Self-Care or Selflessness?

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I have a long history of overdoing. At one point in my life, I was holding three jobs at the same time. When I have become involved with organizations, I have often done more than is reasonable for one person to do. My overdoing has led to serious illnesses that have been breaking points, where slowing down became a necessity rather than a choice. I believe it was this pattern of overdoing that led to me to having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for five or more years in the mid to late eighties, and to the high blood pressure I am dealing with today.

To some degree, the types of overdoing I am referring to were caused by a pattern of rescuing.  In his Drama Triangle construct, Stephen Karpman describes the Rescuer in this way:

“The rescuer’s line is ‘Let me help you.’ A classic enabler, the Rescuer feels guilty if he/she doesn’t go to the rescue. Yet his/her rescuing has negative effects: It keeps the Victim dependent and gives the Victim permission to fail. The rewards derived from this rescue role are that the focus is taken off of the rescuer. When he/she focuses their energy on someone else, it enables them to ignore their own anxiety and issues. This rescue role is also very pivotal, because their actual primary interest is really an avoidance of their own problems disguised as concern for the victim’s needs.”

Jean Illsley Clarke once taught me five questions to ask myself when I think I might be rescuing.

  • Was I asked to do what I am doing?
  • Do I want to do it?
  • Am I doing more than my share?
  • Do others appreciate me for what I am doing? (Rescuers are often not appreciated.)
  • Am I doing something for someone that they can do for themselves?

Answering yes to one of those questions does not mean that I am rescuing, but if yes is the answer to many of them, the chances are that I am. So shifting my pattern of rescuing was an important part of my healing journey.

From a therapy perspective, focusing on self-care by stopping rescuing makes sense.  Even though I valued being in service, it was still my job to keep myself healthy.  When I began to look at self-care and selflessness from a spiritual perspective though, I started to have doubts. There are many who have forsaken their health, their comforts and sometimes even their lives, to live a life of service.  They have shown us what is possible for one person to accomplish in a life time.  They have been, or will be, a source of inspiration long after they are gone from this world.

To me, Amma, my spiritual teacher and mentor, is one of those people. Her form of blessing is through a hug. Amma has hugged more than 34,000,000 people in her lifetime. She needs almost no food or sleep. If she is not giving darshan (hugs) she is serving humanity in some other way, including her massive network of humanitarian projects known as Embracing the World. Her life is a model of selflessness.

When I thought about people present and the past who have inspired others through their selflessness, the following individuals came to mind.  All have taught the importance of serving humanity.


John 13:34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.

Acts 20:35 “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Matthew 25:35-40: ”For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

Mahatma Gandhi :

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Martin Luther King Jr.:

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

St: Francis of Assisi:

“O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand, to be loved, as to love.”

Mother Theresa:

Prayer in action is love, and love in action is service.” 

As I pondered the importance of self-care versus selflessness, I could rationalize that I am not Amma, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, St. Francis or Mother Theresa and therefore could not expect myself to serve at that level.

My thoughts on this topic took another turn, though, in the late 90’s when I read a book, A Promise is a Promise, by Wayne Dyer. It was an account of a teenager who in 1970 asked her mother to promise that she would never leave her. Soon thereafter the 17 year old slipped into a diabetic coma, one she never came out of. The mother kept her word and, with help, cared for her daughter until she herself died 25 years later. (A Promise is a Promise was written while the mother was still alive.) Then others cared for the daughter until she died on November 21, 2012, forty-two years after she became comatose.

Reading that book had a profound impact on me. I still remember Dr. Dyer saying that walking into their home felt like being in the holiest of temples.

