Growing up in the 1960s, the discipline my parents meted out was cerebral rather than physical. If I became too demanding or too agitated, either my mother or my father would admonish me, mid-tantrum, using a quietly powerful string of words:
"Stop being so selfish," they would say. "Not everything is about you, you know."
That was all it took. No smack, no spanking, no grounding needed. They never yelled. But, hearing myself labelled selfish, I would flush red with shame (and with rage, no doubt, but I didn't know that at the time) and willfully silence my younger self's needs.
"Think of others. Always put others' needs ahead of your own," my mother counseled as I grew.
Thinking of others became the sign of maturity, of good behavior and, most important, of worthiness.
The lesson I learned was that I should live my life to serve others, even when that service came at the expense of my own needs. It's the second part of that sentence that distinguishes this approach from compassion and empathy. "Even at my own expense." To do otherwise was to be selfish. And to be selfish was to be awful.
By the time I hit my adulthood, I was (unconsciously) certain that serving other peoples' agendas was the way to roll. Of course this meant putting a boyfriend's needs above my own -- seeing him only when it suited his schedule, understanding his lateness, agreeing to have sex whenever he was in the mood, even tolerating his infidelity. My needs in the relationship were the stuff of a distant planet.
Not being selfish also meant stepping in to pick up the slack left by colleagues who failed to deliver. Being the person everyone could always count on. Being the one who would work all weekend to draft the document "for the good of the team". (And then letting the boss take the credit...)
Not being selfish meant being a pleaser. And being a pleaser meant validation came from the outside -- from being noticed and acknowledged.
Something recently shifted. My therapist was encouraging me to say no to a demanding and needy friend. I very much did not want to do what the friend was asking for, but she is relentlessly pushy and I was feeling like I should just do it and get it out of the way.
He: "And what would happen if you said no?"
Me: (Pause) "Nothing, I suppose. Except ... it's so ... well, so ... selfish. I mean, honestly, it won't take me that long to do that for her. And then she'll shut up and stop bugging me."
He: "Is that what you want to do? Shut her up?"
Me: (laughing, uncomfortable): "Well, no, That's not the goal. The goal is to have more time for myself. So if I shut her up for a while, I'll have more time."
He: "You would have even more time if you didn't do it at all and used that time for yourself."
Me: "But that would be kinda selfish!"
He: "And would that be such a bad thing?"
Me: "Yes! I don't live my life to be a selfish asshole."
He: "Interesting. You added the word 'asshole.'"
Me: "Yeah, well...."
He: "I want you to rethink the word 'selfish'. I want you to rewrite it, actually. It will become self-ish. With a hyphen between self- and ish. And no devaluing curse word after it."
That was huge for me. The Eureka moment. Because now it meant that I could think about fulfilling my needs and meeting my wants and desires in service of self. Myself. Me. The "ish" modified the word "self" and therefore made the whole exercise about meeting MY needs rather than someone else's.
I've been rolling that word around for a few months now. Self-ish. How it differs from Selfish, no hyphen. And here is what I have decided:
Self-ish is about serving yourself. Taking responsibility for yourself. Relying on and trusting yourself. Selfish, on the other hand, is about putting yourself first, even when that behavior could (and often does) have a negative effect on someone else. Self-ish is also about facing consequences and being accountable. Selfish is about saying, Screw the consequences and screw you for asking about 'em!
Self-ish is conscious and singular. Selfish is conscious, too, but it's about putting yourself ahead of others.
On that Venn diagram that might exist somewhere out there in the ether, there is a small slice of crossover: specifically, those instances where taking care of self means letting others down and visibly and consciously putting self first. And that can be really, really hard. I'm still seriously uncomfortable with it. Truth be told, sometimes it feels good to put my own needs aside and do something kind for someone else. The key is to do it consciously. In full awareness rather than out of an automatic, learned behavior.
It took 57 years to get to this point.
I am now living in my Self-ish Years. And, truth be told, my self-ishness makes me a better, truer, more empathetic and more balanced friend. Truer to myself and, funny enough, able to give more. Able to give generously simply because I want to, and not because I worry about being perceived as selfish if I do not.
Self-ish. It's the new something.
Photo by Amanda Tipton via Flickr.