If a person is willing to empathize with another to an excessive degree (either by intensity or frequency), they run the risk of falling into what some authors call the Messiah Trap: loving and helping others while forgetting to love and help oneself.
The Messiah Trap feeds on people who are excessively involved with the suffering of others, who believe in the motto: “If I don’t do it, nobody will”. If we only consider other people’s perspectives, desires and emotions, our life will be unbalanced.
From this point of view, we should not confuse putting ourselves in the another’s shoes with moving into their shoes. Somehow, this empathic journey is necessary to understand others, but it can also be really dangerous when we become trapped in the other.
People who are convinced that the needs of others always come before their own let others decide their actions. The problem is that this lack of self-care cannot be supplemented by the care provided by others. It’s rare for another person to be able to make up for that gap.
Forgetting about yourself to care for others
For people who have fallen into the Messiah Trap, caring becomes their way of giving love. No one forces them to take care of others. They usually fit in very well with people who need or want to be cared for, falling again and again into unbalanced relationships and dependencies.
When our own life begins to be the last thing we take care of, because we are always attending to other people’s lives, is when we come to true inner conflict. It’s confusion, constant stress, and in some cases, even depression.
To avoid falling into this, remember that the needs of others have to be met by them. Although there is nothing wrong with helping them if we can, they are ultimately responsible. If we want to offer real help, it is fundamental that we take care of ourselves. Otherwise we will not have enough strength to be very useful.
Every time we forget about ourselves, we are stoking feelings of guilt or suffering. What drives us to always be attentive to the needs of those around us? Love, fear of rejection, a need for recognition, guilt…?
These behaviors happen when we take care of others out of fear, feelings of guilt or a need for recognition. Here is where we fall into the “Messiah Trap”, and we may get hurt by it.
Buddhist teaching about the Messiah trap
A monk, imbued with the Buddhist doctrine of love and compassion for all beings, found on his pilgrimage a wounded and hungry lion, so weak that he could not move. All around him, newborn lion cubs cried, trying to get a drop of milk from their dry mother. The monk understood perfectly the pain, helplessness and impotence of the lioness. Then, he lay down beside her, offering himself to be devoured and thus save their lives.
The Buddhist story clearly shows the risk of excessive involvement in the suffering of others. Dedicated but wounded, ready to give all their love and not to keep anything for themselves. Finally, an emptiness opens up in them and they don’t know why.