10 Tips to Balance Self-Interest & Sacrifice for a Wonderful Life

George Bailey

“It’s really important to be able to receive love and receive compassion. It is as important as being able to give it.” ~Pema Chodron

Yesterday morning two of the correspondents on the news in Boston (where I’m home for the holidays) had an interesting conversation about the classic It’s a Wonderful Life.

One of them said he’s not a big fan of the movie, which instilled a sense of complete outrage in me.

How dare he take George Bailey’s name in vain! It’s such an inspirational film! From saving Harry’s life to finding Zuzu’s petals, every scene gets my little heart aflutter with renewed hope in our ability to make a difference and find happiness.

When the initial offense faded, I listened to what clearly-heartless news guy was saying—and he actually had a point.

The main character, George Bailey, sacrificed everything he wanted in life for the people around him. If he continued to operate in a constant state of self-sacrifice, he’d likely always have regrets where other men have dreams.

And why should he not have the chance, at some point, to feel satisfaction that isn’t hinged upon having saved someone else’s life?

At the end of the movie he receives the ultimate assurance that his life is best lived with everyone else’s interests before his own: a party where he receives all the gratitude and admiration he clearly felt had been lacking prior.

The implication seems to be that he should continue on this path because everyone’s life would have fallen apart if he didn’t come to their rescue.

The movie critique got me thinking about the sacrifices we make for other people. If you know me, you may find it off that I, ever the eternal optimist, have chosen to dissect the act of selflessness right before a holiday that often inspires it.

This is precisely why I have.

Holidays generally bring out the best in people. When we pull out the tear jerkers that remind us people care and miracles happen, we’re motivated to be the change we want to see in the world. To express and show our feelings. To care in action.

But what’s more important than an epiphany shouted from a balcony on Christmas morning is an understanding of healthy giving—both to others and ourselves—that’s sustainable all year long.

I, for one, would find this information invaluable, as I’m somewhat of a George Bailey, ever willing to consider someone else’s feelings and interests before my own.

On some level it’s because I want to be kind, but often I’m motivated by the desire to feel important and useful. Or to please other people. Or even to avoid facing my own needs.

If you can relate on any level, consider these reasons to find a balance between doing for others and yourself:

Too much sacrifice can harm relationships.

According to Ted Hagen, PhD, “The give and take between two people creates mutual respect. It strengthens a relationship.”

Excessive giving can create internal resentment.

If you continually put everyone else first, you may eventually resent everyone for expecting so much of you, when in all reality, you had the choice to give less at any time.

Sacrificing is not always helpful.

We often give because we think it’s the right thing to do, but sometimes it’s just plain not. People (children especially) need to learn to take care of themselves and to accept the world won’t always meet their every wish, whim, and need.

To truly give yourself, you need to take care of yourself.

Your daily car ride may make someone’s life easier, but your bond as a healthy, happy person is far more valuable. You can only offer that if you take care of your own needs, as well.


We all deserve a life that involves doing and resisting, and giving and taking, and being selfish and selfless at times. I recommend the following steps to find a balance with all of the above:

1. Identify your current give/take ratio.

If you’d like to find a balance you have to know how off-balance you currently are. Is it fifty-fifty? Or seventy-thirty?

2. Establish your reason for imbalance.

Are you overextending yourself to feel powerful? Or to please everyone? You need to figure this out to address the next part.

3. Find an alternative plan.

If your goal is to feel powerful and helpful, start mentoring a child on the weekend. If you’d like to be well-liked, nurture qualities and skills that attract people to you—other than your tendency to say yes. This is a far better approach to gaining respect anyway.

4. Take a piece of the pie.

You can’t give everyone in your life 100 percent, so you likely give your parents, friends, and significant other a percentage of your energy. Consider a piece of that your own, and honor that in your choices.

5. Think of taking as another form of giving.

Everything you get from giving, the people who love you will get the same if you give them a chance to reciprocate. Why not allow them the opportunity to feel helpful and important, too?

