What Nature Teaches Us About Selfishness and Sacrifice

I recently visited Heron Island, on the Great Barrier Reef. I love being immersed in nature- there are so many lessons to learn. Whilst there, I learned about an interesting adaptation of the Island trees that helps them adjust to the harsh weather conditions.  In almost every tree there was one brightly coloured yellow leaf called, the Sacrificial Leaf.

This leaf is paramount to the survival of the tree. It absorbs all of the excess salt so that the tree can achieve a healthy balance. Eventually, the leaf dies and falls to the ground. It’s ‘death’, in turn, nourishes the soil for the tree to feed- and the life cycle continues.  

It got me thinking about how often we sacrifice ourselves in order to help others. As parents, we sacrifice plenty for the sake of our children. We also make sacrifices in our relationships by putting the needs of our partner over our own.  In caring for others it is easy to be like the Sacrificial Leaf and absorb everyone’s ‘stuff’. We, too, can get drained of our essential life force. 

Many of us have a hard time putting our needs first. We often think that doing so is a selfish act. With such a mindset, it is easier to be self-sacrificial than selfish. We seem to get more from being there for others than nurturing ourselves. 

It can be easy to become the Sacrificial Leaf and focus all our energy on the wellbeing of everyone else. The problem is we may lose ourselves in the process and if not careful can end up falling into martyrdom, just like the leaf. What’s important to remember is that being selfish is essential when it comes to self-care. If we act like the Sacrificial Leaf we run the risk of influencing our own downfall. 

Nature also demonstrates the importance of selfishness. It is paramount for self-survival. Sometimes harsh decisions have to be made. Such an act of selfishness is evident in another adaptation I learned about on the Island. 

When there is drought, the Pisonia Grandis Trees (native to Heron Island) release sticky seeds on the ground below them. The birds feed off these seeds and get stuck. Eventually, the bird dies, decomposes and its remains feed the soil for the tree to live. It is tempting to interfere with this process- to save the bird or remove its dead body- but this symbiotic relationship demonstrates this delicate balance between selfishness and sacrifice. 

The key is to find a balance between giving and receiving. A balance between being selfish as well as sacrificial. 

How can we achieve this balance? Here are a few tips:

  • Recognise your giving limits. This means being aware of our energy and knowing when we are being drained. We need to give from a full cup and if our cup is empty then we have no reserves to give authentically. This is when we will often burn out or begin to feel resentful.
  • Balance giving and receiving. Sometimes it’s easier to give than to receive. It requires a certain amount of humility and vulnerability to ask for help and let others take care of you. In doing so we not only allow ourselves to be filled up, we also honour the other person’s role of giving.  Ask for help, let others do for you and let yourself be nurtured.  
  • Have healthy boundaries. Know when to say no. Know when enough-is-enough. Know when to stop and take a breath. Be mindful of the difference between authentically giving and people pleasing. There is no benefit in compromising your own needs. 
  • Give ourselves space to refuel without feeling guilty. When you are taking time for yourself, be fully immersed in it. Let go of your to-do list and focus mindfully on yourself. 
  • Know what fuels you and commit to yourself. Have your own self-care rituals. Use your time wisely and selfishly (no supermarket shopping during me-time, for example). Whatever uplifts your energy is a way of knowing what is working for you. Beach walks, reading, meditating, yoga, gentle exercise, nature hikes or being with good friends are all examples of healthy self-care rituals. 
  • There is no honour in martyrdom. Only we are responsible for ourselves. No one is going to live our life for us or make decisions for our own well being- we need to own that role fully. 
  • Give yourself regular breaks to recharge your batteries. Don’t wait to burn out. Tune in and listen to your body and take a rest before you are tired. Be honest about your energy levels and work within your own threshold.
  • Give unconditionally, with an open heart. To serve others is a blessing and an honour. When giving, give wholeheartedly without any expectations or need for recognition, approval or validation.

So, are you the Sacrificial Leaf or the Sticky Seeds? I would love to hear your thoughts on how you achieve your own balance. . .