Self-Sacrifice Schema

Penny* is perpetually tired. A nurse by training, she currently works as a 2IC for a disability services provider. Her boss is personable, but disorganised and Penny feels like she’s always picking up the slack. Things aren’t any easier at home. Penny sometimes ‘jokes’ that she has a second (unpaid) job managing the household. Sometimes however, she’s unable to joke, her simmering resentment boils over and she breaks down in stress and frustration. Penny’s husband has told her to “chill out”. Penny’s friends have told her to “go on strike”. Penny feels stuck.


The get-give ratio

You might have heard that some people are givers, and some are takers. We are warned about the takers. Good parents try to teach their kids not to be a taker. We speak harshly of people in our lives who seem to be takers. But what about the givers? Is being a giver the right way to go in life? Is it a victimless crime to be a giver?

Being too much of a giver can be problematic and even pathological. Those who give too much habitually are at risk of burn out. These people usually harbour resentment towards others in their lives who don’t give so readily. Because of culturally acceptable dislike of takers, people who are givers can feel that they are doing the right thing and that everyone else should change. Unfortunately, others won’t change. This unhealthy habit of giving vastly more than receiving may be a sign of a Self-Sacrifice Schema. A schema is a habitual pattern of thinking and acting which has usually been present since before adulthood. Why on earth do some people persist in putting themselves last?



Self-sacrificers usually feel a lot of guilt when they prioritise their own needs over the needs of others. Part of Penny knows it is draining and unfair to always make up for her boss’s disorganisation. However, whenever she’s tried to let him suffer the consequences of his erratic nature, she feels guilty. Guilty for him and for the disabled people for whom they care. Things just don’t get done! Or done well! She just can’t seem to switch off this hyper-responsible side of herself. She has been like this since she was a teenager when her father left and her mother went to work full time. Penny took the mother role for her younger siblings. Around the same time, she started being the “therapist” for her social group; listening to the problems of others diverted her attention from her own problems and was a source of self-esteem and pride.

Is this a problem? “It’s not so bad”, she tells herself much of the time. “I can handle it, others can’t”. There is pride in being the only one competent and responsible enough. When she’s feeling on top of her work and family duties, she feels pretty good about herself. “What’s wrong with being this way?”, she thinks.


Unfortunately, anger is the natural consequence of the give-get ration being out of balance against your favour. Penny doesn’t admit that she’s angry most of the time, she sees it as frustration. Her husband feels sniped at and criticised. He and the kids avoid doing tasks that they know they won’t do well enough. Because of this, they have been de-skilled in household duties. Her boss unthinkingly expects that Penny will pick up the slack. Penny is enabling his disorganisation.

Penny’s anger sometimes builds to rage. The people she feels safe with, like her husband and kids, get on the receiving end of this at times. However, most other people would never know that she is frustrated, angry and stressed. She would feel too much guilt to express anger towards them. Instead, this anger turns inward and makes her feel hopeless and depressed.

Schema therapy helped Penny by first identifying and naming the Self-Sacrifice Schema. This helped her to see her overly-giving nature as an unhelpful habit, and not an unchanging reality. Next, Penny worked out what is a reasonable amount of work for her to do, and what is reasonable to expect from others. Penny was a reverse hypocrite. She expected more from herself than she felt was reasonable to expect of others. Third, Penny learnt to sit with the guilt of putting her needs first. She learnt to stop herself from rushing in to save loved ones from their own laziness and disorganisation. Some in Penny’s life got angry or upset about this (they had learnt to feel entitled to her energy and efforts), but eventually they accepted the new normal and appreciated the new, more relaxed Penny.

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