Serving Others Was a Disservice To Me

Jan 2nd, 2012 | By | Category: All Posts, Christina's Blog

by Christina Enevoldsen

Several years ago, I had a friend whose husband wasn’t treating her right and she wavered between leaving him and staying. Some days, she’d had enough and other days, she wanted to give him another chance. I knew better than to try to give any advice. My role as her friend was to listen to her and to cry with her. I could share from my experience, but I couldn’t tell her what to do. Still, I struggled to stay on the sidelines.

Having escaped from an abusive twenty-one year marriage years earlier, I knew that it was hard to leave. My friends had told me the same things I was itching to tell my friend—he didn’t deserve another chance; I could do better. But I was the one who would have to live with my choices so it had to be my decision. I knew that about my friend’s situation. I knew that leaving her abusive husband would only be the right choice for her if she was the one making it. But still, I felt myself wanting to shout “Leave that *#*@*!”

There was such force in my desire to tell her what to do that I knew there was something unhealthy behind it. It was as though I was in a life or death struggle. I couldn’t let it go. I realized that I wasn’t trying to help my friend; I was trying to help the ME from my past. I wanted to scream to my younger self, “Get away from that man! He’s no good for you. Every minute you stay, he drains more life from you!”

There wasn’t anything I could do to change that. I stayed with my ex-husband far too long, but I left as soon as I was able to. My friend’s situation didn’t have anything to do with my own. Even if I could convince her to leave her husband, that didn’t change the fact that I stayed with mine. My past wouldn’t be undone by “helping” someone else. I had to deal with the pain and grief within my own heart; resolution couldn’t be found in someone else’s life.

That lesson has been hard to hang onto. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, one of my biggest challenges of my healing process has been to remain focused on me.

I had coped with my childhood abuse by separating from myself—from my body and from my emotions. There was no way to escape the situation, but I could escape from me. I lived outside of myself, watching as a spectator, not truly connected. As an adult, I was still disconnected from myself and lived “outside of myself”. I wasn’t in touch with my feelings, thoughts, needs and desires, but I was hyper-aware of everyone else’s. Taking care of others was a way for me to continue to cope.

My dysfunctional incest family groomed me to take care of everyone else’s emotional, sexual and physical needs. Boundaries were blurred or smashed to smithereens. I didn’t know where my being stopped and another began. I believed it was selfish to take care of my own needs. Since my needs had been discounted, I felt ashamed for even having needs. But the abuse also taught me to hope that if I was compliant enough, eventually someone would notice my needs and meet them. I was trained to be a people-pleaser because that was the only hope of getting anything from anyone. I didn’t feel I had value simply for existing; I had to earn my space on the planet through serving others.

Most of the time I really didn’t mind serving. There was a certain high that went with it. I felt powerful—like a superhero. I didn’t feel empowered to help myself, but it felt good to help other people. It was like a drug. Easing the pain of a friend helped me to avoid my own pain. But my pain always came back and I needed to serve and serve and serve so I could keep feeling better. I thought I was so loving, but I was really just running from pain. I wasn’t even loving myself.

Throughout my healing process, I’ve dealt with layers of these issues. I’ve found the reasons I learned to value others above myself and I’ve developed healthier boundaries. I thought I was doing very well. But little things would leak through. One day last year, I was very tired and I heard myself wish for someone to take care of me. In the past, I would have hoped that someone else really would take care of me—that all my hard work would be recognized and someone would designate “my turn”. But on that day, I realized that it’s my job to take care of me. I was talking to myself, asking to be taken care of. I was designating “my turn”.

So I got a massage and took a day off. I resolved to eat healthier and spend more time with friends and less time working. I thought that was enough. That had to be enough since I had a long line of people waiting for me to be finished helping myself so I could help them.

I heard the impatience in my thoughts and feelings while I was doing things for me as though I was waiting outside of myself, tapping my foot, rushing myself through whatever I was doing. I caught myself thinking, “More important people are waiting for you.”

