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How Understanding Self-Sacrifice Schema Can Help You Spot Narcissistic Traits

Jennifer Martin Rieck is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and the owner of Epijennetics Counseling & Consulting in Libertyville, Illinois. She is also the owner of and writer for, a website that explores the mental shifts that lead to healthy expression of self and healthy connection to others.

Executive Contributor Jennifer Martin Rieck

Have you ever felt that you have ended a one-sided relationship to end up right back in one, despite your best intentions? This is something that I have heard retold countless times throughout the years as a psychotherapist. Individuals come to therapy exasperated by a never-ending cycle of unsatisfying relationships. At some point many have even given up on relationships, feeling that there is nothing they can do to avoid inevitably landing back in an unhealthy relationship, even after working hard to escape one. These individuals are drained from failed attempts to have mutually satisfying relationships and feel helpless to change the pattern. Feeling that they can’t change the selfish individuals they are with and can’t seem to spot them before becoming too involved, these exhausted individuals start to avoid relationships entirely. What if I told you that there might be a name to your problem and that there is a way to stop missing the red flags that would have clued you into potential issues? Would you feel more confident to get back in the saddle again” if you knew there were concrete steps to breaking free from this pattern?” Let’s talk about a schema called Self-Sacrifice Schema.

Husband and wife sitting on the couch and not talking after an argument at home

What is a schema?

The term “schema” is an education term that has to do with how we learn. As we grow up and gather information from the world around us, we slowly piece together the information into blueprints for interpreting future information. As we age, we continue sorting new information through the blueprints or “schemas” we have already formed. Our schemas typically make a lot of sense in the context of our childhoods. For example, an individual who has lost someone close to them as a child may form an Abandonment Schema or an enduring belief that they will inevitably be left by others. Because this individual believes deep down this is true, they are likely to experience intense reactions to anything that triggers feelings of abandonment. For instance, if someone with a strong Abandonment Schema meets a new friend and that friend promises to call them the next day but doesn’t, this individual is likely to have thoughts that they are being left or that they should withdraw before getting hurt. These thoughts and beliefs drive feelings of sadness or anxiety which inevitably lead to them acting in some way that damages the relationship or drives the other person away. In the end, to this individual, the person was always going to leave and so this becomes a Schema-reinforcing experience. This cyclical reinforcement is how most Early Maladaptive Schemas (the eighteen schemas assessed for in Schema Therapy) cause long-term mental health and relationship problems.


What is self-sacrifice schema?

Self-sacrificing individuals (those who have a high Self-Sacrifice schema) are individuals who were raised by parents who weren’t attentive to their emotional needs growing up and who got the message that they should be un-needy and independent. Whether these parents were caught up in the dysfunction of their marriage or were emotionally unavailable for some other reason, they chronically sent the message that the needs of others come first and that not being selfish is the best way to be. These children learned to cope with minimal of their own emotional needs being met and often strive to be mindful of others and not to create any additional havoc in their world. Children who grow up to be Self-Sacrificing typically have developed high levels of empathy and have finely tuned “emotional radars.” They take on the responsibility of reading others and attempting to meet those needs and, in this way, learn to manage the environment. Doing so not only makes their environment feel safer but also allows these children to connect to caregivers by meeting their needs, being helping, or at a minimum by not being needy themselves.

Why being self-sacrificing is problematic

There are several problematic aspects of being a Self-Sacrificing person, despite it typically being seen as a positive identity by most. The most glaringly obvious reason is that being overly empathetic and responsible for others often makes it very difficult for Self-Sacrificers to hold others accountable. Not only are they exceptionally good at understanding the perspective and needs of another but they have also been programmed to feel guilty if they don’t put others first. This makes a Self-Sacrificing individual a prime candidate to pair up with narcissistic or selfish individuals. Because they rarely advocate for their own needs to be a priority and feel guilty if they do, it becomes very easy for manipulative individuals to get away with demanding the things that they want while never returning the favor. In addition to frequently landing in lopsided relationships, Self-Sacrificing individuals often feel lonely and unseen and often have built a life around the preferences of the important people in their lives rather than their own. This often leads to mental health symptoms such as depression or anxiety as individuals eventually realize they are in a life that isn’t what they wanted but they don’t know how to get out since they feel guilty for prioritizing themselves.

Do self-sacrificers attract narcissists?

