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Katie Byrne on give and take: There is a time for self-sacrifice but there is also a time for self-care



Brené Brown

Brené Brown

Brené Brown

I recently attended a cookery course with a longer-than-average meet-and-greet session.

The teacher wanted to get a sense of her pupils: why they came and what they were hoping to achieve.

Most of us mumbled something about expanding our cookery repertoire, but one woman - a forthright sixty-something-year-old - launched into a monologue about realisation and reinvention.

She told us that she was travelling the world and signing up for all sorts of classes because she had made a pact to start putting herself first. "I've looked after other people my whole life," she concluded. "And I'm sick of it."

I've heard this sentiment uttered by so many women of her age. Something shifts after the menopause and they finally start to challenge the burden of care that society puts on their shoulders.

Women are more likely to down tools so that they can take care of sick children and elderly parents. Women are more likely to look after their younger grandchildren. Women are biologically wired, and socially conditioned, to put the needs of others ahead of their own. And it's usually only after the menopause - when oxytocin dwindles and children fly the nest - that they start to rethink their role of caretaker, people-pleaser and occasional doormat.

Women are self-sacrificers by their very nature, but men can fall into the trap too. To quote the late Nathanial Branden, they can" abandon or submerge their personal values, judgment and interests to please others".

"Some people tell themselves this is a virtue," added the author. "It is a 'virtue' that corrodes self-esteem."

Relentless self-sacrifice is usually a pattern that starts in childhood, when the person takes on the role of caregiver or surrogate parent within the family unit. By the time they reach adulthood, they have learned to derive their identity from the emotional support that they provide to others. It's no surprise then that they can become a magnet for users, takers and anyone with a convincing enough sob story.

It becomes a pattern so entrenched that the self-sacrificer usually only realises that something has got to give when they have nothing left to give. And so begins the destructive all-or-nothing cycle that invariably leads to emotional exhaustion and compassion fatigue.

People-pleasers might argue that they are only working for the greater good, but it's important to remember that not all self-sacrifice is created equal. There are times when it builds empathy; there are times when it breeds resentment and there are times when it's not self-sacrifice at all. Some people put the needs of others ahead of their own for social approval or to bolster their "good person" identity; others submerge their interests because they want to avoid conflict or find a scapegoat for their failures.

Equally, it's not self-sacrifice if you secretly wish you knew how to assert your boundaries and say no.

Brené Brown shares an interesting take on boundaries in a short video she recorded on the subject (which you can find on YouTube).

"One of the most shocking findings of my work was the idea that the most compassionate people I have interviewed over the last 13 years were also the absolutely most boundaried," she says.

This may come as a surprise to people-pleasers, who often think boundaries compromise compassion or promote self-centredness. On the contrary, healthy boundaries allow a person to prioritise their own self-care so that they can care for others completely and wholeheartedly.

It took Brown 35 years to face up to her people-pleasing tendencies and her lack of personal boundaries. She says she isn't as sweet a person as she used to be. But she's a lot more loving now that she has learned to lovingly assert herself.

I was thinking of Brown's insights on boundaries when the woman at the cookery class told us that she was sick of taking care of people.

What might have happened had she established healthy boundaries a few decades earlier?

She would have experienced less stress, of course, but perhaps she would have deepened her relationships with those dearest to her, before she felt forced to extricate them from her life completely.

Most people-pleasers eventually realise that they need to please themselves, but they often struggle with striking the balance between self-sacrifice and self-centredness.

The overburdened mother goes on strike. The relationship doormat turns his phone off for a few days. The workplace martyr decides that he won't be doing any tasks that are beyond his remit, going forward.

It feels empowering - until they realise that it's just two sides of the same coin.

"When we learn how to be in an intimate relationship without abandoning our sense of self, when we learn how to be kind without being self-sacrificing, when we learn how to cooperate with others without betraying our standards and convictions, we are practising self-assertiveness," wrote Branden.

In other words, setting boundaries isn't about making a loud and emphatic stand. It's about achieving balance - and knowing that there is a time for self-sacrifice, just as there is a time for self-care.

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