It seemed like a huge hassle to care for myself: Even when I did pleasant things for myself, it was a chore to complete. The things that most people enjoyed were a burden to me—I was a burden. That was a familiar feeling. That was the same attitude my mother had about children, about me. She took care of my physical needs, but she resented it and acted as though she had more important things to do.

Just as my mother never found joy in caring for me, I never did either. I was repeating the same cycle of emotional abandonment that I learned in childhood. When I served others before me or considered them more important than me, I was abandoning myself.

It really made me sad that I couldn’t find pleasure in doing nice things for myself. I grieved for how my mother treated me and how I’d learned to treat myself. When I looked at how I learned to see myself as a burden, I saw the truth about my value. I finally saw myself as the deserving and lovable child who was forgotten. I couldn’t change the way my mother had treated me, but I could change the way I was treating myself.

My life is completely different now. I used to fit in time for myself between everything else and now I fit in everything else after I’ve taken care of me. By serving others first, I was doing a disservice to myself. Now that I put my needs first, I’m better equipped to help others in a healthy way.

Now that you’ve heard my experience and thoughts about this, I’d love to hear yours. Please comment below and don’t forget to subscribe to the comments so you can continue to partake in the discussion.

Related Posts:
How Can I “Be Myself” If I Don’t Know Who That Is?
How to Help Others Without Hurting Yourself
Finding My Lost Childhood After Sexual Abuse
Stand-in or Star: Taking Center Stage in Your Healing
My Fear of Being Alone
Rebuilding Boundaries After Abuse

Christina Enevoldsen is cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse, an online resource for male and female abuse survivors looking for practical answers and tools for healing. Christina’s passions are writing and speaking about her own journey of healing from abuse and inspiring people toward wholeness. She and her husband live in Los Angeles and share three children and four grandchildren.

[read Christina's story here]

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29 comments
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  1. Hi Christina,
    Wow, can I ever relate to this! This has been a huge part of my recovery journey too! (and continues to be!) I was several years into solid recovery when I realized that I still put myself last in many areas. I didn’t realize that I was treating me the same way that I had always been treated by most of the important people in my life. I had so much work to do in this area, and I discovered so much FEAR around taking care of me. I had been brainwashed that I was selfish and self centered when I lived in the dysfunction of accepting abuse from everyone. I had to change my definitions and understanding of those words. I thought serving others was the only admirable thing I could ever do, however I didn’t realize that serving from an empty vessel did not fill anyone else up.
    I learned this with my kids first. I realized that I could not give them the best of me if I put myself last. There is no serving from an empty vessel. I had to fill my own cup before I could fill theirs. I learned this with my marriage. I learned this with my friendships and finally I learn it with my readers on my own blog. When I take care of me, I have so much more to give. This has been one of the great keys to emotional healing and my own self growth!
    Great post!
    Love Darlene

  2. Christina,

    i can so relate to this blog. Learning how to take care of me was one of the hardest things. I’ve always put others above myself, even my abusive ex. i thought him getting fixed was more important than me getting fixed. it doesn’t make sense as I look back on it, but at the time, my thoughts were to try and help him feel better so he wouldn’t be abusive, instead of realizing that because of his abuse, I was hurting myself more.

    I’m starting to care for myself so much now, that I have to make sure I am not being selfish because the voices of the past continue to tell me that. But, with a little thought into why I am taking care of myself, stops those voices and I know that I am doing the right thing. Great blog. Patty

  3. Thank you Christina for sharing part of your story. I dont even know where to start with my own needs having a 5 yr old to look after in my life. I tend to come second a lot and i can relate to me being a people pleaser because im scared of being attacked or abused again verbally or in other ways. I feel like I have no power and when i try to exert my power i just start screaming at the young people in my life. Not quiet sure how to channell my power or handle it even. I am very hurt by being sexually abused at the age of 4 and physically assaulted at 12 by my own father. With an attack when i was 21 and drink and drug issues i can say ive come a long way but still very vuneralbe. I would like to learn from your experiences and my own and maybe devise a plan for myself this year to think more about what I need instead of pleasing every one else– thank you for reading. x

