A Critique of Self-Sacrifice: Embracing Choice, Agency, and Engagement Instead

painting by Kathy Farabi
painting by Kathy Farabi


by Caroline


For centuries in the Western world self-sacrifice, as opposed to self-love, has been viewed as an ethical virtue. In serving and loving others, the traditional argument goes, one acts selflessly against the interests of oneself. Feminist scholars of religion and ethics have questioned this self-sacrifice/selfishness dichotomy, however. They argue that loving and caring for others can go hand in hand with understanding and loving oneself.


I’ve been learning about this in my women’s studies in religion class. It’s fascinating because it takes this traditional Christian virtue and turns it on its head. Sara Hoagland, author of Lesbian Ethics: Toward New Values, especially questions the virtue of self-sacrifice, since she argues that it’s generally the less powerful individual, group, or party that is encouraged to self-sacrifice for the good of the stronger party. Thus, she sees women traditionally being the ones to sacrifice their own interests, dreams and projects for the men (and children) of their lives. The result of this, she finds, is that women don’t have a distinct sense of themselves and try to live their lives through others. Also, they have to employ unsavory methods to carve out spaces of power. They use manipulation, control, etc. to try to encourage the men and children of their lives to act in ways they want them to. Thus they impede the agency of others.


Self-sacrificers also, Hoagland argues, are impeded in becoming full agents themselves. This was an interesting quote from her about the way that self-sacrifice is actually in some sense selfish. She states, “For if I disregard my own interests, I can live through someone else’s choices, enjoying the fruits of their power if they are successful, for example, while if they fail, not being responsible for failure but only for bad choice. So I’m selfish in not taking my own risks.” Hoagland argues that cowardliness can lie behind a life of self-sacrifice, as a person lives through others rather than living for herself, and ultimately, foists the task of caring for herself onto someone else, becoming a burden, and once again, selfish. A person who lives a life without taking personal risks, Hoagland argues, is not maturing into a full agent and achieving full personhood. [Personally, I’m sympathetic to this argument about taking risks, but I am uncomfortable with saying that a woman who has decided to split up duties along a traditional gender lines is necessarily selfish or a burden to her family (if that’s what Hoagland was implying). I think that can be a legit choice that can foster personal agency and creation in its own way.]


She also cautions against self-sacrifice because she sees it too often leading to burn-out, where individuals give themselves so fully to a project or person that they are devastated when things don’t work out in the way they envisioned.


Rather than self-sacrifice, Hoagland proposes that we embrace a new ethic – that of self-understanding.  Self- understanding will help people understand how to engage and love and help others, without sacrificing a person’s core goals and dreams. Self-understanding will lead a person to know that by pursuing her own dreams and goals, she inspires those around her to do the same. Self-understanding helps a person maintain healthy boundaries between self and other, while at the same time understanding the interconnectedness of society and the importance of engagement with others. Self-understanding leads a person to understand that her actions are deliberate choices to engage which benefits both self and other. She says that when a person chooses to devote some time to helping a friend, she is not-self-sacrificing. Rather, “Such choices are matters of focus, not sacrifice. That I attend certain things and not others, that I focus here and not there, is part of how I create value. Far from sacrificing myself, or part of myself, I am creating. 


I find Hoagland’s discussion of the dangers of self-sacrifice compelling, and I think her argument is pretty balanced. (Other than my discomfort with the implication that not working is necessarily selfish.) On the one hand, her points about living one’s life through others, refusing to take personal risks, and possibly controlling others because of an inadequate sense of boundaries sound like reasonable risks of extreme types of self-sacrifice. On the other hand, her points about the importance of engaging and helping others, not as sacrifice, but as acts of choice, engagement, and creation as a way to create value is a persuasive reframing of the issue for me.


What are your thoughts on self-sacrifice? Do you embrace the concept completely as a Christian? Or just to the extent that others around you are also self-sacrificing? What are the pros and cons of self-sacrifice that you have personally experienced? How do you like Hoagland’s reframing of the idea of helping others as creation?

Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.


  1. While I think she’s painting women who chose more traditional roles with a wide brush, I like how she distinguishes between sacrificing for others and being deliberate in the ways we help others. I think this is the essence of charity. Instead of doing something because it’s hard for us and that makes us better, we act out of love to fill a need that we are capable of filling.

    I think whether we stay home and raise kids, pursue a career, or do something in- between, we should do it with purpose.

  2. This is a timely post for me. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the balance between self and others. I generally subscribe to what I call the “oxygen mask theory”. Basically, it’s based on the airplane model where you have to put on your oxygen mask before putting it on others because if you attend to others first, you’ll pass out and be no good to anyone, including those you’re trying to help. It’s taken me a while to get to this point.

    Although I’m sure her writings aren’t too popular around the Bloggernacle, Ayn Rand has some interesting things to say on the subject. (Fair warning: she had no love for religion in any form.) Her basic point is that when societies demand self-sacrifice, it undermines personhood.

