The ten frequent readers of this blog will have noticed a common theme among the last few essays I published in recent months. They all danced around one main idea: the importance of self-esteem. I talked extensively about the whys and the hows of creating and maintaining a sense of value for yourself and the positive impact this can have on everyone’s life. Now, it is time to bring this idea to its natural conclusion: overcoming the glorification of self-sacrifice.
The Delusion of Self-Sacrifice
Whether it’s pop culture, media, or personal interactions – we all know the stories of people who gave their lives for something we commonly call “the greater good”. Usually, it’s for some arbitrary construct like the nation state, a particular set of cultural values or whatever one’s current in-group deems the most important. I want to exclude all of those things from this essay. Instead, I am going to focus, once again, on the personal interactions we have with other human beings. After I am finished, you will understand why giving up your own needs, ideas and desires for someone else is a pretty bad idea and why refusing to do so, does not turn you into an egotistical psychopath. Contrary to popular belief.
To love means to care for someone’s needs before your own.
How many people do you know would agree with this statement?
In my experience, there are a lot of people who do. I used to be one of them. If you dig through the corners of this very blog, you will find plenty of evidence supporting this claim. But as all the other people, I was so, so wrong about all of it. So very wrong.
I wanted to save them. I wanted to save them all.
Pretty much every single human being I ever met and who became dear to me was, in one way or another, severely damaged. Mentally broken, super fucked up in ways one can only imagine, only a shell of what should be an amazing person with so much potential. But their inner demons did their best to hold them back in as many areas as they could. Though I had my own fair share of shit to walk through, I still wanted to help all those people. In my mind, it all made perfect sense.
I knew first hand what suffering was, how much torment your own mind can put you through. Leaving you behind with an utter sense of hopelessness and despair. I had experienced so much pain and because of it, I knew exactly what to do to alleviate it for others.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t know shit.
Which was a problem. Whenever the interaction with one of those people changed for the worse, I immediately assumed it had something to do with my actions. Obviously, I was responsible for their change of behaviour because somehow, I fucked something up. That’s the only reasonable explanation. Right?
It took me quite a while to understand how wrong this way of thinking was. Their behaviour was completely tied to my sense of self-worth and whenever their actions caused me harm, my mind told me that it was because of something I did. I deserved the pain. Like a beaten dog I would crawl back over and over again, just to receive the same mistreatment, hoping, this time it would be different. But it rarely was. I was begging for approval, for any sign of appreciation. I would have done almost anything just to receive the attention and care I so desperately needed and wanted.
I didn’t understand that their behaviour had nothing to do with me. They simply weren’t capable of acting in a way which would approve my tied-up self-worth. I don’t condemn them for doing what they did. There is a magnitude of reasons for it, and we can only control so few. But it made me realize that something had to change. I had to change.
No one determines your self-worth but yourself.
This is the central idea of this and all my past essays in this series.
If you keep telling yourself, that you are responsible for another person’s well-being, their behaviour, their whole existence – misery will follow as sure darkness after sundown.
Thinking you are only valuable and worthy of care and love, if someone else tells you so, is a clear-cut path straight into the hell of self-loathing.
If someone doesn’t treat you with the respect you deserve – fuck them. Don’t run after them, let them come to you. You are nobody’s lap dog begging for attention. You are an incredible capable human being, destined to live your best life according to your needs and wants. But I want to be clear about something: When I say “fuck them”, then it’s more about the associated mindset and only so much about specific behaviour. Some people might be worth keeping around, even if they make it really, really hard for you to do that. Immediately cutting ties with everyone who doesn’t treat you well, might not be the best idea. For me, I always ask myself: “Do I see potential for a better tomorrow?”
If yes, I usually stick around and see what happens, but I’ve also grown quite a thick skin over the years, so my way is maybe not your way. In the end, it all comes down to how you feel about you inside your mind.
You have to remember: they may only need you a few times, but you need yourself 100% of your own life. You cannot escape your mind, so why not make it your best friend instead of your worst enemy?
I know, I know. This is way easier said than done. It took me about fifteen years to get to the point where I am at today. Heck, if you asked me only one year ago what I thought about all of this, I probably would have told you, this is utter crap. But a lot can happen in a very short time and sometimes all you need is a little push into the right direction. Maybe today I can provide you with this push.