6. Take a drama-free look at your relationships.

Do some people take more than give? The goal isn’t to blame, attack, or make yourself a victim, but rather to establish which relationships need to change.

7. Make attempts to repair unbalanced relationships.

If the give/take ratio is off-kilter, you need to address this, either by asking for what you need when you need it or initiating a constructive conversation. If the bond is worth saving, the other person will be at least a little receptive.

8. Make a habit of expressing your needs.

People won’t always anticipate them and step up to the plate, even if you operate that way. If you state your expectations, it will be easier for people to meet them. (Trust that they’ll want to! That’s how healthy relationships work.)

9. Check in without an even-Steven philosophy.

You don’t need to keep an internal scorecard of how much people are doing for you, but you should feel that, on the whole, they’re there for you physically and emotionally as much as you’re there for them.

10. Ask yourself, “Would I need a George Bailey moment of gratitude and admiration to justify all I’ve sacrificed?”

If the answer is yes, you know you’re not living a completely fulfilling life—one in which you look out for yourself, and honor your wants and needs as much as other people’s.

This makes now the perfect time to ask yourself: How can I accept where the choices I’ve made have taken me, but make more balanced choices from here on out for a truly wonderful life?

Photo by mrlerone.

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha and Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and live a life you love. Her latest bookTiny Buddha’s Gratitude Journal, which includes 15 coloring pages, is now available for purchase. For daily wisdom, follow Tiny Buddha on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram..

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  • Great post – these things can not be said often enough. Most of us know the truth of this when we hear it and then slip back into old patterns. I've used these same points often with clients and I especially love that you mention the even-steven one which comes up often with couples I work with. It's such a love killer! Beautiful offering Lori and delightful the way you tie it in with a holiday film classic.

  • draletta

    Good job, Lori. I like your take on the message of self-sacrifice. I'll still be watching the movie tonight and loving every sentimental minute of it.

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  • Sourita Sirí

    all your articles are so profound. thank you for giving me sanity when i slip and lose my way. you're an angel! AMAZING, is an understatement. Merry Christmas to you and your family, Many Blessing for “a Wonderful Life”

  • Linda Wolf

    Love this, I am so on board with these ideas. Perhaps I take them too far to the other extreme – self-care first before helping others. My husband tends toward the George Bailey model, though he is slowly letting go of his savior complex…we are learning to balance each other out. Thanks for this post!

  • Hi Kathy~ I've seen the even-Steven thing pull all kinds of relationships apart, and I know I've been there, as well. Never leads to anything constructive. Thanks for the note–I hope you had a wonderful holiday weekend!

  • Confession: me, too!

  • Wow thank you! What a beautiful compliment. I appreciate it, and hope you had a happy holiday weekend. =)

  • That's awesome you're finding a balance together. I've been on both sides of the coin and keep working toward finding middle ground. It helps tremendously that my boyfriend reminds me to look out for me. You're welcome–and thank you for reading!

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  • Hi Kathy~ I've seen the even-Steven thing pull all kinds of relationships apart, and I know I've been there, as well. Never leads to anything constructive. Thanks for the note–I hope you had a wonderful holiday weekend!

  • Confession: me, too!

  • Wow thank you! What a beautiful compliment. I appreciate it, and hope you had a happy holiday weekend. =)

  • That's awesome you're finding a balance together. I've been on both sides of the coin and keep working toward finding middle ground. It helps tremendously that my boyfriend reminds me to look out for me. You're welcome–and thank you for reading!

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  • McHale001

    Wise words indeed! Thanks for the gentle reminder.

  • April

    i don’t agree with this bit here: “Excessive giving can create internal resentment. If you continually put everyone else first, you may eventually resent everyone for expecting so much of you–when in all reality, you had the choice to give less at any time.” sometimes, in the case of a sick relative with an incurable illness, u don’t have a choice but to give as much as humanly possible. i left during my last semester of grad school to take care of my mom, who had Huntington’s Disease. i had POA. it was a very lonely and heartbreaking experience to go through. she died in Oct. 2009 after a lengthy 13 year illness. i resent my family for not helping me out. i didn’t realize at the time what i was giving up. it wasn’t just my education. i also gave up any future employment in my field. i never had the choice to give less at any time. there was no one else willing to make medical and legal decisions for her.

