How We Give Ourselves Away: The Perceived Virtue of Modern Martyrdom

Forever and a day ago, when I got my first car – one of those old Volvos that weighed two tons – I remember being told “Keep the gas gauge above half full. You’ll get better mileage”. Some decades later I still don’t know if this is true about cars. I do know it’s true about people.

Through  a range of experiences over many years I’ve come to believe that there is a sort of modern martyrdom occurring around us; a behavioral tendency, particularly (but not exclusively) in women, which manifests as self-sacrifice. A martyr is loosely defined as “one who suffers greatly for a cause”. In other times or contexts, a martyr would perish for a religious or political cause. I’m not talking about perishing or politics, but I am observing suffering for a cause and it’s inspiring a lot of questions.

What does that suffering look like? It looks like never feeling good enough while working so hard to lift others up. It is the feeling that one’s value is wrapped up in what’s offered, despite never being full. It’s societal approaches to problems which were built on the historic bad habit of devaluing women’s time. It is a thousand variations of putting others first, a seemingly virtuous act, to a detrimental personal loss. The tendency for women to perpetuate an emotionally-overdrawn existence, despite tremendous gender equity gains, is epidemic. Why do we do this?

Good Intentions

I won’t dispute that to give of one’s self is a noble quality. Many people derive significant self-worth from offering something to others and this is quite human. We are, after all, social creatures. From an evolutionary perspective, being of value for what we offer is fundamentally about survival. In all behavior we are each (more or less) doing the same thing: trying to get our needs met. But what kind of murky water do we find ourselves in when our need becomes meeting the needs of others?

I know a woman who cannot sit down. She assigns so much importance to perfection around her and in her home that tasks are literally a full time, quasi-compulsive job despite the fact that she’s an empty-nester with substantial resources. I have almost never seen her sit down other than to eat. She will argue with other women around her about who is more in need of a break (it’s always the other). She works tirelessly to create order and has to discuss it. A lot. I’ve come to believe she finds relaxation itself anxiety-producing. Just let that sink in….. This is hamster-wheel-ism epitomized, yet I know that maintaining control and winning approval are her good intentions.

Another over-giver I know is determined to “fix” everything for everyone and thus will be bursting with directives at the mere mention of someone’s sore throat, workplace crisis or relationship struggle. She wears and invisible cape. Her enthusiasm for solving the problems of others around her is unbridled and seems directed largely at achieving recognition for this, despite her own problems going unattended. The behavior is so intensive that it alienates people who do not know her well enough to understand that her goal – her good intention – is to help and be of value by helping.

The list goes on in so many examples and ways. We all know someone who does far more than they should and can’t really seem to stop. 

Prevailing Logic

Sometimes the intention behind self-sacrifice is good enough to drive really fuzzy logic. Sometimes this happens in larger contexts. Beyond personal conduct, some professional arenas are forged in self-sacrifice for very well-intended societal reasons. And sometimes that, too, can go too far.

Feminists, buckle up.

Take, for example, the political movement against domestic and sexual violence.  In graduate school I secured an internship placement at my county’s domestic and sexual violence program, where I worked for almost two years in clinical practice. This agency is philosophically progressive and ahead of the self-sacrifice curve. Yet some other programs and sate-level domestic violence (DV) networks quite promote this self-deprecating way of being in the world.

DV programs are generally required to run a 24 hour crisis hotline to qualify for state funding. These hotlines have often been staffed by unpaid employee time – above and beyond an already taxing 40 hours – as a job requirement. These agencies can’t make it without this state funding and so it continues. Fear of job cuts keeps people working for free (read: giving themselves away) . Some more severe ideologies sound like “If you are worth your salt as an advocate, you will give beyond what you’re paid for in service to the victims because it’s what’s right”. Martyrdom ad nauseam. As a favorite person of mine would say, that really burns my biscuits.