  4. melissa@ gosh you are so not alone there. when my child reached about 18months and learnt the word NO omg. it sent me back into therapy aftr a 5yr break from everything. ooo how i hated becoming my parents, even though i had made sure i had researched how to be a better parent and how to try and not stunt her growth. but how i resented the time she took from me, me who couldnt cope yet had to so i didnt pass on my childhood. she became the reason i can function in the outside world, yet at home she holds me in the loop of needing to heal from my issues in the way i need to and not letting bear the brunt of it because it a mother daughter thing. oooo and having the knowledge of how to do it, doesnt make it any easier to do and can infact become a rod to beat ya self up with if ya not careful. so now im going with the im doing my best and that is all i can give, n tough if it isnt enough for you

  5. Wow, that hit me between the eyes. I know the truth of what you wrote cognitively but to get that in my heart is incredibly difficult. Being brought up the way I was, and being a pastor’s kid, it seems so selfish to take care of my own needs, even when I am so depleted. Even going to counselling seems selfish that I’m focusing on myself instead of how hurt my children are. Maybe it will be a struggle all my life, but there’s no going back. I also feel incredibly guilty that I’m somehow letting my Heavenly Father down by needing counselling, that I’m saying He wasn’t enough to heal me. But then I tell myself it’s because I don’t have enough faith so I’m doubly broken. All negative loop thinking that I’m trying hard to break. Does anyone else struggle with those thoughts I wonder?

  6. Christina,

    Thank you for this. I could relate to so much of it especially the “hypersensitive to other’s needs and oblivious to my own.” I can tell you what everyone in my household needs or wants. I can tell you what’s troubling each person as well. But in my own case, these things are less straightforward. I feel ill-at-ease a lot. As if a dark cloud is always following me. I feel like if I put my demands out on the table, that makes me 5 years old again and I already know no one will care about a 5 year old so I say nothing. I am still in the place of not believing I am worthy of the same support and nurturing as I give everyone else. I don’t know how to overcome this either though I am giving it some serious thought.

    Thank you for writing this.

  7. Christina thank you so much for this Blog. I to am a survivor of childhood sexual (incest) abuse. I struggle with this very issue. I’m a natural caregiver because all throughout my life that is the position I was put into. I have a hard tiime realizing that I have needs and desires that are important as well as my families needs and desires. My husband has been supportive of me but I can tell how much it frustrates him that I have to take care of everything and he doesn’t understand how I cannot take care of myself. I have really felt a calling from the Lord to start a support group in my area for women and men that are struggling with their abuse. I think it will not only benifit them but me as well. Thank you for you blog.

  8. All I can say is a Wow! And another Wow! What else to say but wow! A lot of things making sense now about where my “pleasing others” started. Thanks for sharing this.

  9. Darlene,
    Self-care sounds like it should be the easiest part of recovery and yet it’s been the hardest! I like the picture you paint of the empty vessel trying to fill up others. That’s sure an accurate description of what I did too. And yet somehow, I thought trying to pour out would fill me–such a confusion of boundaries again! Thanks for contributing that!
    Hugs, Christina

    Patty,
    It amazes me how we learn to “fix” the abusers in an effort to make things better for ourselves. I SO wanted to please them and affirm them in hopes that their “well-being” would overflow onto me. If I would have spent half of that effort on trying to fix myself, I would have been out of the abuse in no time. I’m so glad I’m putting me first now–no more feeding the abusive system! Thanks for sharing that!
    Hugs, Christina

  10. Melissa,
    I can very much to relate to that feeling of powerlessness between my abusers and my parenting role. When my kids were young, I didn’t believe that I had the right to take care of myself until after all their needs were met. I remember going days without a shower and I didn’t often eat entire meals. Somebody always needed me.

