This post is based on an Instagram Live interview with my friend and fellow therapist, Jesie Steffes, LPC. Join me for RIverbend Therapy Chats each Monday between 4-5 pm MST on Instagram Live (@riverbendtherapy) as I discuss mental health topics and answer your questions with my colleagues.
Years ago, someone said to me, "Brooke we don't really know much about you. Tell us who you are." I immediately began to panic as I realized I didn't know what to say. So instead of talking about myself, my talents, interests, or values, I began talking about my kids and their talents, interests, and values. It was wrenchingly painful to realize that I could only define myself by what I did and who I was for others, rather than who I am truly.
At the time I was asked that question, my children were younger and less independent; they needed more of my focus and energy. But I realized in that moment how dangerously close I was to letting a season of more intensive motherhood grow into years or even a whole lifetime of defining myself by what I do for others and how I sacrifice, rather than by who I am and what my values are.
I see this same pattern in many of my clients, who become martyrs for their relationships. By “martyr,” I mean that they abandon core values, inner feelings, energy and desires in order to maintain harmony and nurture those around them. All too often, that leaves them exhausted, disconnected, and resentful of the very people and relationships they are trying to save.
It’s never wrong to love and care for your family or friends, and to sacrifice and compromise things for them. I know that nurturing others can bring genuine joy because supporting my children, husband, siblings, parents, and friends as they walk their paths and grow as people is deeply satisfying for me.
But I’ve also come to understand that many of the behaviors I’d labeled as nurturing were actually stifling. By cooking all the meals, doing all the chores, managing all the schedules, I was suppressing my own values, needs, and desires, and wasn’t giving those around me the chance to be independent or grow. They were seedlings that I was trying to force into sprouts, when all I really needed to do was just create the environment in which they could grow.
Understanding how to nurture the ones we love without losing ourselves can be tricky, as I discussed with Jesie Steffes, LPC, during this week’s Riverbend Therapy Chat on Instagram Live. So how can you know when you’re giving up too much for the sake of nurturing others? A good place to start is to ask yourself these questions:
1. What Are You Sacrificing?
When the opportunity arises in a relationship for you to sacrifice or compromise to fulfill the other person’s needs or desires, ask yourself, “Am I going to sacrifice some part of myself by doing this?” If the answer is “no”—for instance, if you’d have to give up some of your free time or compromise on a preference—then it’s likely a healthy sacrifice to make. But if you’d have to cross a boundary or abandon your values or part of who you are, that’s unhealthy martyrdom. As much as it may hurt to disappoint someone you love, it will hurt more in the long run to disappoint yourself.
2. Is It An Obligation?
When we sacrifice for others, we should do so “with a clean heart,” as Jesie put it in our chat. One great way to know whether you’re giving genuinely or from a sense of obligation is to listen to your body. When a loved one asks something of you, or even just calls or texts, pay attention to your first reaction. If it suggests difficult emotions like resentment, frustration, or aversion—rolling your eyes, wrinkling your nose, sighing, groaning—take it as a sign that you are pushing outside your sense of self in an unhealthy way to meet the other person’s needs in that relationship. This constant pushing can transform your relationship into an obligation and resentment, the feeling we get when we cross our own boundaries, can fester.
3. What Are Your Conditions?
One of the most important things to understand when it comes to nurturing is that you can love someone unconditionally but have a conditional relationship with them. When there are no conditions or boundaries on your relationship, it becomes all too easy to define your worth based on what you do, rather than who you are. Instead, hold true in your soul that you can love someone unconditionally and approach your relationship from a place of love, empathy, and compassion, while also establishing healthy boundaries and expectations with the other person. For example, you can love and support a friend struggling with anxiety while also asking her not to call you in the middle of the night. There are talk-and-text crisis lines for that—and you’ll be there for her in the morning.
4. Is Your Goal Harmony or Intimacy?
While we all want to live in harmony with those we love, striving for constant harmony isn’t a healthy goal. Never rocking the boat requires you to sacrifice your needs and desires. When you do that, what message are you sending to those around you about what love is? Rather than striving for harmony, aim for intimacy, which requires that you not only listen to your loved ones’ needs and desires but also communicate your own, even when they differ. This may feel scary, especially if you’ve been told before that you’re “too much” for people. But by owning and expressing what you need and want you give your loved ones a chance to know you fully and deeply, and feel the joy of nurturing you, too.