From Sacrifice to Sabotage

I love a solid work ethic! Can’t begin to say enough about the importance of serving people, easing pain, lightening heavy loads, healing the world, and stepping up and making a difference!

Whether that service happens within the confines of a family home, in a spiritual or civic community, inside an organization, out in the larger world… just about any actions that improve the well-being of people and/or the planet are good things in my book.

What happens, though, when the giving of oneself tips over the edge into doing harm to the self in service of doing good for others?

I’m not talking war heroes or, for that matter, those who heroically put themselves firmly in harm’s way in the face of disaster.

I’m talking about those on the slow, steady burn of self-sacrifice who chronically put their own health and well-being on the back burner in ways that can’t help but dull their edge, lead to burnout, and worse.

Culturally, I think we all too often operate in ways that conflate being of service with martyrdom. What’s worse is that we elevate and celebrate self-sacrifice to such distortedly extreme levels that it becomes attractive, strangely putting this kind of sacrifice on the same noble level as the heroism mentioned above.

But are things like, for example, picking up someone else’s slack at the office really the same as running into a burning building to save a child?

I’m pretty sure no one tells their young kids that their greatest aspiration should be working themselves to the point of breakdown, illness, or death.

By example, though, we sure seem to demonstrate that those kinds of sacrifices are noble things to make. What’s up with that?

Over the years I’ve heard innumerable clients clearly describe the stress-inducing physical, mental, and emotional demands of their work, only to hear them turn around and wonder why they feel so tired, dissatisfied, alone, just plain angry. Or somehow not up to the super-human demands they just shared.

Often, their dissatisfaction and/or ire is directed inward, as if they are at cause or otherwise damaged in a way that prevents them from being, well… super-human.

To be clear, these are smart men working at high levels. Most folks would think them extraordinarily functional dudes sitting on top of the world.

And some of them are absolutely that.

Many, however, find themselves at the far limits of their formidable capacities.

Even though they’re tops in their fields – committed, capable, and sharp as tacks – they’ve been revving at redline for so long that their engines are smoking, and there is simply no more “more” left to leverage.

Here’s the thing: just about any value taken to an extreme quickly becomes a liability, even when it’s good stuff like being of service, selflessness, and over-delivering. And these are men (it’s not only men, of course) of high integrity, which strangely, yet predictably, adds additional layers of pressure.

After all, if one is already going above and beyond, how much more above and beyond is likely to be available?

All this begs self-examination, asking questions like, “What has me say ‘yes’ when my plate is already full?” or “What is my relationship with ‘no’?”  It also requires slowing down enough to question default organizational systems (or lack of systems and/or systemic awareness) that habitually siphon tasks and responsibilities to the obvious go-to guy.

And who has the time?


Might be me, but being curious about one’s own, and one’s organization’s behavioral patterns seems a very good thing to make time for.

None of this stuff happens in a vacuum or by itself. Systems are complex beasties populated by equally complex human beings, and looking at these equations does take dedicated time, energy, and focus. What’s cool, however, is that taking the time, focus, and energy to discover and address, with curiosity, the individual and collective patterned behaviors, thoughts, and emotional components that create these burnout-inducing situations can’t help but yield positive outcomes for all.

Shared responsibility is likely the antithesis of distorted heroism. But it’s hard to argue that sacrificing oneself to the point of self-sabotage, to where one fails physically, emotionally, and energetically, is of long-term sustainable benefit to anyone.

You, Dear Friend, matter too much to too many people – including, and most importantly yourself – to flame-out.

Let’s work together to keep you around, shall we?

Note: If this piece strikes a chord – or you know someone in, or heading for, this kind of circumstance, here are a couple of very useful, highly recommended resources:

· Powered by Me: From Burned out to Fully Charged at Work and in Life by Dr. Neha Sangwan

· Expansive Intimacy: How “Tough Guys” Defeat Burnout by Jim Young

(Yes, both authors have been guests on my podcast, and for good reason.)