Therapy for habitual self-sacrifice

by Jay Reid

This blog post is the second in a series about how some people must sacrifice some part of themselves in order to keep important relationships going.  

In the last blog, I talked about Joan who believed she must sacrifice her needs, talents, and strengths for someone else to care about her.   This post will focus on how therapy helps people like Joan. Therapy allows you to reclaim parts of your experience that had to be sacrificed in order to survive earlier relationships.   A lot of the time, the sacrifices that get made are some of the best parts about being human, including:

  • Feelings of strength and power
  • Feeling entitled to care and protection from those we love
  • Believing that one is inherently lovable
  • The experience of desire
  • Feeling empowered to pursue your ambitions

Why do people jettison such essential experiences in life from their internal worlds?  Usually for one reason only:

Hanging onto these peak experiences once jeopardized your parent’s willingness to take care of you.

It’s important to emphasize the parent’s ‘willingness’ to take care of the child.  The child has to know that the parent wants to take care of him.  Only then can any kid feel confident enough to depend on his parent.  Imagine how challenging it would be to believe this with a parent who mistreats a child.  Consider the son of a father with low frustration tolerance who yells at the child whenever the kid expresses excitement.  The child may conclude: “When I get excited, I hurt the people I need.”  Now the father’s yelling becomes perfectly acceptable.  His father is now redressing a wrong that the child supposedly committed.  The child keeps his connection to his Dad but must sacrifice one of the best parts about being human: feelings of excitement.     

So how can therapy help?

There’s good news.  You never completely lose the strength/talent/feeling you had to sacrifice to protect your caregiver’s positive attitude towards you.  Control-Mastery theory holds that people in this situation harbor hidden desires to reclaim such experiences if and when it becomes safe to do so.

Good therapy provides the circumstances that allow you to feel safe enough to do what was once forbidden. 

Therapy does this by understanding what you first had to sacrifice based on the specific nature of your early relationships.  Next, your therapist hypothesizes what you had to tell yourself – unconsciously and consciously – to make your sacrifice feel necessary (e.g. “When I reveal my intelligence it makes people I care about feel bad.”).  Third, your therapist will look for ways you might be trying to disconfirm these learned beliefs (e.g. noticing when the client provides a deep and coherent explanation of what he does at work – something that reflects his intelligence).  When these “tests” occur the therapist will be careful to demonstrate that he is not diminished by your strengths/talents/perspective but rather wants to help you express them further (e.g. showing curiosity in the client’s description of his work and communicating a sense of healthy admiration at the client’s clear intellectual prowess).

Over time, this process results in your ability to reclaim the valuable parts of yourself that have been missing-in-action.Control Mastery Theory


Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor who is trained in Control-Mastery Theory.  This client-centered theory works to empower you to reclaim aspects of yourself that are valuable.  If this blog post resonates with you, psychotherapy from a Control-Mastery perspective can be particularly helpful.  Contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation to see if we might be the right fit. 

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