Is it better to be selfish or selfless? Or maybe this is just some bullshit false duality that we need to throw out.
I’m going with the third choice. But let’s unpack this weird idea, and how some of us are taught to navigate it.
Selfishness and Selflessness Lessons
Selfishness is wrong and right. In America, this is what we learn from a young age. Go to a church to find a healthy dose of selflessness. Then read Ayn Rand to find selfishness recommended.
So on the one hand, I should appear to be Mother Theresa. On the other, I’m meant to let the weak die and strong survive. It’s best to be strong. I should do my best to earn as much value as I can, pay lip service to charity, and secure well past the American Dream.
Since I’m a woman, I get to do this while smiling and wearing heels.
It’s enough to make you dizzy. On the one hand, I’m supposed to go out and buy stuff, drink, and party so hard it gives Romans a bad name. On the other hand, I’m asked to give everything I have away, denying my body to the point of self-harm.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of a mind-fuck because no one is good enough in this scenario. Everyone is wrong, evil, or has something to prove.
And none of it is true.
My Problem With Selflessness
Like many, I unpacked this mess. Growing up with two ordained ministers as parents, I had a heavy dose of Christian selflessness hoisted upon me – the last will be first, and the first will be last. I felt like there was always more that I could do – and that I could never do enough good. There was always room for someone’s judgment and with it, my guilt and shame.
I also had a history of trauma. This lovely history helped foster a terrible story. I believed that even if I did everything right, I would still be inferior. There was always something to prove, because clearly, if I suffered as a toddler, I must have deserved this suffering – I must have been born bad.
Struggling with Selfishness
To top that off, I enjoy my creature comforts. I won’t deny that I like sex, wine, velvet, chocolate, and roses. Shiny rocks and fast cars hold special places in my heart. I relish beautiful environments, surrounded by naturally aromatic fragrances. I like the Golden ratio in nature and rooms designed with Feng Shui.
So you can imagine how well I dealt with the pressure to be angelic even as I sought to ground myself through sensual indulgence. It was messy, guilty, and shameful. To go religious – it was sinful.
The worst thing about this wretched mind-fuck was that I didn’t know I was in it. I didn’t recognize the depth of my low self-worth, or the judgment I put upon other people. When I bought myself French lingerie, I thought I was showing myself love – that I was loving to myself. I thought when I volunteered with Americorps, and denied myself a livable income, I was proving how spiritual I could be – that I was righteous. It counteracted all the creature comforts – I could somehow balance out my ledger by living in profound discomfort.
But I was miserable.
The stuff was empty, and rather than filling a void, created anxiety around not having enough. The denial was a kind of self-flagellation. Both caused unnecessary pain – both fostered jealousy, resentment, anger, and hate.
And I didn’t know I was doing it.
Away from Selfish and Selfless – The Third Way
It was only when I lost everything – when I was stripped bare and forced to confront my truth that I recognized how much I had to learn.
In 2013, I was seven months pregnant when my husband lost his job. It was a frightening time, and spun me into a pit of self-loathing and despair. It took me months of daily tears, regular fights with my husband, and long conversations with relatives and friends to come to terms with reality.
In my early thirties, I didn’t know myself. I needed to spend time learning about me – getting my heart and mind right. The process took me two years of journaling, meditating, networking, classes, workshops, reading, and publishing. It was a daily commitment unlike no other I’ve experienced. I’d never spent so much time on me – and it paid off.I'd never spent so much time on me – and it paid off. #selfcare #personaldevelopment Click To Tweet
My life is completely different now. For me, there is no such thing as selfish or selfless – there is only love.
I read social media posts without anger or frustration. People snap at me, and for the most part, I’m unaffected. I enjoy at least one thing in every moment of life. I experience peace throughout my days. If I do experience a negative emotion, I acknowledge it, and let it go. I feel happy, loved, and loving every day. Also I enjoy and appreciate the people, places, and things in my life.
Who I am now and who I was five years ago are completely different people. If the woman I was met the woman I am, she might be shocked. She might wonder how I got here – what I did.
What would I tell her?
“Take a breath. Everything will work out better than you can even imagine. Spend time learning about and loving your authentic self – it really is the best path.”
This was adapted from a piece originally posted to OTV Magazine in August 2016.