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Listening Between the Raindrops

Finding purpose and meaning in life from a different perspective.

Month

May 2017

Get Selfish

Selfishness is defined as: “devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.” We see selfish people as bad individuals being concerned only with themselves. “You,” are no concern of theirs. But is this image actually realistic? Are selfish people always selfish or are they just better at taking care of themselves than the rest of us? Are self-sacrifice and sharing always the right thing to do? Maybe being selfish is simply getting a bad rap and the term needs to be reconsidered.

On one hand, I can think of countless times that I needed someone to be there for me. In some cases, they were, other times they were not. Occasional instances don’t bother me so much… it’s when there is a symptomatic consistency that I start to feel used and abused. The biggest problem is when someone assumes the gift of my time, money, space or energy never considering that I may want something different. That isn’t really selfishness on their part though, is it? It is a lack of “caring for oneself” that is being completely disregarded… by me! In fact, I have become a doormat, and that is not ok.

Most are familiar with the Golden Rule – generally understood (in the U.S.) as a Christian tenant, but it can actually be found in many other religions and would be considered the ideal human behavior. We are told that if we treat others as we wish to be treated then the world would be a better place. Yet, what if we flip this rule on its head and think about it in another way and teach others how to treat us by treating ourselves with the kindness we give to others? Being kind to others means nothing if we don’t also treat ourselves the same way.

If this thought process feels uncomfortable, think of a child. When they are little and unable to make decisions for themselves parents plan their birthday parties, choose the gifts, decorations and the flavor of the cake. As the child matures he gets to pick these things for himself and parents love giving them what they want.

What would it look like if a 10-year-old when asked what kind of theme party he wanted responded with, “Oh, I don’t need a birthday party it is always so much work for you.” Yeah, pretty unrealistic.

But this is exactly what we do if we are not selfish.

When my son was born, many wise women told me to sleep when he slept, that I had to take care of myself in order to take good care of my baby. This sage advice was easy when he was an immobile infant. It became a lost battle when he got older and naps were discarded. Society told me that in order to be a good mother self-sacrifice was the best direction.

Later, enmeshed in my faith, that self-sacrifice extended to everyone else as well. I lost the right to self-care and self-love. I lost the right to be selfish because it was an unspoken taboo. What I was left with was a shadow; a broken, tired, angry shell of my former self. I did not have a purpose or a life to live if it wasn’t wrapped up in someone else. It was extremely unhealthy.

I eventually learned, that I needed to speak up for myself and that I had the right to have what I gave to others. By placing boundaries on what or how much I would do slowly taught others how I wanted and deserved to be treated. If I wanted a party for my birthday I would ask. Unfortunately, changing your behavior will have consequences.

When you stand up and say what you want backlash is inevitable. There will be people in your life who are comfortable with your self-sacrifice and will complain. I had several loved ones turn away because I started choosing things that benefited me; upset because I didn’t place their cares or concerns above my needs. My new behavior was seen as an insult and considered offensive even though they were not harmed just inconvenienced.

I am not perfect at being selfish, the bad habit of giving beyond what I am able to give still haunts me. I love someone so I want them to be happy. I give up some small thing so that they can have something that will make them glow with gratitude and this is ok as I am not neglecting myself. I am learning to know the danger signs.

I know I have given too much when I start to resent others requests. This means I need to pull back a bit and consider the situation. It isn’t that there is anything wrong with them asking, but it’s not ok if I am unable or unwilling to give what they want or if their request places an undue burden on me – but recognizing that I can choose to give at these times or not is key. (As in the case of an emergency.) I am learning to gauge my feelings about the request before saying yes and paying attention to my own body’s signals to let me know how I feel.

A good gauge would be to focus on the request and decide the pros and cons of the situation. If you feel motivated to say, “yes” out of a sense of guilt or obligation, it may not be the best choice. If negative emotions are your only motivating factors you are not offering that person your best and not giving from a place of lovingkindness. I wouldn’t want someone to give in to my requests if it only served to build a wall of resentment.

Learning to be selfish is a balancing act. Give yourself permission to lean on the side of self-care if you are feeling worn-out or used. Remember too that healthy selfish behavior is not an excuse to be uncaring or unloving towards others, but one stepping stone on the path towards loving yourself as you love others.

