Selflessness can come at a high cost, especially for sensitive souls, if it means neglecting your own wants and needs.
“I’m so tired of this, I don’t think I can handle anymore. But I don’t know what else to do.”
As a psychotherapist, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard some variation of this from my clients. They’re constantly giving to others, whether it be their work, academics, friends, family, partner, or even strangers.
It’s so easy to fall into this cycle without even realizing it. After all, our society promotes the concept of selflessness: this idea that we must always put the needs of others before our own and that considering ourselves is selfish. And, being a highly sensitive person (HSP), who feels the pain of others on a deep, visceral level, acting selflessly comes so second-nature to us.
I am here to tell you, though, speaking from both personal and professional experience, that being selfless comes at a high cost, especially for us sensitive souls.
Another Word for ‘Selflessness’ Is ‘Self-Sacrificing’
You see, when we act selflessly, we give to others at the expense of not giving to ourselves. Contrary to what we are taught to believe, selflessness is not a synonym for kindness, but rather, for self-sacrificing, since it means neglecting our own wants and needs. Similarly, selfishness is not the opposite of selflessness; instead, the opposite of selflessness is self-care.
Also, a quick caveat: There is a difference between single, courageous acts of bravery in which someone thinks of the greater good of everyone above all else vs. living life selflessly. With the former, many examples of Ukrainian citizens acting heroically to help their country during the war — and to help each other — come to mind. Such deeds are deeply moving, noble, and inspiring. In contrast, living life selflessly means there is a consistent pattern of never giving ourselves the care and consideration that we need. The below are some ways selflessness comes at a high cost for HSPs.
5 Costs of Selflessness Highly Sensitive People May Experience
1. When you don’t consider yourself first and foremost, it leads to burnout.
Selflessness, by its definition, entails that we do not listen to ourselves, including our wants and needs. When we do not check in with ourselves, or follow through with taking care of ourselves, we risk becoming burnt out. Burnout is a result of having too many demands, whether it be our job, caring for others, or taking on the weight of the world. And because HSPs have trouble saying “no” to others, they may be more susceptible to overextending themselves. But, eventually, all these demands then lead to an accumulation of stress without enough time to adequately recuperate. It is also worth noting that burnout is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon: even if you are not fully burnt out, you may be feeling “crispy,” i.e., on your way to burnout.
Although there are many risk factors for burnout — including being overworked, living through tumultuous world events, and experiencing personal difficulties. In my experience, being selfless is one of the most significant determinants for developing burnout. One study found that self-sacrificing is common among helping professionals, which then becomes a major risk factor for burnout.
Taking time to properly take care of ourselves — whether it be getting enough sleep, destimulating in our HSP sanctuary, or doing an activity that feeds our sensitive soul — counteracts the overwhelm that leads to burnout. Therefore, it is necessary to consider ourselves, first and foremost, when trying to avoid burnout.
2. Constantly focusing only on others can result in feelings of resentment.
One of the dangers of selflessness lie within the intentions behind our actions. Acting kindly and compassionately are associated with intentions of wanting to help others because it aligns with our values (and, therefore, makes us feel good). Whereas acting selflessly implies intentions of obligation: acting so because we’re supposed to, which becomes burdensome. And when we base our actions upon obligations — we say “yes” instead of “no” — especially when we do not take care of ourselves in the process, this becomes a recipe for resentment. According to research, resentment is a common emotional consequence of self-sacrificing.
Most of us have seen a depiction of that person who is constantly giving to others, never caring for themselves. Eventually, this person snaps, either by becoming short-tempered, irritable, and constantly angry at those around them, or doing something drastic and leaving their entire life behind. While these depictions are often exaggerated in TV shows, movies, or books for the sake of entertainment, there is also truth behind this narrative. Once we cross that line into a place of resentment, it becomes more and more difficult to act kindly toward others.
3. Neglecting your needs is not sustainable.
The saying “you can’t pour from an empty cup” is a cliché for a reason. When we are not considering ourselves, there is no way that we can truly refill our cups. To add insult to injury, our cups run out even faster when we are constantly self-sacrificing. This might look like consistently foregoing meeting our important needs — such as getting enough sleep (which is even more important for HSPs), nourishing our bodies with food and water, and having adequate rest and destimulation time — in order to prioritize others.