When I first started reading A Promise is a Promise, I made the judgment that the mother was not taking care of herself appropriately. But as I continued to read, my attitude began to change. Her actions seemed like unconditional love, perhaps the highest form of spiritual practice. While I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I now see that her actions actually conformed to the guiding questions I had learned from Jean Clarke:

  • The mother had been asked and had agreed to what she was doing
  • She wanted to do it
  • Even though she devoted her life to caring for her daughter, she had help.
  • Her daughter would have undoubtedly appreciated her efforts
  • She was clearly doing something for her daughter that the girl could not do for herself

Reading about a “regular” person who was so selfless, presented me with another dilemma. When I lived a life of uncontrolled doing, even if when it was in the spirit of service, I became sick to the point I couldn’t function.  How do I know when to focus on self-care and when to make service the priority?

I continue to ponder that question to this day. I believe for me it has to be about balance. I must practice good self-care by nourishing my body, mind and soul and at the same time make sure that I am not over-committing or over-stressing myself.  I must also continue to watch out for my tendency to rescue.  I can be in service to others and still do my best to keep myself healthy.

Written for Dungeon Prompts: Breaking Point

19 thoughts on “Self-Care or Selflessness?

  1. Great questions. I feel like we’ve come to undervalue the service involved in being/achieving health in body, mind and spirit and how that contributes to a healthy earth. And the healthier anyone is in body, mind and spirit when offering service to others, the more lovingkindness there is in the offering. I know I’m not anywhere close to the state of higher consciousness that Amma, Jesus, etc. achieved, which seems like it creates a state of energy that allows that kind of endless service without depleting. I’m still healing. But in the amount that I’ve healed so far , I can see that when I do offer service, it’s from a kinder, gentler place…

    Liked by 3 people

  2. oooooodoes this hit the proverbial nail on the proverbial head. I swear, Karuna, you deal with the issues that have been primary in my life for a long time also.  Your ability to put it all into words that are skillfully written and from the heart, pack a powerful impact. Thank you again for all you do and are…. J/Aditi

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What is desirable, karuna, is the appropriate balance between self-care and selflessness. One must pitch in with just the right support at just the right time. An ardent devotee, frustrated at lack of divine help in spite of what appeared to her as long drawn suffering, cried out in anguish, ‘karuna cheyvaan enthu thaamasam Krishna…’ Krishna stepped in with relief in the exact rightness of time, not earlier, not later…best wishes… Raj.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. A wonderful and most eloquent article Karuna. I was particularly struck by the perceptiveness of Stephen Karpman’s words, and how pertinent they are as regards a close friend of mine.

    In gratitude,


    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh my!! I kept nodding throughout the entire post and went back to reread passages. Coming from a background (born, raised ) of alcoholism, I saw rescuing, enabling and more rescuing as a patter but did not recognize my role…yet.. It was easy to see “others” in this role but it took me decades before I became aware…it took a “breaking point!” …a burnout…keeping busy to avoid looking at my life, chronic fatique syndrome and developed into Fibromyalgia. Similarities again, my dear. If it had not been for that breaking point, however, I would never have become aware of the signs. I volunteered at several places besides working at 3 jobs to help but mostly to avoid looking at my life. I think we also have a persona that draws people to us and we need to be aware of when too much is too much…finding balance in my life was finally accomplished but through the pain, the burnout…breaking down physically before the mind crashed. Great post, my dear!!


    1. Yes, once again we have many similarities! I’m glad you could relate to what I said in the post. I’m headed in an hour for my next Sanskrit immersion camp. I wonder what adventures await me there!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are wise enough to know by now (I finished book 1&2 of Getting to Joy) to be open to the universe…anything can happen. I am reading Amma’s biography now…I keep falling asleep after I read about a a long ago legend…not out of boredom just weird.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for sharing. I have viewed incidents of bad health (physical weakness, collapse coming from being the rescuer) as a sign that I was oversimplifying the “Path.” Serving others is great but raising the level of consciousness we are employing to do that service is important, too. I feel God wants me to be able to serve others in a way that never feels like a drag. All my health crises that came out of extreme service work (being the rescuer) had that feeling of being a “drag” (effortfull/draining) in the background, at least.


    1. I’m glad you have a way to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy attitudes towards service. It sounds like the feeling of being a “drag” is a sign for you.


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