  3. Oh, now, THIS should be a RS lesson! I really like this idea of self-understanding. I think the ideal of self-sacrificing can help us grow; I know I love others more when I serve them. But, I like Hoagland’s ethic of self-understanding part down better. Often, I’m helping because I think I should (and can be miserable doing it) instead of I’m helping because I am truly in a good place and can do so.

    And, does anyone else wonder what Hoagland thinks of her mother? 🙂

  4. While her points are good within her own understanding, I don’t think she really understands self-sacrifice.

    I feel the point in the Christian virtue is that everyone sacrifices their self-fulfillment to others. It doesn’t work otherwise. That possibly, at least partially, is why heaven can only admit those who accept Christ’s sacrifice in every sense of the word.

    Look at the United Order.

  5. Thanks for this post, Caroline. I love the idea of self-understanding vs. self-sacrifice. I teach a curriculum very similar to this at the domestic violence shelter. I can’t tell you the number of times a woman has come into my office and said, “I don’t understand why this happened, I sacrificed everything for him.”

    Sacrifice is a good thing, it is what molds us into disciples of Christ, but it can be taken too far. I think it is impossible to be a disciple if there is no self, no will, to give. Self-understanding allows us to truly give of ourselves and understand what that sacrifice means.

  6. Thought provoking post. I totally agree with the idea of helping as a creative act. When I had my first child an older woman gave me some advice that stayed with me. She said “see every difficulty as a challenge to your creativity.” She turned my sense of the sacrifices I would make from burden to creative action. It’s made childrearing much sweeter.

    I would not agree that thoughtful women sacrifice more for their families than do their thoughtful husbands. A few years ago, when I was thinking about all the things that I was choosing not to do so that I could do the things I felt were more necessary I made a long list of the things I’d not done or postponed in order to raise my children full time. Thinking that I’d made the lion’s share of sacrifices I asked my husband to make a similar list; things he’d like to do but hadn’t done because he’d decided to marry and raise a family. I didn’t show him my list. I didn’t want it to seem to be a contest. To my surprise, his list was at least as long as mine if not longer.

    I learned that it’s always easy to see my own sacrifices/choices and to think that I’m making more than others are, but that I’m often ignorant of the magnitude of those of others with whom I am working.

    I agree that self-sacrifice, taken to extreme, can lead to burnout and complaints (often about children and their choices) of “it’s not fair…after all I did!” or to extremely lopsided relationships with selfish spouses. That kind of sacrifice is unhealthy. But sacrifice/help as a creative act leads not only to the possibility of “success” down the road, but also is intrinsically empowering in its own moment.

  7. Thanks for another interesting post.

    “since she argues that it’s generally the less powerful individual, group, or party that is encouraged to self-sacrifice for the good of the stronger party. Thus, she sees women traditionally being the ones to sacrifice their own interests, dreams and projects for the men (and children) of their lives. The result of this, she finds, is that women don’t have a distinct sense of themselves and try to live their lives through others.”

    Totally agree that this dynamic is in place and can ultimately take the form of oppression because the women in question often do not have the choice to sacrifice or not. Serving men and children is what is expected of them.

    Can we call that self-sacrifice? Doesn’t self-sacrifice hinge on the moment of decision for an individual? If there is no decision, if its merely a matter of fulfilling expectations then we are not dealing with a virtue, or self-sacrifice, are we?

    Don’t we need to examine the Jewish and Christian notions of self-sacrifice, hospitality, service, community, individual. and agency in order to really map the issue out in religious terms?

    I do fully embrace the Jewish and Christian notions of responsibility for the other, but I don’t embrace the dualism present in the model of self-sacrifice as describe,

    There is a problem with Hoagland’s idea as you describe it: ” Self- understanding will help people understand how to engage and love and help others, without sacrificing a person’s core goals and dreams. Self-understanding will lead a person to know that by pursuing her own dreams and goals, she inspires those around her to do the same.”

    Isn’t there an assumed dualism here? Also, this only described one of what could be many possibilities (I know, you were summarizing )regarding the relations between individuals, and between individual, community and God. Coming to a point where self-sacrifice is a possibility represents one moment in a much larger dynamic, Isn’t the larger dynamic important to that moment?

    I hope this does not come off as too critical, I really enjoy everything you write on this blog!

  8. I like what Keri said. The airplane oxygen mask is a great metaphor for something I have felt strongly about for a long time. Thanks! I always thought of it as simply taking care of me up to the point that I could then take care of others. And the amount of self-care is different for everyone, so it’s very personalized, and can change as you grow and change yourself.