    I’m glad to hear you’re determined to make those changes in your life this year. The rewards for self-care will benefit you and your children.
    Christina

  11. Netty,
    I was raised in church too–with all the guilt about serving others instead of myself. Even though I don’t remember it ever being said directly, I remember feeling like my faith wasn’t enough to heal me and I was not only a broken mess, but a faith-failure, which meant I couldn’t please God EVER. I thought instant healings were the only ones that were valid and that my healing progression was inferior and “works” related. Now I know that God is intricately involved in my healing, directly and indirectly, through the way he created my body and soul to heal and the tools he provides. I feel his pleasure, approval and joy over my healing process. All of the condemnation and guilt I felt were based on lies of the performance-oriented religious system (which is abusive).

    Thank you for sharing your feelings. If you keep chipping away at those lies, there is a truth under them that will set you free.
    Christina

  12. Jenna,
    I’ve felt like that little child whose needs were never met, too, and felt so much shame for having needs. To deal with that shame, I had to examine how I came to feel that way. Remembering how my needs were treated when I was a child brought up a lot of pain, but it also showed me how unjust that was and how I deserved to be treated. Once I saw the truth, the shame went away and I recognized that I was just as important as everyone else. You deserve to know the truth too. You and your needs are important.
    Christina

  13. Michelle,
    I wish you well with your support group and hope that you find that you’re worth putting first.
    Christina

    Nana,
    Yay! I’m glad you’re finding clues that help you.
    Christina

  14. This really hit home for me. Being abused by my brother from the age of 4 until 9 was tough. My parents always believed my brothers word over mine (I guess because I was younger?) I started my road to recovery October of 2010….I told my parents. They have struggled ever since. Sometimes speaking to me and most of the time they throw accusations at me and say I’m lying about my brother. I’m in therapy…thank god. But after reading this, I’ve realized that I too am a people pleaser and a people fixer. I’m always ready to give advice to friends. And often I do. What I don’t know about is how to put myself first. I have a 5 year old, so he get’s most of my attention. I feel guilty when I do anything for myself…and I hate feeling that way. Trying to please my abuser for over 30 years never worked. Trying to please my parents my entire life never worked. I guess looking back now…the one best thing I could and have done for myself was to TELL my secret of abuse. My road to recovery is only a year in the making…so I need to remember everyday to take it easy on myself and stop blaming myself for not telling 30 years ago when my abuse was happening. Thank you Christina!

  15. Sometimes we need to be “selfish” in order to heal. There is nothing wrong with putting our own needs first. An empty vessels doesn’t help anyone. We have to fill our selves up first before we can be any good to others. We have to support and love ourselves before we can do the same for others. Teaching others to value themselves by letting them see that we value ourselves is the best service that we can do for others.

  16. Leah,
    I used to beat myself up for “not telling” too. I realized that ALL children tell, even if they don’t verbalize the abuse. I had all kinds of ways that signaled that something was wrong, but they were ignored. Also, I realized that my intuition that told me it wasn’t safe to tell as a child was proved right by my mom’s reaction when I disclosed my abuse as an adult. It wasn’t my fault for not talking about the abuse while the abuse was going on. It was my parent’s fault for not providing a safe environment for me to be able to express that.
    Christina

  17. Patricia,
    That’s a great point that we can help others by modeling healthy self-care. Sometimes, that means saying no to them, which can be helpful to us and to them. Thanks for sharing!
    Christina

  18. Wow. I truely dont no what to say. It is like you have written my diary for me. My everyday revolves around everyone else… what does so and so need, then what does this other person need, then someone else, always leaving myself to last, and often never actually making time for me. As a child growing up, my father abused me and my mother treated me like her own little servant. I was constantly doing things for others. I even remember at craft classes I would make things for others and be utterly confused when my teacher would suggest i keep something or make something for myself. Maybe its time I too take a step back and reevaluate my priorities. I belong at the top of at least one persons prioriety list, and that one person has to be me.

