“You’re a really good listener.”
“I feel like you’re my life coach.”
“You’re a goddamn angel.”
When I’ve heard phrases like these, it’s filled me with warmth, affection and buckets of pride. Because I freakin’ love people. Nothing gives me joy like pouring a glass of wine for a mate and hearing how their week was. Even if their week was a hot mess. In fact, to not help someone in obvious pain would feel like stumbling upon someone caught in a bear trap and asking them which way the nearest Coles is.
Highly sensitive people are prone to being empathetic and treating other people’s problems like their own. This can be a wonderful, endearing trait. However, if you’re regularly running to a friend’s rescue without getting much support in return, chances are you have what psychologist Jeffrey E. Young et al refer to in Schema Therapy as a Self-Sacrifice schema (and most likely an Emotional Deprivation schema to boot).
I didn’t see how my childhood of looking out for my anxious single mum had conditioned me to be an emotional caretaker in later life.
According to Young — who pioneered Schema Therapy in the mid 1980s — schemas (or ‘life traps’) are patterns that start in childhood and echo throughout our lives. They help form our beliefs about the world and ourselves. The Self-Sacrifice schema is characterised by excessive focus on meeting the needs of others, often at the expense of your own needs. Even though this altruistic behaviour is voluntary, people with this schema may be subconsciously motivated by guilt or fear that if they don’t meet the needs of their friend, colleague or partner, then that person will suffer somehow. It’s likely they had a parent who was emotionally needy or physically ill throughout their childhood.
You may believe you don’t expect anything in return for your warmth and kindness, but when your friend (or significant other) inevitably doesn’t give as much back, shizz can hit the fan and you’re prone to exit through the gift shop, leaving a trail of confusion in your wake.
Being self-aware about this pattern and continually challenging yourself about it is a good start.
In my case, I always assumed my desire to put others’ needs before my own was a reflection of my Christian faith. I didn’t see how my childhood of looking out for my anxious single mum had conditioned me to be an emotional caretaker in later life. I didn’t really mind how that uni acquaintance kept calling to give long, late night monologues despite my meek protests that I started work at 7AM. I didn’t see the problem with colleagues treating me like a walking confessional for their inter-office romances while I wrestled with loneliness. I made excuses for guys who dated me even though they were emotionally unavailable, fresh out of relationships or still navigating their own sexuality (…and sometimes all three). It wasn’t until a few years ago when I burned out from juggling several of these emotionally draining relationships and abruptly moved cities that I realised that they weren’t really the problem, I was.
So what do you do if you suspect you’re nursing a Self-Sacrifice and/or Emotional Deprivation schema? Being self-aware about this pattern and continually challenging yourself about it is a good start. For me, that means nipping in the bud warp-y thoughts like, ‘People only like you when you’re listening to their problems’. It means seeking out friends and lovers who are affectionate and readily available over those who are cold and aloof (even if the chemistry is CRAZY good). It means learning to spell out my needs more clearly, even if that involves putting up boundaries like, ‘I can’t take personal calls at work’ or ‘Have you thought about talking to someone about this?’ However my greatest act of self-care was to visit my GP and get a referral for a psychologist. Best money I ever spent. And if you’re anything like me, it’s probably a solid investment for you too.
If this story raises issues for you, talk to your GP or contact beyondblue on 1300 22 46 36.