Self-Sacrifice Schema

In psychology, a schema is a fixed pattern of thought and behaviour. One could also describe it as a mental structure of preconceived notions, a framework encompassing an aspect of reality, or a system of organising and perceiving new information. “Schema” specifically refers to maladaptive patterns stemming from early childhood.

Schemas often take the form of a belief about yourself, others, or the world. They develop if a person’s basic emotional needs are not met in childhood, as do coping styles and modes.

People who have a “Self-Sacrifice” schema tend to attend to other people’s needs before their own most or all of the time. This stems from fear that they will disappoint those around them.

How to Recognise It?

If six or more of the following statements describe you, the likelihood of you having this schema is quite high.

1. I think me putting my own needs before others’ needs is selfish.

2. People usually turn to me for help and advice.

3. I am too focused on others to express my needs and feelings.

4. I tend to think of others more than myself.

5. It’s easier for me to do something for someone than watch them struggle with it.

6. I will drop everything if someone close to me needs me.

7. I feel uncomfortable declining requests.

8. I get less from other people than I give.

9. I find it very hard to see someone in emotional pain.

10. I often feel overwhelmed or tired from running around doing things for others.

How Bad is Self-Sacrifice? Killing Self-Confidence with Kindness

At first, self-sacrifice seems like a positive thing. It’s nice to be kind, helpful, generous, and giving. It’s practically what people, especially females, are taught to be – in every culture in the world, more or less. Is it a coincidence that cancer is far more common among women than men? Actually, it’s not. A lot of people who suffer from self-sacrifice schema have immune system disorders, including, regrettably, the big C. Self-assessment reports of cancer patients show they have a lot of suppressed anger, both pre- and post-diagnosis. Their values tend to be significantly higher than those of the general population.

Other conditions self-sacrificing individuals struggle with include chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, and neurological disorders. Being constantly busy and preoccupied with others causes a perpetually

elevated stress response. As a result, the adrenal glands wear out and the immune system is constantly suppressed.

Even if a self-sacrificer doesn’t end up developing any of these serious health conditions or illnesses, they will invariably struggle with depression, anxiety, feelings of resentment and burnout. Often, it gets to the point where one feels she no longer has anything left to give.

The bottom line: Self-sacrifice comes at the expense of your own well-being. It leads you to repress or ignore your own needs and feelings.

Why Do We Have It?

As with everything else, it starts in childhood. Children of parents who were drug addicts, disabled, or emotionally unstable are more likely to suffer from self-sacrifice schema. When they were young, they may have had to take care of their parents or siblings in some way, especially if they were one of the older or oldest sibling. They had to take over adult responsibilities at a young age or listen to a parent’s emotional issues. Or they had to bring drunk parents home from a pub.

They may have had to take siblings to school, helping them with homework, clean up for them, etc. As children, they entered the role of caregivers. They began to associate self-worth and value with helping others. They came to believe they always had to put others first and that their needs were not as important as other people’s.

Warning Signs

With time, we begin to feel tired and exhausted from all the help we’re giving. The more people we get to know, the more people start to rely on us because we’ll always let everything slide. Some recognise this and begin to leech off of us. Ultimately, nobody is giving as much as we are. Whenever we ask someone for help, we are let down. In the rare case that we do ask.

This causes us to feel resentful, under appreciated and undervalued. We don’t say anything because we have learned we have to “deal with it”. We’ve identified with not needing others. Saying something would go against the core of who we are as people.

I can see how someone who isn’t a sacrificer would find this whole situation strange. “Why don’t you just ignore people and take care of yourself?” It’s a logical question to ask – and one most men would ask. Sometimes it’s because we start feeling empty. We have defined ourselves by our constant readiness to help out. Other times, we’ve been sacrificing so long that we don’t even know what our needs and desires are any more.

The resentment, weariness, stress, emptiness, and sometimes confusion start building up. Some people turn to certain medication or alcohol to cope. Others turn to food and develop eating disorders. Some begin cutting or injuring themselves some other way. These behaviours are compounded, exacerbating the original problem.

Self-Sacrifice vs. Subjugation

What people with these schemas have in common is that they have an excessive focus on meeting the needs of others at the expense of theirs. Those with self-sacrifice schema experience it as voluntary,

while those with subjugation schema do not. With subjugation, people are afraid of punishment. On the other hand, sacrificers behave the way they do because they want to prevent other people from experiencing pain, to avoid feeling guilty or selfish, to do what they believe is right, or to maintain a connection with a significant other, who is needy and demanding. Self-sacrifice schema often stems from what is seen as a highly empathic personality – extreme sensitivity to the pain of others.

Self-sacrifice schema encompasses a very big group of people, and there are many differences within that group. Some people go overboard with being helpful because they don’t want others to suffer. They feel responsible for them. Others are afraid of losing approval, which they fear will bring their relationships with other people to an end.


