Self-Care or Selflessness?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

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

My Favorite Quotes

Photo Credit: Sarah Corlett
Photo Credit: Sarah Corlett

“Don’t be discouraged by your incapacity to dispel darkness from the world. Light your candle and step forward.” — Amma

“It’s not learning that brings you to perfection, it’s unlearning.” — Mother Antonia

“Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened!!” — Dr. Seuss

“I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle.  Sometimes I just wish he didn’t trust me so much. — Mother Theresa

“Lord, Please help me make it through this self imposed, and totally unnecessary challenge.”     — Author Unknown

“Teilhard de Chardin wrote that we must ‘trust in the slow work of God’………Ours is a God who waits.  Who are we not to?  It takes what it takes for the great turnaround.  Wait for it.” — Gregory Boyle