And why you need to know the difference.
You see pain and hardship all around you, and you want to help. People you know, people you don’t know. Your big heart is guiding you to do this.
Or is it?
There’s another part of you that could also be guiding you. Your ego. Your desire to be seen in a certain way, as a certain kind of person.
That’s how it was for me. I felt a strong desire to be of service to people in need. Part of that came from a true desire to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. And part of it came from my own neediness.
I couldn’t see the neediness part for years. Even though I was sometimes aware of doing things to showcase the ‘good’ work I was doing. I wanted people to know that I, who had the skills and expertise to be earning a lot more money, had chosen not to. So I could ‘do good’.
Working on and off for non profits scratched that itch. But my real coup de grâce came when I left a happy, carefree life to look after my ageing mother who had Parkinson’s.
I can say in all honesty that my decision to become my mum’s caregiver didn’t come from my ego. It came from my heart. But my subsequent behaviour came from my ego a lot of the time. Too much of the time.
I found my new life as my mum’s caregiver overwhelming. I was devastated to see someone I loved so much crumbling away. I was flying solo and had no respite from my caregiving role for months at a time. I was stressed out trying to manage everything. I had to work full-time to support the two of us, and hire minders to keep my mum safe during the day. I was up a lot at night helping her. I spent my evenings and weekends minding my mum and doing household chores. It was a lot to deal with.
The more stressed out I got, the more my ego reared its ugly head. My ego wanted the world to see the ‘dutiful daughter’. And ‘superwoman’. And the ‘good person’. And a whole bunch of other personas.
All I could see was that my behaviour towards my mum was inconsistent. One moment I was snappish; the next, kind.
But I didn’t understand why.
Many years later, I understand my behaviour.
Snappish Sarah was ego-driven behaviour, whereas kind Sarah was heart-driven. These two co-existed — uncomfortably — for the seven years I was her caregiver.
Of greater consequence was this. That what started as service quickly became self-sacrifice.
Service and self-sacrifice may look the same from the outside, but, from the inside, they’re not. There’s a big difference between them. Service is enriching, and self-sacrifice is depleting. For everyone concerned.
Service feels loving to all. Self-sacrifice feels destructive to all. Service makes everyone feel grateful. Self-sacrifice makes everyone feel guilty.
I also understand what lay behind my behaviour.
What caused me to go from service to self-sacrifice was that I’d stopped putting myself first.
I’d stopped caring for myself — for my own needs. I’d stopped nourishing myself, other than in the most basic of ways. I’d become so depleted that I went into survival mode — a mode where fear is in charge. And when fear is in charge, there’s no place for love.
You see, if you want to give of yourself — to serve — you must have something to give. What you’re told every time you’re on a plane is true. You have to help yourself — put on your own oxygen mask — before you help others with theirs.
Self-care is the starting place for service, because if you want to give your best, you have to be your best. And being your best means your whole self must be nourished. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.
So start putting yourself first today. With that big heart of yours, you’re hot-wired to serve. After all, service is what gives your life meaning.
Just make sure you don’t self-sacrifice instead. For everyone’s sake.