Relationships, Life Changes, Therapy, and Personality: Self-Sacrificing Style

Help for helpers

Predominantly Self-Sacrificing individuals are what many would call the ‘salt of the earth’.

For a first set of easily visible qualities, we can see in the Self-Sacrificing a giving nature, honesty, helpfulness, acceptance of others, loyalty, humbleness, patience, and willingness to tolerate discomfort for progress and for others. However, Self-sacrificing folks have a tendency not to suspect the dark or deceptive motives of some people (or in some situations). Also, they tend not to realize how important they truly are to others and they have trouble accepting open appreciation and love.

This is the third post in a series on ‘personality styles’ described in The New Personality Self-Portrait by Oldham & Morris. For more detail about the source, please see my credits and comments at the end. Please note: people can have a mixture of more than one major style, which I think is realistic and useful.

The original template for the Self-Sacrificing personality style was Self-Defeating Personality Disorder (SDPD), a much more rigid set of traits. It is no longer ‘considered for study’ in official manuals, but many clinicians still find it (and the related style) useful.

SDPD is best summarized in terms of:

  • Habitual choosing of relationships and situations that will lead to emotional pain, failure, or mistreatment–even when the risk is clear
  • Neutralization of attempts of others to help
  • Depression, guilt, or negative consequences following successes and positive events
  • Sometimes unconsciously upsets others but then feels totally crushed by the negative response
  • Rejects pleasure, does not acknowledge enjoyment
  • Can do important things for others, but not self
  • Is uninterested in others who treat them well, even when such others are available
  • Does highly self-sacrificing things for others who did not even ask

Back to Self-Sacrificing Style, Rather than ‘Disorder’: What Could Be the Problem for Capable Do-Gooders?

Problems come when naivete, low cunning, and low self-appreciation of the mainly Self-Sacrificing becomes excessive, or when the more praiseworthy traits become too rigid. Strongly Self-Sacrificing people have the most trouble when they run smack into people with certain behaviors or qualities. These are listed in (thankfully) descending order of frequency:

  • People who, consciously or not, use Self-Sacrificing people unfairly and excessively
  • People who feel threatened by do-gooders, experiencing shame or anxiety about being possibly overshadowed by simple, unassuming performance
  • People who hate, envy, or enjoy harming others, especially those who ‘do for’ others / companies / families

The Self-Sacrificing individual is often hugely valuable in workplaces and or families

So much so, that even if they are worried or confronted with a threat, they are in little danger of being fired or abandoned. However, they can risk unconscious burnout and resentment. It is easy for others to ignore those who do not trumpet their value and accomplishments all the time. If they have trouble seeing that they take on too much, predominantly Self-Sacrificing people are at risk for self-blame and self-hatred. So many people I have helped say, “All I want to do is be quiet, work hard, do the right things, be an asset, and go home” (to work hard some more, I might add). Yet, they continue, “coworker / superior / family member won’t let me do just those things”.

Dr. Chris Michael discusses how strong helpers can be on an endless treadmill

Their strategy for getting others to finally be happy and let them rest just a bit? Do more—faster, better, or both. Now, behaviorists out there, what starts to happen? Bullies, or even people who unconsciously take some advantage, get rewarded for increasing their demands and expectations.

If this impossible situation causes the Self-Sacrificing person to fumble or stumble, they often try to reduce anxiety by…blaming themselves.

“I was always a strong, non-bragging, understanding, and righteous person. How did I become so weak? I just need to try harder.” Although brief self-blame and guilt can be appropriate if correct, many people sometimes use this illusion: “I could have controlled this all along if I had just done more, or differently”. However, the predominantly Self-Sacrificing (as with some other styles) do this a lot. The idea that a spouse, child, boss, etc., might be unpleasable (or oblivious, etc.) seems unbearable…so it must be them.

Self-sacrificing and helpers can try to feel in control through self-blame

Finally, if things go too far, what can ultimately get Self-Sacrificing people into trouble is either exhaustion, or an unexpected outburst of anger or panic. Such outbursts tend to mystify them and worry or offend others, because they can be sudden and seemingly out of character.

A sneakier trouble spot is when a mainly Self-Sacrificing individual fails to give others the pleasure of accepting love and appreciation. Self-Sacrificers are good at giving direct pleasure (a way to feel they are maintaining their value). They are not so good at receiving. Having faith that the other is pleased by that is an anxious gamble for them.

Possible Matches in Relationships for the Mainly Self-Sacrificing

Because the Self-Sacrificing individual can be vulnerable to callousness or exploitation, relationships with strongly Aggressive, Adventurous, and Self-Confident individuals are probably a bad idea. Otherwise, Oldham & Morris continue, they can pair up very well with many other types—but success depends upon what other styles they have in their makeup, and how those interact.

How to help and have better relationships with someone predominantly Self-Sacrificing?

Oldham & Morris have some ideas with which I agree…

  • Encourage them to let go to pleasures and self-interest in some alone time, or time alone with a close relation / partner. In larger groups, they are visible and, thus, must keep ‘doing for’. Encourage them not to use their time to figure out what to do for others next.
  • Keep in mind that underneath the can-do attitude, which is genuine, Self-Sacrificing people may get resentful or feel crushed under assumed obligations. Help them reduce a little, even if temporarily.
  • Tell them that you see and appreciate everything they are doing, even if they just give an “Aw, shucks, it’s nothing.” Taking advantage of them or taking them for granted is easy, but the long-term results can be unfortunate.
  • Do new things yourself before a Self-Sacrificing person even has a chance to start doing it for you.
Helpers and self-sacrificing people: I'll get right on that...

I’ll get right on that…

Self-sacrificing individuals (per Oldham & Morris) can also consider:

  • If, in imagination, you were being totally selfish but no one could ever hold it against you, what would you want someone to do for you?
  • Say ‘yes’ to help. Get help for any anxious, negative fantasies about what will happen if you have some expectations or allow some help.
  • As an experiment, ask others to do some things. If they say, “But you already do it so well”, help them learn how to do it and then ask again.
  • Work on letting others know when you are hurt. Get some help or self-help for dealing with the anxiety of ‘what might happen’ if you express and manage your genuine feelings first.
  • Try to catch yourself apologizing, sooner and sooner. If you notice after you have already apologized out of habit, then correct yourself after the fact, like a ‘reminder movie’. Eventually, the lag will shorten and shorten.
  • If others invite you or offer to you, ask yourself: is the idea really for me to contribute…or just enjoy?
  • Seeing potential downsides to major, out-of-your way efforts is not a sin. Are you wanting or trying to fix something or someone into a wonderful fantasy by helping, helping, helping? For Self-Sacrificing people, that can be a signal that this is the very thing or person to avoid and not try to fix.

I have experience working with people who have a lot of this style and styles with some similar concerns, such as the Sensitive, Serious, Conscientious, and Devoted styles. Feel free to contact me if you or a loved one might need ‘help for a helper’.

*I give full credit for the content to Oldham & Morris (1995). Any elaboration and exploration is my doing. If you want significantly more detail on each personality style, please go get the book. Also, take the test: it is here. I have no business relationship with the authors or the test-makers. Please see the intro post on this topic for other info.

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