Cursed At Birth
We all get roles assigned by our surrounding society when we are born. Just yesterday I read about how many women get taught that their primary role in life is to be a mother. A lot of people don’t even think about telling their daughter that motherhood is indeed a choice they can make of their own will. From very early on, they are getting pushed into this idea of a “caretaker” who raises the next generation of crotch goblins. If they refuse to do so later in life, they often get judged, called out to be egotistical and definitely being too young to make such a decision. If only the right man, aka The One, rides on his unicorn into your bedroom, you will tear apart your clothes and throw yourself at him, begging to entangle both of your genetic codes and see what happens. Clearly, you just need to a wait a bit and eventually you will change your mind and see how amazing those weird looking miniature humans are, who cannot even feed themselves properly.
But what if this moment never happens? What if you still don’t want any of it? Are you suddenly free of the role society tasked you with?
Oh, if only it were so easy.
Maybe you really were able to realize that you have a choice and made it, but what about all the times you were told that you have to take care of other people? Be there for them? Support them in whatever way possible? That your needs are not as important as theirs? Were you able to get rid of those ideas as well?
If so, all the power to you and you can probably stop reading.
Sadly, it is far more likely that you are still reading, because you are one of the many, many people who are stuck with a very particular mindset.
What you want is not important.
I’d argue this is far more prevalent in women than men (I’m open to be corrected) but definitely not exclusive to either. My opening example about motherhood is only one of many roles society forces upon us, so don’t take it as the only valid one which can have a lasting impact throughout your whole life. But I hope it fulfilled its purpose to get my point across.
We are stuck with the expectations of others and feel bad when we are unable to match them. That’s why we try so hard to do exactly that. I met so, so many people who told me that they struggle a lot with just saying “No” to someone.
Can you imagine?
Having no access to the most powerful word in your vocabulary when it matters? There’s a reason why the greatest freedom is a negative freedom. Creating a world in which it’s not only common but expected to say no to whatever you don’t want. Without the fear of repercussions.
What you want is not important.
In some people, this idea is so deeply ingrained, even when talking to people they know, trust and care about, it’s next to impossible to refuse a request. A while ago I was talking to a dear friend about what she wanted to do for the evening. She was only in the mood for calmness and talking to which I agreed. Later we arrived at the topic of voicing your opinions and needs. I said to her, that I would have liked to go out, but I didn’t mind just being at home and talking. Then I asked her, if I said this earlier, whether she would have agreed with my plans, besides not really wanting to do it. She said yes.
This is a big fucking problem. And she is not the only one. In her case, I knew that beforehand, which is why I didn’t say anything and simply asked her what she wanted. But it’s rarely as obvious. How many people do regularly agree to engage in activities they don’t like or maybe even despise – simply because someone else asked them and they can’t say no? Because they don’t want to disappoint the other person? Because they feel it’s their job to adjust to someone else’s needs?
What you want is not important.
But it is. It is so fucking important. Don’t ever let anybody tell you otherwise. Especially not your mind, it’s the biggest liar of all.
House of Lies
The greatest trick the Lord of Lies ever pulled, was convincing you that he tells the truth.
Our mind is a beautiful place infected with madness.
We are capable of so many great things, while at the same time telling ourselves the worst stories about us. Our subconsciousness holds all the trauma, pain and uncomfortable experiences we endured during our lives. It holds on to them very dearly. It creates a sheer bottomless pit of suffering which it will throw you into, whenever you start to feel a little bit too good about yourself. Here a bit of doubt, there a few sprinkles imposter syndrome and over there a nice dose of self-hatred.
Can’t have it feeling too good about ourselves. But it gets better.
At some point, this snarky voice inside our head gets so loud, so persistent and so convincing, that we start believing everything it tells us.
You are not good enough.
You are not worth it.
You are boring.
Everybody will see how fake you are.
Everybody will leave me.
Nobody actually likes me.
Nobody loves me.
Sounds familiar? Welcome to hell. Your mind is the Lord of Lies and its patron. We all have our own personal devil sitting inside our head. For the luckier ones among us, he is usually quiet and doesn’t bother them too much.
But for the rest of us, it is very, very different.
Every single day he tries to pull us back down into his realm. One step forward, two steps back. Each time we achieve something, his rotten claws are reaching out to tear it down. But how do you beat the devil?
But this is not a bad thing. We need the darkness to appreciate the light. We need the lies to sharpen our senses for the truth.
If you cannot beat the devil, make him your bitch.
This motherfucker dares to stay inside your head. Your wonderful mind. This beautiful house. It’s time to show him who is in charge. He will fight you every step of the way. Every little change you are going to implement, he is going to question it, you, and everything you do.