One question that inevitably gets asked in therapy by Self-Sacrificing individuals is, “Why do I keep attracting these Narcissists?” Although there is some truth to the notion that Self-Sacrificing individuals do attract narcissistic individuals, a more likely reality is probably that Narcissistic individuals are everywhere but unlike individuals with a healthy sense of entitlement, Self-Sacrificers aren’t doing anything to run them off. Take, for example, a scenario in which someone is stood up on a first date. Someone with a healthy amount of entitlement is going to be angry that someone disrespected their time and likely let the other person know how upset they are. A Narcissistic individual is going to become very defensive and angry when called out and so the relationship is likely to blow up before it ever begins. A Self-Sacrificing individual, however, is likely to spend a good amount of time empathizing with the person who stood them up, making exceptions for their poor behavior, and eventually overriding their feelings of disappointment and frustration to prioritize the relationship and the needs of the other. Subsequently, not speaking up about their feelings, not holding them accountable, and missing a valuable opportunity to see whether this individual has the capacity for empathy, the ability to demonstrate ownership, and the skills to repair the situation. In this scenario, rather than running off the offender, they are likely to reschedule.

Five ways to spot red flags in relationships

While it is likely that most Self-Sacrificers are aware of what Narcissism is, as articles and conversations about Narcissism are everywhere you look presently, the reality is that most Narcissists are missed if they aren’t triggered to be defensive. For this reason, it is important if you identify as a Self-Sacrificing person to exercise a healthy entitlement to uncover entitled behavior in others that could indicate a high level of Narcissism. Try the following behaviors in similar scenarios to the one above to gain insight into the person you are dealing with.

  1. Practice owning and validating your feelings so that you are not tempted to just “let things go”.

  2. Practice authentically voicing your concerns and feelings to the other person without apologizing or minimizing your position.

  3. Practice holding other people accountable by not falling for tactics to dismantle your argument such as blame-shifting, denying, gaslighting, stonewalling, etc.

  4. Communicate the consequence or boundary that you feel is appropriate and be sure to enforce it, convincing the other party that you are serious and that you respect yourself.

  5. Observe the reaction of the other person and ask yourself questions like, “Are they validating my feelings?”, “Do I feel heard and understood?”, “Are they taking accountability for their behaviors without blame-shifting or criticizing me or are they trying to gaslight me?”, “Are they becoming angry and defensive or do they show remorse?” “Are they emotionally punishing me for saying how I feel?” “Are they respecting my boundary or fighting against it?”


If you do these things early in relationships, you are sure to trigger defensive behaviors in Narcissists. Remember, attempting not to be held accountable is the number one indicator that you are dealing with someone who lacks empathy and accountability.


If you identify as being a Self-Sacrificer, work on changing the ways that you act in relationships to free yourself from unhealthy ones. If you struggle with feelings of guilt, like most Self-Sacrificing individuals do, for practicing assertive and healthy relationship behaviors, work through these feelings in therapy. Utilize the healthy individuals that you do have in your life to help you to see if you are being too forgiving or passive in your relationship or to catch characteristics of Narcissism that you might be missing. Continually self-affirm your feelings and perspectives without minimizing or dismissing them and show others that you respect yourself and that you demand respect. If all else fails, make peace with walking away from unhealthy individuals. It is better to be alone and be peaceful than to walk into a relationship that is ultimately going to bring you turmoil and cause you to question yourself.


Start growing today

Processing the idea of being Self-Sacrificing may feel overwhelming at first but the more you understand how Self-Sacrificing drives unwanted mental health symptoms and unsatisfying relationship patterns, the more motivated you will likely be to start taking steps toward change. Begin trying to understand the schema and how it prevents you from ultimately getting the life that you want. Embrace the idea of growth and start taking those courageous steps towards acting in healthier and more entitled ways. Gather support from healthy individuals in your life and from a professional if possible so that you gain outside perspective on whether you are being Self-Sacrificing. If you are in the state of Illinois and would like to work together in therapy, feel free to reach out through my website. I’m rooting for you!

Read more from Jennifer Martin Rieck


Jennifer Martin Rieck, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor

Jennifer Martin Rieck is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and the owner of Epijennetics Counseling & Consulting and, a website that explores healthy self-expression and healthy connection to others. She specializes in working with individuals who struggle to break free from Narcissistic or Self-Sacrificing relationship patterns.



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