  • April

    wise words?! please!

  • Robin kilburn

    for many years I was proud to say I was everyone’s helper, even to my detriment, it didn’t make a wit of difference if I said I would do something I did it. Often at a cost, be it mental, physical or financial.
    I kept in the back of my head some day it will be my turn. I never understood that in order to have a turn I had to step up and say “my turn”
    I also never help people, but I most certainly will help them help themselves. It is never a good turn to do something for others when they could/should be doing it for themselves.
    Wonderful post

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  • Flexprogress

    yet again another article that strikes a chord, if your looking for an instruction booklet for life you wont do much better than tiny buddha.

  • I know exactly what you mean. I have also struggled with learning to say “my turn.” And you’re so right about people helping themselves. Only they can choose to do it. Fantastic comment–thank you for adding!

  • Hi April,

    I can understand how difficult that whole situation must have been for you. It seems like you essentially sacrificed your life to take care of the woman who gave life to you. I am a little confused, though. You’d mentioned you don’t agree that putting everyone first can create resentment; however it seems like you may be holding resentment toward the family members who didn’t help you out.

    Perhaps it was the part about choice that rubbed you the wrong way since it seemed like you never had a choice. That I can understand. I know it can be extremely difficult to find qualified caregivers–and finance their care to provide you with a little respite. I used to work as a respite provider for family members just like yourself. My clients weren’t terminally ill; they were mentally ill. I would take them out for a few hours and give their family members a little break just so they could do their own thing.

    I’m so sorry you didn’t have that time for yourself and that you felt trapped in the situation. I imagine it’s infinitely more difficult to take what you need when it means not providing crucial care to someone you love. I’d like to believe if you took time for yourself your family members would have stepped up, but I know that’s not necessarily a fair assumption.

    I think more often than not, when it comes to giving to others and denying ourselves, it’s not a life-or-death or terminal-illness sort of situation, and those are the people I wrote this for (myself being one of them). However, it isn’t black and white when it comes to taking and receiving. I know if I were in your shoes I would likely have done the same thing and felt the same way. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

    I hope in the aftermath of your selfless care you have been able to reclaim the life you wanted for yourself. But more importantly, I hope you are happy and in peace.

    Much love,

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  • Tim

    @ Lori and Tina’s comments: I too had a similar experience as Tina three years ago when my mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. I felt that I didn’t have a choice. I instinctively made the necessary steps to take her care into my hands once i realised my two brothers were too slow to react and incapable of performing with the precision that was required for her condition (terminal cancer, ongoing autoimmune deficiency, allergic to pain killers). I located the best doctors and even the best said it was a difficult case, made the medical decisions, spoke to doctors on her behalf, located appropriate caregivers/at-home-nurses, even sorted out all financial matters. I just knew what needed to be done while my capable brothers were more onlookers who asked instructions than active participants and decision makers. Eventually, I had to resign from a successful investment banking career as her cancer got worst (they both kept there’s). She passed away a year ago.

    It took an emotional toll on me and the resentment still does given 1) my weak relationship with my mother before her diagnosis (middle child and black sheep) and yet she found it painful and joyful that I would be the one to take care of her in her last days (painful that her dearest my elder brother was more aloof throughout the ordeal) 2) the realisation of how useless my brothers really were during her illness or times of greatest need, and finally 3) feelings of resentment towards my two brothers. I am still trying to return to banking but unsuccessfully as i write this.

    I realise i’ve always been the proud, self-made, successful, capable and compassionate brother of the three, but while I’m trying to find balance in life and career again, my life has unraveled in such a way that’s most unsettling. I go about it with a brave face as I know I’ll be able to get back into my banking groove, but I still feel strong resentment for my brothers. At this point, I’m feeling both resentment towards them and I admit, some jealousy (one got engaged to wealth and the other traded up for a brighter career) which makes me even more resentful. Life and family didn’t takecare of me the way I thought it would (good karma etc etc). I always thought doing good for the greater good selflessly was the right thing, but I realise now that’s not reality when you give too much. I gave my effort and time for my mother which I’m happy i did, while indirectly my brothers took that effort and decided to be more self-preserving. I’m no longer naive but events have also made me more selfish going forward. That is my beef currently.

