Growing up, I had the attitude that one of the worst things you could be was selfish.
I’ve been reading a blog called Removing the Fig Leaf, and this post by Lena Crowne reminded me about the idea that you put Jesus first, then others, then you. Anything that prioritized your needs above others was selfish and sinful.
I think I was taught that there is a distinction between being selfish vs. having self-worth, but somewhere along the line this distinction was lost to me. I thought that I was a selfless person who had a sense of self-worth, but really I had no idea how to value myself. Because I tried so hard not to be selfish, I tried to understand the needs of others over myself. This lead to me burying my understanding of my own needs. Not understanding or valuing my own needs and reactions naturally lead me to not value myself, because obviously what other people thought and needed was more important what I thought and needed, including what other people thought of me.
I constantly thought about how others viewed me. If I had a teacher who praised me, it made me feel so good about myself, feel like maybe I was worth something after all. I remember being almost in tears when one teacher in high school told me that I would be an asset in whatever field I chose to work in – and obviously those words still stick with me today, over 10 years later. On the other side, when someone said something negative about me – my parents implying that I was selfish or thoughtless, or when I heard people talking about me behind my back – I felt like the lowest of the low.
Since, I believed, what other people thought was more important than what I thought, what other people thought about me was more important than what I thought about me.
I feel many of the ideas I used to believe are contradictory. You must be selfless but also find self-worth (in God, of course). You must put others before yourself but not care about what they think of you. You must not care about earthly things but also provide for the earthly needs of others.
No wonder I struggled.
Lately I’ve been feeling like I want to reclaim the word selfish. My husband suggests that maybe I could call it self-interest or just caring for myself, but I like reusing and reframing that word. Sometimes I choose to use new terminology – like using magical instead of spiritual – but in this case I feel like reclaiming will be more powerful.
Here’s the thing: I’m going to disappoint people sometimes. It happens. I can try to the best of my ability to be a good friend, partner, child, teacher, whatever, but I do not have boundless energy and I am not a person without needs. And that’s perfectly OK. No one is a person without needs. It’s ok to cancel on friends sometimes, or to say no, or to take a mental health day from work. In fact, it’s probably better to do these things than to keep trying to push myself to be everything I can be for other people. In the end, if I take care of myself and act “selfishly” every once in a while, then I feel better; and when I feel better, I have more to offer to others.
I am not wanting to try to be selfish at the expense of others, or in ways that harm others. I do not want to be unnecessarily selfish with my money or my time, but I do want to be selfish when I need to be.
In being selfish, I can create a positive loop: Recognize my needs -> give myself what I need/ask for what I need -> feel good -> recognize others’ needs -> give what they need within reason -> feel good -> recognize my needs….
In contrast, I used to live in a “selfless” negative loop: bury my needs -> feel bad -> try to meet the needs of others, fail sometimes -> feel worse -> bury my needs….
Another way to think about it is a scale: I balance my needs with the needs of those around me (my boss/work, my partner, my family) to strive to keep a happy balance of positive feelings and good mental health.
If I put too much on the “others” scale, I have nothing left to give and am left in an unhappy, imbalanced state.
An unintended side-effect of becoming more selfish is that I care less about what others think of me. There are things about me that I like, and there are areas in which I strive to improve or change: understanding my privilege and biases more, becoming more physically fit an able, speaking up a little more. I can take into account what other people think of me without being self-conscious and shutting down. As a sort of trivial example, a few weeks ago my husband mentioned that I have an annoying habit of not throwing away napkins and instead leaving them on the plate. When it’s time to do dishes, sometimes the napkin will have stuck to some sauce or something and it’s annoying to clean up. When he mentioned this to me, I thought, “Oh yeah, that really IS annoying. I’ll try to change that habit.” Whereas before, I would have internalized it and took it to mean *I* was annoying. That is a huge change for me, to not take a negative thing someone said about me and agonize over it. In that case, I could recognize the annoying habit for what it was: simply an annoying habit that I chose to change because it was annoying. I can look at what someone else says about me objectively because I care more about what I think than about what others think of me.
So, I am content to be selfish. I am happy to do what’s best for me, and I can recognize that helping others around me and my community is also good for me. I can be selfish and still try to lessen the suffering of others around me.
There’s a nice thing about being able to do something about which the still-present evangelical part of my brain whispers, “You’re so selfish,” and being able to say, “Yeah, I know, it’s so great.”