  19. This could have been written for me word for word.

  20. Cassy,
    I did that too! I used to give everything away.

    I LOVE your declaration, ” I belong at the top of at least one persons prioriety list, and that one person has to be me.” YES, how true that is! Thank you for sharing that.
    Christina

  21. Michelle,
    It’s so sad that so many of us don’t recognize our own value and live in a cycle of doing, doing, doing. But we’re getting out! Yay!
    Christina

  22. It’s kind of unbelievable that you have learned so incredibly much without therapy. Have you had friends you could share this deeply with for a long time? Were they victims, as well? I’m stunned by what I read on this site, and there’s no therapists involved. Very, very impressive.

  23. continually amazed at how well you articulate these crucial issues. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this out to help us all. I’ve been struggling with “self-care” for the past two years while being in therapy and support groups for my abusive marriage.

    Thanks so much.

  24. Sandra,
    Thank you. I’ve had several friends along the way who I’ve been able to share with. Some of them were survivors of sexual abuse and some not. The thing that helps me most is listening to myself, which is true whether I’m talking to myself or to a friend. Lots of truth comes out that way.
    Christina

  25. Mae,
    I know how hard self-care is after abuse and it’s even more challenging within an abusive relationship. I hope you’re able to get to the bottom of your own issues and give yourself the nurturing you deserve. Thanks for commenting!
    Christina

  26. Yes, this is All me, too. And it bothers me to read about it and write it. I feel the desperation of just wanting it to end and be over like while I was being assaulted. I left my body and parts of me never came back until just the past few years, then it was like, how do I incorporate a shattered 7 yr old, 14 yr. old and 19 year old, nurture, love and care for all of these aspects of myself that went hiding during very traumatic experiences. How do you do that and continue to be a responsible adult, single parent, raising two teenagers during this period of extreme flooding and forced healing through trauma after trauma. I don’t know how, i am still in this stage and it is beyond measure difficult and all I want to do is cry and cry but I have to go on and sometimes I don’t even want to, I’m tired of having to do the ‘Courage to heal’ thing all my life! Every time I had a break through in my recovery and I discovered more of the lost soul that went hiding, I would be relieved and victorious, thinking I made it, only to find that there were dozens of more layers to be stripped until I was left at the core, ground zero, and alone!!!! Now what? same thing I have always done, get up and do it again and again, there is no end, no final test to take so I can graduate, I got screwed and lost my childhood, poisoned every relationship I ever had, lost most of my adult life while I functioned through disassociation. I look at pictures of me, or read stuff I wrote, I can’t believe it! I survived! If I did not have three beautiful children, I would have given up a long time ago.

  27. Mary,
    I’ve had times when I felt very much the same way. I felt SO cheated out of a “normal” life and desperately wanted the abuse and all its effects to go away. I’ve done a lot of grieving and still do when I get to another level of understanding more loss.

    I’m glad in spite of how you feel, you still haven’t given up. There’s no way I’m giving up either. Sure, I’ve lost a lot, but I’m damn well NOT going to lose any more by giving up. Healing hasn’t been easy, but it’s productive and I’m encouraged by the fruit and that keeps me going. Yay for all of us whole keep going!
    Christina

  28. Oh, Christina, I just read a little bit on Bethany’s blog and I am grief stricken for both of you. I know you both are on the healing road, but to a bystander like me, just getting knowledge of these crimes, I am in shock and so very sickened and grieved. My prayers are with you all.
    peggy

  29. Peggy,
    It’s so refreshing to have a healthy response from someone who knows my parents. Even for those who believe Bethany and me, a common response is disgust and judgment toward us for “airing our dirty laundry” or for “touching the anointed” or for “dishonoring our parents”. Thankfully, none of those types of responses deter us from continuing to share the truth. The truth is more than just the experiences of our past, the truth is that there is freedom and healing in spite of the past. But first, there is compassion. So thank you for sharing your compassion.
    Christina

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