  • Nina

    Comments for April and Lori (not Tina)… typo!

  • Hi Tim,

    I can’t imagine what a tough situation it is to have a terminally ill loved one and family members who simply won’t step up. It has to be one of the most challenging times to practice healthy selfishness when someone you love appears helpless without you.

    I’ve never been in your shoes so I can’t speak to what that must have been like. I’m sure it felt like you didn’t have many options, and I know I would likely have done the same thing you did. I hope in the aftermath of all of this you are able to express your feelings to your brothers so that resentment doesn’t eat away at you–that’s something I can relate to. I know it can be incredibly difficult to let that kind of thing go, but I also know everything fades with time, anger and resentment included.

    I’m glad you’ve gotten a little more selfish going forward. Society has turned it into a negative word, but everything requires balance. If we don’t take care of ourselves and our needs, it’s unlikely other people will do that for us.

    Wishing you well,

  • A willing learner

    Great post, I agree 100%. My girlfriend and I broke up a couple of months ago (after 4 years) and of course I found it tough, but one of the hardest things to deal with was the fact that she couldn’t give me a definitive reason – it just ‘wasn’t what it used to be’ and ‘the spark had gone’. Thinking back with a lot of perspective, I see know that I compromised myself to nothing. I was so hung up on being there for her, I stopped being me. This was clear to see as on the weekend before we broke up, I stayed in the house (bored) whilst she spent her time studying. Why?! I didn’t need to be there and I could have done any number of things that would have been more interesting, but I couldn’t do anything without her or without making her happy. The way you have expressed this state of mind in your article just made the light go on. Look after yourself first and the rest will follow, I’ve always been hyper-sensitive about what people think of me and its time to change. Starting now!

  • Hi there,

    I think this is fairly common in relationships, and I can relate in a big way. I have often overextended myself in relationships and become somewhat co-dependent. I’m learning that being autonomous is the best thing, both for us and the people we’re with. It’s almost a form of self respect, which other people need to recognize in order to fully respect us back.

    Thank you for reading and sharing a little of yourself in your comment!


  • Mobilemillermom

    What a wonderful and very realistic post! I give because I am just geared that way, but it is also unhealthy because I am always afraid to say “no” to anyone. I lived half of my life taking from others and expecting them to take care of me & bail me out of every bad situation “I” put myself in. I am a recovering drug addict and I WAS a very selfish person. I am 54, married and disabled (severe back problems). My husband rescued a pit bull puppy and she and he have bonded completely. She is therapeutic for him and seems to balance his life although he is quite consumed with her. She is a good puppy, but is in my care 75% of the time & I am overwhelmed. I have let myself go, seem to think about the “prescription drugs” more since she has become part of the home and I am resentful. We live in a small apartment & have no yard for the puppy to play in so she is utterly “cooped up” with me. We received a letter from the landlord yesterday saying that we must get rid of her or risk eviction. My husband’s plan is for me to take her home to our other “little” apartment where she is allowed, in my home town, and that I take care of her while he finds somewhere for us to live in the city that he works in – one that allows pets. He asks me, “Do you really want me to give up my dog?” Yes, I do. We are intimate, maybe, once every two months since the puppy has been with us. Everything seems to be out of sync. My husband is 36 and we do have a very honest relationship, but I am overwhelmed and petrified to say, “Yes, I think the puppy needs to go.” I hate it, but I cannot continue like this. I truly do NOT know how to handle this. I just had a back fusion four months ago and all I do is “dog sit” every day and I hate it. I moved from “my home town” to be with him, to support and take care of him and WANT to do this, but the dog situation is just too much for me and that is the truth.

