Overwhelmed woman behind tall stack of folded laundry.

When does caring for others and serving them shift into the wary territory of unhealthy sacrifice? I’ve been working to distinguish this for myself.

For example, in general, I enjoy serving my family. I make meals, help out with kids, share our abundance and host holiday gatherings. I’ve gotten better over the years at inviting family members to contribute what they can so I’m not doing it all.

It becomes unhealthy sacrifice when I’ve given too much and find myself feeling exhausted and resentful. I’ve overdone it.

How do I end up in that territory? I notice that sometimes I volunteer too quickly without thinking through the implications or larger impact on my schedule, my time, my creativity. And then suddenly, I feel burdened — a victim of my own enthusiasm. I’ve done it to myself. I said “yes” too easily.

My very large family is pretty good about not taking advantage of me. They’ll ask if it really works for me before they drive their kids over for the night. This gives me a chance to consider the implications again. Does it work?

That’s the question I ask myself over and over: Is this workable? Meaning, do I have the time, energy and capacity for this particular activity or promise? I have to really look to see.

Years ago, the only way I knew something wasn’t working was after the fact, through my own suffering made visible. If I was suffering, then I knew it didn’t work. Suffering is how you know you’ve crossed the line from a sense of service and generosity into sacrifice.

In many religious traditions, sacrifice is revered. In this context, sacrifice is the offering of material possessions or the lives of animals or humans to a deity as an act of propitiation or worship. In other words, something of value is offered as an act of worship.

Of course, your offering of time and creativity is a way to communicate to your family that you love (not worship, necessarily) them, but also that you want to give your best to them. Unhealthy sacrifice happens when you give too much of yourself, when you feel resentful and bitter about the exchange.

That resentment is the telltale.

Sometimes the thing that doesn’t work — the too much — is perfectionism. I had a conversation with a friend the other day who lives in a house on a beautiful lake. She and her husband created a wonderful gathering place for friends and family. But during the summer, she becomes a washerwoman. She admitted that she washes 10-15 beach towels a day after her guests have had a dip in the lake.

I asked her why she doesn’t ask her guests to bring their own beach towels. She shook her head “no” and said that she likes all the towels to match. Perfectionism. The obvious downside is that while she’s washing towels everyone else is out there having fun. Eventually, even if it’s beneath the surface, resentment is likely to set in.

Can you recognize your own resentment? What are the indications for you? Psychologists connect resentment to experiencing neglect, disappointment, envy, disgust, exasperation and irritation.

Anger is the primary emotion I experience when resentment peeks its head through the fence. I’m mad at someone I love, sometimes really mad. I have to sift and sort my thoughts and feelings — through journaling or going for a walk or just sitting quietly — until I can figure out what I am so mad about.

Often, I unearth some kind of disappointment. Something didn’t go the way I thought it would. Maybe not enough appreciation was offered (or none at all) and I feel taken for granted. Or someone said they would do something to help out and they didn’t follow through. Or I feel neglected and not considered in plans or events.

When I find myself being judgmental, I write them down so I can get a good look at them. Then, I do The Work, a creation by Byron Katie. She developed what she calls a “Judge Your Neighbor” worksheet. It’s fabulous for figuring out what you’re upset about.

What I can see now is that service is a kind of circle, where we serve one another in the ways that communicate love, affinity, connection. I like to bake and cook, so I often serve through food. My family members then serve me by picking up a coffee for me on their way to my house. Or volunteering to do the dishes after a big family meal. This kind of reciprocal service keeps me feeling like my service is part of the larger whole.

What might it take for you to offer your community true service devoid of unhealthy sacrifice? What do you have to stop doing, start doing, continue doing? This is the road back to a true contribution.


  • Dede Henley


    Henley Leadership Group

    I founded Henley Leadership Group 22 years ago to help leaders and organizations create more equitable and productive workplaces and ignite the nascent leadership potential of employees at all levels. Through individual coaching and programs designed to generate positive business results, Henley Leadership Group has served thousands of corporate leaders in a variety of industries, including healthcare, technology, energy and finance. Away from work, I live with my husband, and try not to meddle too much in the lives of my half-dozen kids.