Some of my past relationships have been very one-sided. Looking back, I know it was because, in each one of those relationships, I chose very selfish, immature men to be in relationship with and then I made their happiness more important than my own.
In one of those relationships, my partner made it very clear, sometimes through physical violence that certain discussions or requests or behaviors were not acceptable to him. I kept my opinions and my thoughts to myself because voicing them was too scary. I learned to “tiptoe” around him and his unpredictable moods in order to keep the peace.
What I did not realize at the time was that I was doing serious damage to my own psyche and I was starting to lose touch with myself. With each passing year, I pushed my real self further and further down. I stifled the voice inside that was crying out with anger, sadness and pain. I became an expert at ignoring that voice and pretending it didn’t even exist.
I hid the physical, mental and emotional abuse and all the relationship’s problems from my parents, my siblings and my friends. I didn’t want to “air our dirty laundry in public”. I was embarrassed and humiliated by what was happening in our home behind closed doors, but I had no one to turn to for support.
After several years, I finally found the courage to leave the relationship and I have never regretted that decision. However, the damage I did to my self-worth during the years of silencing my feelings and ignoring my own needs took many more years to undo.
Like me, many of you were taught that seeking to get your own needs met is selfish (which we were taught is bad) and sacrificing ourselves for others is noble (which is good). The problem with that way of thinking is that the person, who is always sacrificing, will eventually, like an overdrawn bank account, have nothing left to give. The idea that we are supposed to sacrifice ourselves for others has us mixed up and confused about when it’s honorable and appropriate to put our needs second and when it’s imperative that we make sure our needs are getting met first.
To remove this confusion, we need to first remember who we are and why we are here. We are each unique, remarkable, miraculous beings created by God. Our purpose is to love each other and love ourselves. Loving ourselves is not selfish or self-centered, it’s not vain and it’s not wrong. We cannot give love to others if we do not first love ourselves.
Next, we need to recognize the difference between doing something from a place of love for someone versus when we are sacrificing ourselves.
For example, your spouse asks you to attend a baseball game with him knowing that you don’t particularly enjoy baseball. You could let him go to the game by himself and then you could do whatever it is you would rather do. Instead, you decide to go to the game. You do this because you know it will mean a lot to him if you go and it brings you pleasure to bring him joy. The result is you each have a rewarding experience because you went to the game out of love for your spouse.
Sacrifice on the other hand, is when you give up something that is precious to you to keep the peace or so the other person won’t feel any discomfort or get upset. One person wins, the other person loses. When we sacrifice, we are in effect saying that our needs are not important and we are teaching others that they don’t have to respect our needs either.
If you are keeping your relationship alive by sacrificing your own wants and needs, ask yourself if this is the kind of relationship you really want. If it isn’t, then I encourage you to begin to put yourself first. In the beginning, this will feel very uncomfortable to you. Don’t be surprised if you are accused of being selfish or if someone tries to make you feel guilty or bully you into going back to your old sacrificing ways. It would be helpful to find a family member, friend or professional who will support and encourage you as you learn to put yourself first so you are not trying to do this alone.
The change in you will start a ripple effect. Those who cherish their relationship with you will change too. Those who do not want to change will eventually move on leaving room for more supportive people to come into your life.
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