  • Hi there,

    I can totally understand why this would be a difficult situation, seeing as you want to please your husband. I know that whenever I’ve struggled with taking care of my needs, it’s had a lot to do with wanting to please other people. But it sounds like you know what you need to do. I know it must be terrifying to speak your mind on this, but I’m sure your husband values your happiness.

    I’ve never been an addict, but I’ve fought a lot of battles hinged in low self esteem. Ultimately, I didn’t think I deserved the things I needed, and this created a toxic self-hatred that I always wanted to numb. It’s not always easy to communicate my needs, but as I’ve done it more and more, I’ve felt better and better about myself.

    I hope you tell your husband how you feel! You deserve to be happy.

    Much love,

  • Sasalool

    Hi Lori
    What an amazing aricle, thank you

    the part that really resonate to me is this “To truly give yourself, you need to take care of yourself”
    the person who doesn’t care for himself, can’t care for others
    I am just learning that recently.

  • You are most welcome. That’s been a big lesson for me, as well. In the past, I didn’t take very good care of myself, and I realized I didn’t have much to offer because of it. At any given time, there was so much I needed that I wasn’t providing myself. It all starts with self care!

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  • Timothy

    Willing learner, Wonderful insight! Thanks so much for sharing, and good luck to you. Two decades ago, when I was about to get a divorce, a stranger said to me “remember, be good to yourself”. That was a defining moment in my life. It is so healthy that you can see the importance of taking care of yourself. That way, you have something to give away. I believe that is what people look for in us.

  • You’re most welcome! That’s great advice. When we’re good to ourselves, we’re better able to be good for the world.

  • DK Hailey

    Good post with some great points. Thank you!

  • SS

    Ability to give or need to balance depends on the stage at which we are. Being humans, we definitely need to strike a balance. A tree gives fruit without expectation. Unless someone enjoys and revels in this thought and act of giving, balance is good.

  • lucy

    “Thank you for making my wish true! I was totally devastated when Frank left me. It was like all my world vanishing into sorrow and pain. But your kind words when I first emailed you gave me hope. I felt how sincere, honest and authentic you were from your first email. I know it sounds weird but out of all the casters I contacted, you were the only one to give me that impression of being so true and caring. More than your words, it’s the fantastic work you accomplished for me that I will keep in mind. You brought my lover back and you made all my wishes come true. He’s now loyal, pays attention to me, he offers me flowers every Sunday, and we often go out at the cinema or at the restaurant. I will be forever thankful for turning my life from hell to heaven

  • alexmercer

    What if I need a George Bailey moment of gratitude and admiration, not because I want to be liked or please others, but only because I think it’s a beautiful dream. A world where everyone can be happy, a world where everyone is free from pain and suffering, I wish to achieve that. I know, I’m still human, and I know I can’t save everyone but I still want to do my best and help as many people as I can, even at the cost of my own life. A noble life where a person upholds the concept of “self Sacrifice” to create a better world, I think that’s a beautiful wish.

    So. . . . Am I crazy to think like this?

  • I don’t think that’s crazy at all. It’s a beautiful thing to want to help others. What I was trying to convey with that point was this: If you’d feel bitter if you didn’t receive a huge display of gratitude and admiration, it’s likely you’re not giving from a healthy place. Self-sacrifice can be a wonderful thing, so long as there’s balance and we take care of ourselves as well. Not having our needs met leads to pain and suffering – so if the goal is for everyone to be free from pain and suffering, we would need to prioritize our own needs while doing our best to be there for others. Do you see what I mean?

  • Sri Purna Widari


    Merry Christmas.
    Wish you are healthy, happy, and balanced.
    I feel the same way like you did in the past and now I felt guilty that a book from you and another copy of your hard work and I have not given anything back.
    I know you did not ask for anything in return but I do feel bad for not being able to do it just yet.

    I hope you do not resent yourself for it.

  • Hi Sri Purna,

    Merry Christmas to you as well! There’s no need to feel guilty – I actually completely forgot that I gave you a copy of my book. I don’t feel resentful at all. I was happy to give it to you. =)


  • Vijay Krishnan

    thank you for the enlightment