He will ask you “but what if?” or “maybe I really am an awful person”. But unless you recently invaded a neighbouring country for personal gains and ego, you are probably a somewhat decent human being.
You need to resist the temptation to agree with anything he says. No matter how reasonable it sounds.
Your baseline should be as follows: you are a human being. You are awesome at some things and not so great at others. You have flaws like everyone else, but you strive to be a better version of yourself each day. If anyone tells you, that your ideas or needs are not important, they are lying idiots. If it’s the Lord of Lies who’s telling you this, call him a whiny bitch and tell him to go back into his weird bottomless pit. There he can think about what he did wrong and maybe, just maybe you allow him to come out from time to time.
Maybe this sounds weird to some, but I really want to encourage you, to speak those words and not only think them. Call him out. Say, you won’t believe anything he tells you and you know you are better than his version of you. Bringing words into reality can have an amazing impact on how you perceive yourself over the long term. If you keep resisting for long enough, eventually you will start believing a different story about you. The one you chose to tell.
To Love Means to Suffer
Recently, I read a story about a woman who left her partner during his cancer treatment because it affected her mental health too much. She then ran a marathon in his honour.
As you can imagine, the public judgment was swift and fierce. Nobody paused for a second and thought “Maybe she did the right thing?”
For as long as I can think, I have been told that our society cares for its sick, old, poor and whoever is not able to take care of themselves. Before you ready your pitchforks let me make it clear: this is a good thing.
But. There is always a but.
Is it your job to do those things?
If you are not a doctor, therapist, social worker, or priest, is it really up to you to take care of every wounded sheep you find? And even if you are, is it even a good idea to do so, when it is your partner, friend, or a family member? For some, the mental toll this takes can become close to unbearable.
I want to make the case that sometimes the best decision will be, not to bear this burden.
The idea of leaving someone who is suffering sounds like the most selfish thing one could do. Maybe it is. I’m not going to argue about that. The more important question is whether this is a bad thing.
A few years ago, I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I was fortunate enough to be with a truly amazing person. She was pretty much everything I ever wanted in a partner and…I fucked it up big time.
During that time, she was also suffering quite a lot because her own Lord of Lies regularly took over control. I witnessed how much she struggled and because I cared so deeply about her, I reached a point at which it was too much. I couldn’t bear it anymore seeing her like this. So, I ended things and cut off contact. Knowing full well how devastating this would be for her, especially the latter part. I think it took me almost a year to realize what I had just done.
I apologized and now we are on speaking terms again, for which I will be forever grateful. But what I did to her will always be one of the biggest fuck ups in my life.
Was leaving her wrong?
For the longest time I was convinced that it was. But now? I think there are two answers to this question. In that particular moment leaving her was the only valid choice I had. I wasn’t as stable as today and definitely lacked the mental strength I needed to support her and calm myself at the same time. But how I did it, especially cutting off contact, was certainly not the way to do it.
Maybe we met at the wrong time. Who knows, we will never know, and this is fine. As far as I can tell, she’s a lot happier now, more stable and pursuing her dreams. I wish her nothing but the best and will cherish what is and not linger in the past.
With this personal anecdote I want to illustrate one central idea: sometimes you only have the choice between a bad and a worse option. Distancing yourself from someone else because their shit is too much to handle for you, is maybe not the most popular decision, but if it protects your (mental) health, it is a valid option. I’m not saying you should always run for the hills when things get difficult, not at all. But it is important to understand your own limitations and how other people’s lives affect you. You are not your friend’s doctor or your partner’s therapist.
To love means to grow.
A Better Tomorrow
I could be wrong about all of this. After all, I am just a random guy on the internet, musing about his own weird life. I know there are merits in overcoming struggles and hardships in life. But shouldn’t those be the ones you actively choose and are not imposed on you? Of course, I would be a very different person today, if I didn’t have the past I had. Maybe I only became stronger by enduring all those things. But was it even necessary in the first place? Who knows what I could have achieved, if I wasn’t so preoccupied with figuring out my own shit? Instead, I sacrificed so much of myself in a pointless pursuit of slaying other people’s demons. Nobody ever asked me to do that, I simply thought I had to.
But now, for the first time, I am finally able to put myself first. I still care a lot about those dear to me and am still going to great lengths to support and protect them. But I am done sacrificing myself in the process. Now I understand that I am worth just as much as they are. That my needs and ideas are equally important and deserve to be treated with respect. I hope, I was able to convince you that yours are as well.
My Lord of Lies has crawled back into his pit. Now it’s your turn.