We live in a culture the prizes success and ambition at all costs. What you do for a living, where you live, and what you own seem to determine your worth as a human being.
Everything keeps telling us to do more, be more, achieve more. Go go go. Push yourself harder. Get into better shape. Make more money. Get that promotion. Run faster, sleep less, eat less, work more. If you have pain, take a pill that will numb it so you can push through. Being really really busy is a status symbol. You must worry constantly that you’re not doing enough, that you don’t have enough, that some awful thing is around the corner and you are unprepared.
Why? What for? Why are we stuck in this hamster wheel, exactly?
Have you ever stopped for a second to ask yourself what you’re doing all of this for? Most of us are so conditioned by these false ideas that we literally can’t fathom the possibility of something else. Even if we intellectually see and understand that these social mores are illogical and unhealthy, we just can’t pull ourselves away from the rat race.
In her book, the Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown describes the dig-deep button: “You know the dig-deep button, right? It’s the button that you rely on when you’re too bone-tired to get up one more time in the middle of the night[,] or to do one more load of throw-up-diarrhea laundry[,] or to catch one more plane[,] or to return one more call[,] or to please/perform/perfect the way you normally do even when you just want to flip someone off and hide under the covers. The dig-deep button is a secret level of pushing through when we’re exhausted and overwhelmed, and when there’s too much to do and too little time for self-care.”
We have to find a way to stop doing this to ourselves.
One of the pearls of wisdom Gaya imparted to me was “listen to your body.” This is another one of those super simple sounding lessons that takes a lot of time to really sink in – you have to live the experience of it before you can understand it truly.
Listen to your body is the polar opposite of the dig-deep button. Listen to your body is a complete realignment of your values. It is a re-prioritizing of your feelings, and natural limits, above what your mind (and society at large) is telling you to do. Your body (your emotions, your feelings, your physical sensations, and especially your painful symptoms) are the way your soul, or your higher self, communicates with you. It lets you know when you’ve reached your limits, and where you are pushing past boundaries in a way that is self-abusive. Those messages deserve your attention. They actually exist to serve your highest good.
In our culture, we are taught to fight against our bodies, our symptoms, our illness, to push past our limits, to silence our pain, our emotions, our feelings, our distress, to go for it all (whatever that means). We have lost respect for our own subtle internal guidance system. We’ve lost our ability to love, respect and nurture ourselves, our own bodies, and the spirit within us. We are so busy sacrificing ourselves in search of external love and acceptance, that we neglect our own self-care. We are prioritizing the pursuits of ego, over the authentic pursuits of the heart and soul.
What I’m talking about here isn’t political or economic issues. This same dysfunctional value system informs our familial and interpersonal relationships in deeply unhealthy ways.
I was talking to a friend recently who told me that she hurt her back when she pushed herself to run three extra miles last week. She knew she shouldn’t have (because she’s had back issues in the past), but in her words “like an idiot I pushed myself to do more.” The why part is unclear.
She spent the entire following week in agony, unable to sit or move around without severe spasms. Then came Thanksgiving, and instead of taking care of her back and staying off her feet, she spent the entire week cleaning, cooking, preparing to receive her family over for the holiday. More back pain, more strain, more pain meds, more pushing past her own physical boundaries in order to make the holiday special for the people she loves. Sounds wonderful and selfless right? It’s not.
We are taught to believe that this is what love means. Love = constant sacrifice, and an ignoring of our own personal needs and feelings for the benefit of others. It’s another form of success – doing it all, for them. If you love someone, you put all of your needs aside in order to cater to their needs. You perform the role of a perfect parent/friend/child/lover etc. And theoretically this sounds lovely. But in practice, the people who are conditioned to love this way, who believe this story, sacrifice themselves entirely, in an extreme way that isn’t healthy or self-loving.
Extreme selflessness is not good, is not love, is not virtuous.
At the end of my friend’s Thanksgiving dinner, just after she served dessert, one of her family members got up from the table saying she was going to get a jump start on the black friday shopping deals. My friend became enraged, “How dare she? Can you believe how selfish she is? All she cares about is herself. I sacrificed so much, pushing through my back pain, to make this holiday special for everyone, and she can’t even wait until desert is finished?“
What often ends up happening, for my friend, and for many other people who believe this myth, is we end up exhausted, resentful, and unfulfilled. We aren’t happy, we’re tired and cranky. We sacrifice in order to be the hero, in order to cater to other people’s needs, hoping to win love, affection, and gratitude (sometimes loyalty) in return. Then when a family member (for whom we do all the sacrificing) doesn’t appreciate all the hard work, or doesn’t match our level of sacrifice, or doesn’t provide the love and affection anticipated, all we are left with is anger and frustration.
“Look at all I’ve done for you! Look at how much I sacrifice for you! And all you think about is yourself…“
Does this sound familiar?
If you go inside yourself and ask why you’re really doing all this sacrificing, you’ll find some interesting answers that may surprise you. (Spoiler alert: they aren’t selfless reasons at all. They are an inverted covert form of selfishness.). Unhealthy sacrifice isn’t giving just to give. It isn’t joyful and generous in its giving. It gives with a hidden expectation. And often that expectation goes unmet.
When we push past our own limits, for the sake of winning love or gratitude from someone else, we aren’t being selfless. That’s not love – it’s a secret transactional bargain. But we are the only one who’s in on the secret. The other person generally has no idea what our sacrifice is obligating them to do in return.
If you look within and tried to verbalized the terms of the transaction out loud they sound really odd, and the other person likely wouldn’t ever agree to them explicitly. It sounds a little like this: “I will sacrifice all of myself, I will push myself past my pain, I will endure hardship, to do nice things for you, things you don’t especially want or ask for, but I will just imagine that I can read your mind, so I will decide for you what you want or need. But then in return, you have to put me on a pedestal, and love me, and care for me, and think I’m a great parent/friend/child/lover, and promise to always love me/want me/need me, and never abandon me. Also, if you sacrifice your own happiness, and well being, and wants and needs for me, like I do for you, I would appreciate that too. Then I will know that you really love me.”
It’s a ridiculous set up for disappointment and frustration.
In order to really give love, in a way that is unconditional, and without expectations (where you don’t get resentful or angry; where you aren’t tired or cranky), you have to fill yourself with love first, by taking care of your basic needs, and by honoring your own self and your own body. Then you can let that love generously overflow to others. Then you’re not loving as a bargain, you happily give all of your love, and you’re not secretly expecting anything in return.
To fill yourself with love, you have to learn how to be kind and gentle with yourself, your body, your feelings, and stop pushing yourself to do things you don’t want to do. Listen to your body. You have to learn how to set your boundaries, how to say no, and to stop punishing yourself with guilt trips. No more dig deep buttons. No more pushing through pain. Sometimes it means asking others for help, or even letting go and creating space for others to step in and carry the burden for a while. And if some stuff just doesn’t get done, then it doesn’t get done.
This is fundamentally about sourcing love from within ourselves, rather than trying to hustle and negotiating for it with someone else.
It takes a little practice, but when you experience giving and loving in this way, you’ll never want to go back to the unhealthy sacrificing again.