I hear this a lot: “Isn’t that being selfish? I once got so frustrated with someone, I said, “Worry about being selfish when you have a self!” This was an overreaction, and I apologized. As with many mistakes, it was regrettable, but led to a very fruitful discussion about the nature of self, and why so many of us, both women and men, often suppress our healthy wants and desires out of fear of selfishness.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines selfish as “concerned chiefly or only with oneself”. This doesn’t quite capture it. A concrete comparison often helps. A truly selfish person would respond to a crisis with her aging father by saying, “That’s somebody else’s problem.” Such a person would be concerned only with their own comfort or convenience. A person with a strong sense of self might respond with disappointment, especially if it meant getting on an airplane and missing her daughter’s school play, but she would realize that an important aspect of having a deep connection to oneself is honoring the value and needs of others.
You might ask, isn’t the person getting on the plane practicing self-sacrifice? It depends on the circumstances, and on how conscious the person is. Self sacrifice implies martyrdom, and its companion, inflated self-worth. If a healthy person had the option to delay hopping on that plane in order to attend the school play, she would take it. A martyr would dash out the door, saying to her child, “Sorry I have to miss your play, but I am so desperately needed, things will fall apart without me.” This is selfish behavior, in the name of self-sacrifice. In this hypothetical case, our person is putting her own need to feel important above the child’s desire to have her mom come to her play. Even more to the point: our martyr is playing out a role she believes will bring esteem and self worth in the eyes of others. She is not looking deep inside to see what action would be most important and meaningful for her.
These dynamics are complex. As we get psychologically healthier, most of us enter into an ever present dance of becoming more conscious of our own needs and desires, giving ourselves the permission to act on them, and also being aware of the needs of other people. Ideally this includes recognizing when we stop self-motivated action in response to an old message, often forged in childhood, that we are “blowing our own horn” or “too big for our britches”.
In the process of what Carl Jung called “Individuation”, layers of old defenses rise to the surface. We come to see that many of the things we grew up feeling guilty about, don’t add up on the scale of emotional justice. It is not only okay to act from the center of our own desire, it is the only way to have healthy, balanced, honest relationships.
Sorting this out is often subtle and requires listening to voices deep inside of us. We can’t come up with hard and fast rules in the exchange between self and other in a reality that changes with every heartbeat. In our hypothetical about the woman responding to her father’s health crisis, it may be that she can check in with others attending him, ascertain that it is all right to wait a day so she can see the play, and make the choice to do so. Or, it may be that everyone back home is begging her to come right away, even though the situation is not that critical. Does she “cave” to pressure from her family, or listen to the priorities of her own heart? Or, it may be that everyone is telling her she doesn’t need to come right away, and her daughter is looking at her with hopeful eyes, and yet, a dream comes in the night, and our woman realizes she must go to her father right away. Their emotional bond is too strong, and his condition too unpredictable.
Listening to our dreams, and to that intuitive voice or images that comes to us in waking life, can be our greatest resource for discovering how to proceed in fidelity to our true self. Freud said, “The mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water.” Great treasures lie in the unconscious mind, just below our waking awareness.
So, before throwing down the self-demeaning label “selfish”, look closer. Truly selfish people are operating from a split-off psyche. When they reject others, they are rejecting a part of themselves. In our hypothetical story, if our woman had said, “That is someone else’s problem”, she would have been confessing that she feels she is someone else’s problem, a person incapable of seeing the depths of her own complexity, value, and vulnerability.
My hunch is that a vast majority of us are not “selfish” at all, but struggling to find, to own, and to operate from, our own complex and valuable self.