sacrifice feeds societal dysfunction. We need not look very far to see this. Talk to anyone about the impact that a draft for war has had on their family. Or look at suicide bombing. On a more day to day level, when we hold self-sacrifice as a virtue, we end up opening the door wide for individuals within that society to self-sacrifice as a means for manipulation. We create a society full of unfulfilled people who are depressed and resentful for having not followed their true hopes, dreams and purpose and who have to engage in all kinds of unhealthy coping mechanisms to put up with their lives. It opens the door wide for people to be stuck in the victim/martyr complex and to blame others and disown their free will and personal responsibility. It opens the door wide for poor relationships between parents and kids as well as co-workers, friends and married couples. It doesn’t take a genius to see the damage this does and the pressure this puts on our businesses, legal system, childcare system, healthcare system and interpersonal relationships.
Hopefully in these examples of destructive self-sacrifice, you can clearly see that what seems like self-sacrifice is entirely self-serving. If someone insinuates that they are self-sacrificing, they have not consciously examined their priorities and values and owned up to what they actually are. For example, if a mother sees herself as sacrificing her own hopes and dreams for her child, that is a mother who has not owned up to the fact that being seen as a good person/mother by a society (that does not see working women as good mothers) is a higher priority to her than personal career success. So she is making a choice with her free will to prioritize one over the other or to let go of one entirely for the other. If this leads her to an unhappy life, she is responsible for making the choice in response to societal pressure that led her to that unhappiness. The person who thinks they are self- sacrificing is often a person who does not feel free to choose even though he or she is actually subconsciously choosing all that time.
You can’t lose your free will. Even the choice to give up choice is a choice and therefore free will. When it comes to facing your personal priorities and values, what is really hard to face is the shame around it. We are taught that some priorities and values are good and right and others are bad and wrong. If we feel we have sacrificed, we feel that we have given something up because we could not choose that thing we gave up or prioritize that thing we gave up and feel good about ourselves at the same time. We have to face our shame about choosing what we are giving up or have given up instead.
Self-sacrifice does not actually exist in this universe. If we accepted that, there would be no more codependency in human society. But acts that seem self-sacrificing can only be in alignment when they are not accompanied by hard feelings or expectations. It can only be in alignment if you have taken someone’s best interests as a part of your own. And when you do this, any time it seems on the outside that you have chosen somebody else’s interest or a higher goal and lost something that is “yours” as an exchange, it is because that choice is more personally meaningful and more self-fulfilling for yourself.