Stop setting yourself on fire to keep everybody else warm!
What a vivid image of martyrdom! Being a martyr is stressful because you sacrifice your own health in order to try and improve everybody else’s. It is usually well-intended since many people feel like it’s the ‘right thing to do,’ the ‘compassionate’ thing to do. And we should all be compassionate, right? Well, not really, because we often confuse empathy and compassion.
Empathy is when you take on the feelings of the person in front of you. So, if they are having a panic attack and come to you for help, empathy would cause YOU to have a panic attack with them. Not very helpful for either of you. Compassion, however, means that there is a genuine understanding of the suffering of the other person, and even a warmth from you, but that there is also a healthy distance that allows you to be safe and helpful without being drawn into their suffering.
It’s better to see that somebody is shivering, then build a fire for both of you than it is to light yourself on fire to warm them up! You’ll be useless to others (and useless to the person you’re warming up) if you are burnt to a crisp!
How to stop being a martyr
I am going to cover four main ideas on how to overcome being a martyr. There are certainly other ideas would apply, but these are a great place to start. Get in touch with me if you’d like to discuss how to do this for yourself, or if you have ideas I can add to this article.
- Mindfulness practice
- Love yourself (Self-compassion)
- Recharge your energy supplies
- Have great boundaries (know when and how to say “no”)
1) Start a mindfulness practice
First of all, mindfulness practice is extremely useful. Being able to see and admit that you are being a martyr is necessary before you can change it. Remember, it’s not that you are doing it wrong, it’s just that you’ll burn yourself out (pun intended!) in the process of trying to help and therefore not be helpful for others or even for yourself.
2) Love yourself!
Next, once you see it, admit to yourself that self-love is NOT selfish! To love yourself is essential when wanting to help other people. When you fly, you’re told to put the oxygen mask on yourself THEN your kids because you are useless to the kids if you pass out first. Loving yourself enough to care for yourself keeps you healthy and more present. This means that there’s actually more of you to go around! But you have to replenish yourself.
3) Replenish your batteries so that you can truly help to your potential
Also remember that when you recharge your batteries, you are modeling that healthy behavior to those you care about.
Write down a list of things that you enjoy, things that just feel good, things that seem to bring you up.
These can be small things like:
- Taking a five-minute walk
- Taking a warm bath
- Loving on your pets!
Or bigger things like:
- Getting a massage
- Going to therapy
- Being social with friends and family
- Taking a nice mini-vacation (alone or with a loved one)
Lifestyle examples would include:
- A healthy diet
- Regular exercise
- Drinking plenty of water
- Getting a good night’s sleep
What is important is that these things are healthy (which means being careful about alcohol and drugs) and are meaningful to YOU.
4) Know when to say no
There are certainly times when you need to know how to say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t be there right now” (that’s actually one way to say it). It is not a bad idea, however, to have a suggestion of what they might be able to do. Ideas may include:
- Calling another trusted friend, family member, or mentor
- Reading a book that they enjoy
- Getting in touch with their therapist
Then remind them that you’d love to be there for them just as soon as you take care of yourself so that you can be fully present. “I care about you enough that I want to be fully present with you, so I need to take care of myself right now.”
Learn more about Stress Management Counseling in Austin.
Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan is a Gottman-trained Couples Counselor, and in 1998 received training by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.