And if we sacrifice the sacrifice?
In the Oresteia, Aeschylus recounted that Agamemnon, in order to obtain the favor of the gods before leaving for war, decided to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. Although Iphigenia was saved at the last minute by Artemis, who assigned her the role of priestess in one of her temples, the intention of the sacrifice remains.
In fact, centuries ago in cultures such as Ancient Egypt it was not uncommon to sacrifice servants and officials to be buried with the recently deceased pharaoh, so that they could serve him in the afterlife. These practices are abhorrent to us today, but the idea of sacrifice at their core has survived as a core value in many modern societies. The only thing that has changed is that it is disapproved to sacrifice the others, so it is up to us to sacrifice ourselves for others.
The sacrifice trap: Consecrating ourselves without questioning anything
The word sacrifice comes from Latin, from the union of sacer and facio; that is to say: “to make things sacred” honoring and venerating them. The catch is that once something becomes sacred, we stop questioning it. By not questioning it, it becomes a kind of implicit rule or taboo.
In fact, it is no coincidence that the Latin adjective sacrum comes from the Latin verb sancire, from which, curiously, is also derived the word sanction, and means both to consecrate and to sanction, to make something inviolable or invulnerable or to make it sacred. Thus, society has transmitted to us that the very concept of sacrifice is not questioned. It’s a taboo.
Perhaps our rational mind does not know those meanings, but somehow our unconscious understands that sacrifice becomes something sacred and, as such, should not be discussed. If we are not willing to sacrifice, we are likely to be pointed at. Branded as selfish, misunderstood and outcasts. Instead, if we sacrifice we will be praised. We will receive acceptance and social status as a reward.
In fact, our cultures continue to revere sacrifice, as did older ones, many of which we now consider archaic and barbaric. Our society continues to maintain a sacrificial structure with mechanisms through which it ensures that we are willing to sacrifice ourselves when the time comes – ideally without thinking too much about it and without questioning it.
It is enough to think that whoever sacrificed himself for the country becomes a hero who serves as an example for children at school and Jesus on the cross, just at the moment he sacrifices himself for humanity, is the emblem of 2.4 billion of people in the world.
On the surface, self-sacrifice seems like a positive thing. When you sacrifice, you help others. Everyone sees you as kind, generous and selfless. For this reason, many people find it difficult to understand that personal sacrifice is not always positive.
Although there is nothing wrong with being generous and helping those we love or even complete strangers, there are limits to everything. That limit is exceeded when we give ourselves too much to others, then we could fall into chronic self-sacrifice.
Chronic self-sacrifice, a constant loss
In Western culture we have associated sacrifice with loss and pain. We sacrifice ourselves, but almost never willingly, rather reluctantly, because that’s what it takes. Although there is no shortage of those who affirm that when you love, it is not difficult to sacrifice something for someone.
Without a doubt, love is a powerful driving force behind sacrifice. But everything has a limit. And when only one part sacrifices, without receiving anything in return or not seeing the same level of commitment, the heart is depleted.
Jung said that “The act of sacrificing consists first of all in giving something that belongs to us.” When a sacrifice is authentic, we must waive any future claims. What we give, we must give up.
Freud also shared this vision of sacrifice. In fact, the word he used to refer to this act was “eingebu’t”, a passive participle of the verb “einbu’en”, which means to lose or suffer loss.
When you give and expect nothing in return, it’s hard not to experience a sense of loss, especially when it becomes the norm. For this reason, many people experience the sacrifice as a loss, which ends up creating fertile ground for regrets, reproaches, and frustration.
Chronic self-sacrifice occurs when we abandon our interests, goals, and dreams for the sake of other persons, putting their needs before our own. It is a sacrifice of your happiness for others.
You deny yourself the satisfaction of personal needs and desires, suppress your emotions or ignore your feelings, which means that you are relegating an important part of yourself to the background. That sacrifice comes at the expense of your physical and mental well-being, so it will eventually take its toll on you.
Chronic self-sacrifice ends up becoming an extreme form of altruism. Therefore, even if it is perceived positively by society, when it becomes dysfunctional or disruptive, it is not good for you.
On many occasions, people who have a tendency to sacrifice themselves for others follow a “self-sacrifice” scheme that does not need a reason to prioritize the others. They do it because they underestimate themselves, so they fall into a pathological response pattern.
That person is convinced that he is not worthy of being a priority and stops paying attention to himself to focus on satisfying the others. As a result, he never meets his own needs and denies himself what can make him happy and fulfilled.
For that reason, it is not strange that people who constantly sacrifice for others are always busy and worried, living under constant stress. As a result, they tend to struggle with anxiety, depression, and resentment.
Conscious sacrifice, the way to avoid remorse
Researchers at the Free University of Amsterdam discovered that our first impulse is indeed to make sacrifices for people we love. In one study, they asked participants to decide how many embarrassing questions they and their partners should ask strangers. However, people who had a lower level of self-control, because they were exhausted from a previous exercise, took on more than half of the “dirty work.” Instead, the others divided the task equally.
The idea that low self-control promotes a willingness to sacrifice may seem surprising, but it actually makes a lot of sense. When we are exhausted, we are more likely to choose the default strategies that we are accustomed to using in our close relationships, letting ourselves be carried away by our first impulses, those that have been instilled in us since childhood, without giving much thought to their feasibility or consequences.
On the contrary, when we have self-control we can stop for a second to reflect to understand what is most relevant or urgent in the situation. In that condition we do not let ourselves be carried away by our habitual impulses or what seems most urgent, but we weigh the wishes of others against our own. We make a more objective analysis of the situation and decide what to do.
We can choose the path of sacrifice or we can decide that it is not worth it. In certain circumstances, sacrificing for others is not the smartest way to go, and often it won’t even do others any good, as it can trigger unhealthy relational dynamics or take away opportunities for growth. In those cases, prioritizing yourself is not selfish, it is good sense.
Righetti, F. et. Al. (2013) Low Self-Control Promotes the Willingness to Sacrifice in Close Relationships. Psychological Science; 24(8): 10.1177.
Impett, E. A. & Gordon, A. M. (2008) For the good of others: Toward a positive psychology of sacrifice. In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), Positive psychology: Exploring the best in people, Vol. 2. Capitalizing on emotional experiences (79–100). Praeger Publishers/Greenwood Publishing Group.