I also want to place emphasis on the word needs: these things are considered “needs” for a reason — we require them in order to survive! When we compromise our needs, this will likely lead to an “HSP hangover” in the short-term, and eventually, to completely crashing. Subsequently, the areas to which we would typically be pouring our cup into, such as helping others, our jobs, and even general HSP kindness, will be dry, as well.
4. If you do not extend compassion to yourself, you may experience compassion fatigue.
Selflessness entails that we do not think of ourselves. However, if we never think about ourselves, how are we supposed to show ourselves compassion? This lack of compassion toward ourselves can result in compassion fatigue, meaning that it becomes more difficult to extend empathy, understanding, and kindness onto others (which, ironically enough, is the exact opposite of our intentions). Indeed, research indicates that self-sacrificing puts individuals at a higher risk for developing compassion fatigue. And when our compassion, which is such a fundamental attribute of an HSP’s nature, has been compromised, this means that something is severely wrong.
5. You risk spreading harmful messages.
Have you ever experienced the thought: If this person doesn’t take care of themselves, then who am I to take care of myself? When we witness others, especially those we love, constantly self-sacrificing, then we may internalize the message that we don’t “deserve” to take care of ourselves.
Similarly, when we constantly act selflessly, we then risk further spreading such messages unto others, including that they shouldn’t take care of themselves or think positively toward themselves. As an HSP, it breaks my heart to think of others neglecting themselves, or being unkind to themselves, in that way, and I’d be willing to bet that you can relate.
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How to Be ‘Selfless’ the Healthy Way
Trying to stay away from selflessness does not mean that you no longer show kindness toward others. Not only would that be counterintuitive to your HSP nature, it would also be counterproductive. After all, we need more kindness in our world! That being said, here are some alternatives to selflessness — whether you feel you are nearing burnout or would like some tactics to use as a preventative self-care measure.
3 Kinder, Healthier Alternatives to Selflessness
1. Show yourself so much kindness that it overflows onto others.
Contrary to what many of us are taught to believe, showing ourselves kindness is not selfish, nor does it mean acting rudely and callously towards others. In fact, it’s the opposite: Research shows that self-compassion is associated with acting more compassionately toward others.
Self-compassion does not mean putting ourselves on a pedestal, but rather, treating ourselves with the same kindness as we would a friend. Plus, if you think of the meanest people and biggest bullies, it is usually quite apparent that they are experiencing negative inner turmoil, then taking that self-hatred out on others.
Conversely, when you show yourself kindness and compassion, that then overflows onto others. When I reflect back on those moments where I was acting most in alignment with my values of kindness and empathy, it was when I was treating myself compassionately, as well, making it easier to avoid acting from a place of resentment, burnout, and compassion fatigue. When we are giving ourselves what we need, acting kindly toward others comes that much more naturally.
2. Model self-care for others.
Engaging in self-care is crucial for not just our well-being, but even our survival. This is especially true for us HSPs, since our sensitive nervous systems are even more susceptible to overwhelm.
Self-care may look like taking care of our bodies by getting plenty of sleep; eating nourishing foods; moving joyfully; taking care of our minds by avoiding overstimulation and allowing ourselves to take breaks; taking care of our hearts by seeking support from loved ones, going to therapy, or journaling; and setting boundaries to prevent resentment and burnout.
When people witness you taking care of yourself in these ways, you may inspire them to do the same. For example, I am much more prone to take a mental health day when others around me take one, too. Also, a critical part of taking care of ourselves is acting in accordance with our values. As an HSP, this likely means showing compassion for others. Therefore, self-care does include being kind toward others! Just remember the oxygen mask rule: You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.
3. Check in with yourself.
When we operate from a place of selflessness, we risk becoming burnt out, and subsequently, moving through life on autopilot. And when we are checked out like that, it can lead us to behave in ways that we would not otherwise want to.
However, checking in with ourselves can help us not only avoid falling into that trap, but also help us best take care of ourselves. So make a habit of taking a temperature check on a regular basis. Ask yourself: How am I truly doing right now? What do I need at this moment? How crispy/burnt out am I feeling? How am I showing up with myself? How am I showing up with others? What changes do I want to make in order to feel better and be living in alignment with my values?
Remember, HSPs, that compassion is an inherent part of our nature. There is nothing that can change that important and wonderful piece about who you are, including being more considerate of yourself. And ironically, when we act from a place of selflessness, this can eventually lead us further away from our values of kindness and compassion due to the unintended consequences. So I encourage you to do yourself (and others) a favor by moving away from selflessness and toward kindness — both for others, as well as for yourself.
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