If you struggle with boundaries, saying “No” or don’t even know where to start in this process there is an excellent book on this subject by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No,” I receive no compensation if you follow the link. 

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A Book for Mother’s Day

Appetites: Why Women Want, by Caroline Knapp (2003)

Shortly after I got this book I read through the first few pages and placed it on my “read later” pile. I assumed I had nothing in common with a woman who nearly starved herself to death. I come from hearty Sicilian and German stock, too much food, and not daring to reject this form of love was more of my problem than self-denial. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

This book was published posthumously. Caroline Knapp died at age 42 of lung cancer in 2002. An author and columnist, she is one of the best writers I have read. Her words are a sword, as finely crafted and precise as a samurai’s deadly weapon. Her meticulous words and excellent prose slice through the denial that one woman’s eating disorder is not directly related to another woman’s shopping addiction. Her parry is deadly. Be prepared to be dismembered from your most treasured belief system(s).

Much of the book details her love affair with anorexia. Unlike the stereotypical image of this disorder, she did not undertake this adventure because she felt she was fat/overweight or hated her body per se. She starved herself because she wanted control. She wanted power over her body… over something. At one point, she describes standing in front of the mirror meticulously counting her protruding ribs; satisfied that she had somehow proven a point. She later admits that food gained the upper hand; planned binges took on the pomp and circumstance of holiday gatherings, afterwards leaving her feeling helpless, hopeless and wrought with guilt. Yet, to say this book is only about one woman’s battle with anorexia is akin to saying the titanic was sunk by an ice cube.

Appetites is about women’s wants. Women often abnegate their own desires for the good of the other. Think about a fantastic Mom you know; likely she is best at self-neglect and places her priorities in the order of who needs her most… excluding herself. Husband, children, community, church and aging parents all take precedence over a woman’s time, energy and personal aspirations. To do less is to be less of a woman. Why is that?

I look at my own life and I realize I too followed the pre-set female formula. As a teen, I quickly fell in step with the feminine stereotype. I chose to participate in the pom-pom squad although I was a strong runner. I dropped woodshop because I was the only female in the class and was horribly intimidated even though the teacher was very encouraging and uber-excited that I was in his class. I loved creating things out of wood yet, shyness, teenage insecurity and the very real awareness that I didn’t belong there made me drop that class and join choir, (I can’t sing except in my car or shower.) Both decisions I regret to this day.

I always loved climbing trees, riding my bike, reading books and creating stories yet in high school having friends became more important than my satisfying solitary adventures. One could argue that I was simply following the normal arc of a teenage girl but hindsight tells me I sold out to fit in. The girls who were athletic were “dykes.” The girls who had no friends were freaks or outcasts. If the majority of your friends were guys, you were a slut. Somewhere along the road to adulthood I lost the courage to be myself and once lost it was very difficult to get back. For most of my life I followed the path of least resistance the one that would allow me to blend in and not rock the boat. I lived my life denying my true self (see my post “It’s Her Again”) all the while feeling the inner boiling anger of resentment towards those who suppressed me. In some respect, I should have been mad at myself. But maybe it wasn’t entirely my fault.

Knapp helps explain our common plight as modern women. One foot in the past and one in her future; the average woman unconsciously and guiltily competes with her mother’s legacy. Only a generation ago women were still expected to be in the home, June Cleaver being the model of perfection. Even the career woman was expected to work full time and then come home to clean, cook and care for the children. The tiresome images of what a woman should be still endure and those who break the mold pay dearly. Those who fall in step fare no better.

Knapp, in chapter two, tells of the many cocktail parties hosted by her parents; something her mother hated. “And I remember how tired she’d be the next morning, exhausted in the bone-deep way I now recognize as almost entirely emotional: it’s the rage-laced fatigue you feel after you’ve given and given and taken next to nothing for yourself.” I know that feeling all too well.

Appetites is not simply a call for equality, but a call for recognition. Recognizing ourselves as beings who have wants. We are beings who have desires no less important or powerful than our beloved male counterparts, yet we somehow fail to give ourselves permission to be who we are in our souls. No one is going to grant women consent to grab what they want, it needs to be taken by women and that is a terrifying prospect.

 

If you are interested in Knapp’s book it is available on Amazon. I will not receive any compensation if you use this link.

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