So even in a field where the independence and empowerment of women is the entire premise, those doing the work are sometimes required to throw themselves under the bus. And then they go into the meeting rooms with victimized clients and tell them to *stop-doing-that*. It’s real work for me to remain understanding toward those who continue – with very good intentions – to fuel the very problem they exist to thwart.

The examples of self-sacrifice offered herein are long on good intention but short on logic. Intention is a many splendored thing, paving the way to hell and creating our reality, so it is speculated. And I am reminded, as some old-timers might quip at this point, that “if logic prevailed, men would ride sidesaddle”.

So how do we honor our good intentions to serve others while making sure the logic doesn’t  outmaneuver the humanity? We put Self at the helm.

Selfless vs. Selfish and the alternative of Self Leadership

According to Merriam-Webster, selfless means, “having no concern for self” while selfish means, “concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others”. So while at first blush these terms seem to outline a continuum of good and bad, in truth neither one is good. Self is not a dirty word. Self-interest in its pure form is actually in everyone’s interest. So when we talk about selfless vs. selfish it’s not win-lose, it’s lose-lose. Either way, someone ends up under the bus.

At the core of my work as a therapist is a theory called Internal Family Systems, or IFS. Founder Dr. Dick Schwartz describes that IFS blends two ideas: multiplicity of mind and systems thinking. Basically, IFS sees individual humans as having an inner system of “parts” or sub personalities (regarding this as normal for all), and a separate core “Self” which is always present but can be prevented from leading effectively when parts are in turmoil. A few other key points:

  • Parts in sum do not total the Self; they are separate and have categorized roles.
  • All parts are welcome; there are no bad parts.
  • All parts have good intentions for the whole system of the individual.
  • Parts acting in extreme protective roles can become “blended” and create discord for the system and Self.
  • Liberating and un-blending parts restores trust in Self and allows Self-leadership.

What is Self-leadership, exactly? Self-leadership occurs when parts which are acting in extreme roles are unburdened, allowing access to Self-energy and permitting the Self to lead effectively. Dick Schwartz explains more about his early work and observations about the Self:

I was also finding that the Self wasn’t just a passive witness state. In fact, it wasn’t just a state of mind, but could also be an active healing presence inside and outside people….Once a person’s parts learned to trust that they didn’t have to protect so much and could allow the Self to lead, some degree of Self would be present for all their decisions and interactions. Even during a crisis, when a person’s emotions were running high, there would be a difference because of the presence of Self energy. Instead of being overwhelmed by and blending with their emotions, Self-led people were able to hold their center, knowing that it was just a part of them that was upset now and would eventually calm down. They became the “I” in the storm” (Schwartz, 2013).

Self-leadership helps us to live authentically and with what Schwartz calls the 8 C’s of the Self. These include the qualities of calmness, curiosity, clarity, compassion, confidence, creativity, courage, and connectedness. When we revisit the paradox of ‘selfless vs. selfish’, these eight qualities clearly sit in the balance. Can a person be Self-led while engaging in excessive self-sacrifice? Probably not.

It’s easy to forget that the same ends can usually be met by different means. It’s only a matter of getting parts on board – unblended, heard, understood and satisfied that the Self *can* lead; that the Self has got this. This is also a two-way street. The parts need to trust in the Self to lead, and in turn, the Self needs to have understanding for the parts in their exhaustive, important work, however frustrating or backward it may seem.

Enter compassion.

Rx: Compassion – Apply Liberally

If you know someone who fits the description herein of finding virtue in self-sacrifice, you may share my intimate knowledge of the associated frustration and even contempt. While I maintain, fundamentally, that people who give themselves away to their own detriment do it for a reason, it’s sometimes a challenge for me to hold my center in this belief.

On a recent IFS training trip, I observed a colleague sitting quietly, as the entire room – some 40 people – again heard the woes of one individual who was bringing their therapy into our training. It happens. Whatever. But my colleague sat with her hand on her heart and listened. Actively. I could tell she was working hard, adjusting, re-focusing. I asked her a few minutes later what she was doing in those purposeful, yet subtle actions. She said, “I was trying to stay in compassion”. And in that moment I was so thankful to understand that others, too, must sometimes work to stay compassionate.