Has it ever happened to you that you feel really nervous and then start getting chest pain or feeling nauseous? It’s called somatisation – transferring emotional sensations to the body, whereby emotional distress can be communicated via somatic (physical) symptoms. It happens to people with self-sacrifice schema very often. They frequently experience symptoms such as chronic pain, headaches, fatigue, or gastrointestinal problems.

These symptoms might be a direct consequence of the stress the schema is causing. They can unconsciously also a way for people to attract attention (which they are in dire need of). They don’t do this consciously and don’t ask for attention directly. These symptoms give them “time off” from always servicing others without necessarily directly asking for it.

Sometimes, self-sacrifice schema goes hand in hand with Emotional Deprivation schema. These people are perceived as “helpful” and “kind” by nature, as if it’s their prerogative to help others, they just wouldn’t be happy otherwise. This may, in fact, be far from the truth. Often, they can feel a deep sense of emotional deprivation. They can get angry at all the needy people around them. If you ask them, they’ll never say they expect something in return for their kindness, but they do. When they need help and those around them don’t give as much back, they feel resentment.

With this schema, anger is not inevitable, but self-sacrificers do experience at least some aggravation and frustration due to the fact that the people around them are not reciprocating.

What is Subjugation Schema?

As mentioned, subjugation is doing things for others out of fear that they’ll punish you in some kind of way. This schema also has its roots in childhood. People who have it often had physically or emotionally abusive parents who would punish them in some way if they didn’t do what was asked of them, where most requests were unreasonable. Selfishness is distinctly more central to this schema compared to self-sacrifice, as this schema is largely powered by the instinct of survival, and self-sacrifice isn’t.

Do I Have It?

If you answer “yes” to four or more of these questions, it’s probable that you have this schema.

1. Do you have trouble speaking up for yourself?

2. Do you tend to let other people make the decisions in your relationships?

3. Do you often feel you’re being treated like a doormat?

4. Do you tend to feel a lot of (unexpressed) anger and resentment?

5. Do you sometimes feel like if you let your feelings out, you will lose control?

6. Do you have a hard time putting up boundaries with people?

7. Do you avoid conflict or confrontation at any cost?

8. Are you passive aggressive?

Effects of Subjugation

Subjugation schema keeps us from asserting ourselves, expressing our feelings, dealing with conflict, and establishing boundaries. There is a feeling of fear and anxiety around expressing our true needs and feelings because we fear rejection, retaliation, or humiliation. We are afraid we won’t be able to cope with the after-effect of saying how we feel.

We often feel used because we don’t set boundaries with others and they take advantage. We just can’t say ‘no’. Eventually, a lot of anger and resentment builds up towards other people, but also towards ourselves. It can suddenly explode as if “out of nowhere”. More frequently, though, we express our rage in a passive aggressive way. We agree to take on a task we don’t want, then purposefully miss the deadline or do a bad job of it. We agree to go to a family reunion that we actually don’t want to attend, then turn up really late, or are quiet and sulking the whole time we’re there. Just because we feel we can’t say no!

The more this schema settles in, the worse everything gets. We never have truly fulfilling relationships because we are not honest about our thoughts and feelings. People never see who we really are inside. It’s a lonely life with this schema, because we never feel really ‘seen’ or understood on a real level. Those around us never meet our needs for secure attachment and connection. We can end up in abusive relationships with spouses, friends, or colleagues because we don’t set boundaries and don’t speak up for ourselves.

Subjugation Schema – Killing Self-Esteem Softly

This schema causes our self esteem and self-confidence to plummet. We are never true to ourselves – we don’t even know who we are and what we want most of the time – and we fall easy prey to more self-aware individuals, who are quick to take power and control.

Suppression of emotions has a very damaging effect on our physical health, particularly when we don’t express anger in healthy ways. Suppressed or repressed anger is strongly linked to a number of different cancers.

The Genesis of Subjugation Schema

People who have been physically, emotionally or sexually abused in childhood learn that it is in their best interests to stay quiet to avoid further abuse. If there was a lot of conflict and stress around you when you were growing up, you would have associated standing up for yourself with embarrassment or fear.

Where does this schema come from, more specifically? On one hand, you’re more likely to have it if you were raised in a household where it was dangerous to express your feelings or speak up. But not all people who were have it, so it can’t be the only factor.

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of luck. When you finally moved out of the subjugating household, you met kind, respectful people who appreciated you for who you were. Sometimes we have been lucky enough to meet people who know more about us and how wonderful we really are. They know more about us than we do about ourselves. Sometimes, there’s that helping hand reaching through the darkness that surrounds us, a faint shimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel, which makes all the difference.

Other times, we just had a really good therapist.

If you think you’re struggling with Self-Sacrifice or Subjugation schemas and don’t know how to deal with these, feel free to speak to us about this at your next session with Ashley. Or if you’re new to our practice, give us a call on 07 5574 3888 to see how we might be able to help you.