    I’ve seen both my mother and MIL and grandmother take this self-sacrifice business WAY too far. I also associate it with Church members after seeing it all over the place in the ward I grew up in. Taken too far, self-sacrifice simply doesn’t hold up. I’ve seen far too many depressed, broken women in my life to give it credibility in the extreme. I would also love to see this addressed more in RS or church in general. We DO need a lesson like this!

  9. Thanks for all your comments. I enjoy reading them.

    Mindy, I really like that distinction too.

    Keri, I’ve never read Ayn Rand, but I’ve heard good things. I’m going to read the Fountainhead one of these days.

    Emily, I do think Hoagland has conflicted ideas about motherhood. She kinds of envisions communal mother groups, where women who like children can get together and watch a bunch of them, while others do their professions. Very interesting.

    I brought up the idea of mutual self-sacrifice in class when we discussed the article. My prof’s response was that Hoagland still wouldn’t go for it, since it would prevent both people from developing agency. I then pointed out that this might be an issue of semantics. What one person calls mutual self-sacrifice, another might call mutual compromise, and I’m sure Hoagland would be fine with the concept of compromise.

    mraynes, thanks for your input – so interesting coming from a background of working with women who’ve experienced domestic violence. I think the same thing – the commandment is to love others as you love yourself. Self-love is a vital component to developing as a full person, I think.

  10. mb, like you, I’m not terribly bothered by the idea of mutual self-sacrifice – provided that that sacrifice is more like compromise and kindness rather than burying an intrinsic and core part of oneself. That sounds like what you were saying too.

    Douglas, Hoagland would say that women who self-sacrifice could actually be considered selfish, because they’re riding along on other people’s waves. Sounds like you’re taking a more moderate approach though, with the idea that they aren’t being selfish but that they’re just fulfilling other’s expectations because they have no other options. Hoagland is writing for the lesbian community, so maybe she’s envisioning a world in which women do have the choice of whether or not to self-sacrifice, since they are kind of outside typical gender stereotypes. I’m not really answering your question, but those were some things that came to mind.

    Regarding Christian and Jewish concepts of self-sacrifice, Hoagland doesn’t go there at all. She actually roots the concept in captialism, where one person’s good is seen to be fundamentally at odds with another’s. Thus altruism or self-sacrifice becomes a virtue, because of that dichotomy. She doesn’t talk about religion at all. Interesting because that’s what I associate the notion of self-sacrifice with. No you didn’t come off as critical. Thanks for your thoughts! I’m just not doing Hoagland’s book justice in a 5 paragraph post. 🙂

    kmillecam, I too would love this in a RS lesson. If you have a relationship with your pres, you might be able to get her to agree to make this a 1st Sunday lesson, when the topic up to her discretion. Have you read Carol lynn Pearson’s poem called Mother Millie’s Red Dress? It’s the best poem I’ve ever read about the dangers of female self-sacrifice.

  11. The oxygen mask analogy is similar to one I use every day at work: The first rule of patient care is not to become a patient. My ability to care for others springs from being strong myself … if I fail to provide adequate self-care, I cannot help anyone else. However, when I am strong and healthy and positive, I can move mountains.

    I believe that women need to carve out personal space in which they can care and develop themselves. The scope may be different, depending on personality and personal circumstance, but I think that everyone needs a place, be it physical or imaginary, where they can attend to themselves. I think that women who totally lose themselves in others have the potential to feel abandoned when those others depart. Surely, in most situations, children grow up and leave the home. Sometimes marriages fall apart. Loved ones die. Careers end. These are the realities of this existence. There are only two relationships that we cannot escape, that with ourselves, and that with deity.

    I also believe that becoming stronger, and allowing/requesting/assisting others in our lives to do the same is beneficial for all. My grandfather once cautioned my grandmother about doing too much for him. I believe the story goes that when he left his umbrella at home on rainy days, she would walk to the train station with it, so that he wouldn’t get wet on the walk home. As much as he appreciated it, he asked her not to do it again. As an adult, he should be responsible enough to do it for himself. It also was a disservice to my grandmother to make the trek to and from the station, especially as they had children. By letting him resume responsibility for this one small thing, she benefited the family.

  12. I agree that compelte self-sacrifice is unrealistic and unhealthy. I think we are admonished not to be selfish, but the pendulum seems to swing too far in the other direction and some people feel that if they aren’t completely selfless, they’re doing something wrong.

    I think we need to start viewing people as being utterly and completely precious, and that includes ourselves. It has nothing to do with whether you want to be a housewife, a working woman, or whatever, it has to do with valuing yourself.

    The femme fatale, heartless business woman, and irresistable vixen models of women are Satan’s counterfeits of a confident, independant woman. For here, we still have a woman who need to have things to feel whole, who needs to seduce and exploit in order to feel worthwhile. The trouble is that the world still views predatory success as being honourable, both when men or women do it. Church leaders come out and say that it’s wrong for women to do it, but the emphasis on men forsaking these means of gain seems to be much less.

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