Wherever we are in our journey to being Self-led (or maybe breaking away from our Martyrdom narrative), the most critical fuel we can put in the system is compassion. It’s critical in the external system and the internal system equally, because we have to know compassion before we can do compassion. That’s arguable, but I believe it to be true. Applying compassion is where I see things begin to improve, probably for a variety of reasons, but certainly because when I apply compassion toward modern martyrdom it looks different to me. I start to ask myself different questions.

For example, instead of thinking, “I am so tired of watching her engage with others by discussing her self-imposed suffering and the resulting physical pain she’s in”, I ask myself, “How hard must it be to feel that attention from those I care about is only earned by my suffering and not by who I am?”. Compassion.

In the political / professional arena, instead of thinking, “This supposedly-empowering ideology is bullshit hypocrisy at best and damaging to the cause at worst”, I do my best to remember that there was once a political pendulum which swung too far out of necessity.  I consider that over-extension, at personal and policy levels, is how many parts (and people) work toward healing from the reasons the movement exists. Compassion.

Compassion, according to IFS theory, is a trait of Self. People access this energy, this personal state, in different ways, and IFS work is just one. Everyone’s journey is unique. One of my favorites is that of Dr. James R. Doty, MD. His book, ‘Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart‘, is a combination of compelling personal memoir and guide to his practice of living in compassion. Dr. Doty is a Clinical Professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University and the Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). Yes, the man operates on brains AND studies compassion. Not a phone booth in sight! Doty’s book is a game-changer and I recommend it to everyone.

The thing which I find most helpful in maintaining compassion toward the modern-martyrdom problem is to remember that I cannot change what others do, I can only change what I do. Inviting myself to change in response to others overdrawing themselves – to be compassionate instead of irritated – helps me to stay present and just keep going. I end up less depleted, also, because irritation will drain me while compassion maintains me. 

The Baseline and Beyond

Who suffers when we overdraw? Everyone. When we give ourselves away to our detriment, we suffer and in turn we’re not our best for anyone else. Plain and simple. We each have a baseline of wellness that we have to maintain if we’re truly to be worth our salt as helpers. Here, too, compassion is prescribed. Compassion for Self. 

As a therapist, when I am overdrawn, I don’t offer my best to my clients. I’ve been there. It’s grim. It’s a circumstance in which whether I connect with Self energy and Self compassion is make or break. My choices then are the same as for anyone who’s emotionally overdrawn:

a) Be selfless – continue being overdrawn by giving to others at a substandard of quality,

b) Be selfish – cease overdrawing by ceasing to help altogether in self-preservation, or

c) Be Self-led – care for the Self and tend to personal wellness FIRST in order to give or care for others at the best possible standard of quality.

Option C is the only one in which compassion is extended to everyone involved. Some people find common sense in this notion. For others it’s a lot of personal work to make the paradigm shift away from self-sacrifice. Their protectors are hard at work. But this much bears repeating: Self is not a dirty word.

The idea of “self care” gets a lot of attention in the helping fields but I don’t think we go deep enough into what it really takes. It’s not a mani-pedi. It’s not a vacation or an inservice day. It’s a mindset and a way of living. To connect with and care for the Self is not merely self-serving. For people who help, be it in their profession or by virtue of their nature as a person, caring for the Self is in everyone’s interest. If we want to give, we have to be better than okay. We have to be well above the baseline of emotional homeostasis. Because giving more than we have to spare will always result in being overdrawn.

As individuals and humans, no matter how big our hearts or how good our intentions, we are each a finite resource worth preserving and cultivating. To do so, we need to read the gauge and know when and how to refuel. We cannot help anyone from underneath the bus; we can only do this work sustainably and at our best from behind the wheel.


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