Most of us would define a selfish person as someone who has no consideration for other people’s needs or feelings and who acts only in his or her own best interests. We despise these so-called selfish people for how unimportant, unseen, and unloved they make us feel. In our frustration we may even go so far as to call them narcissists or egotistical assholes.
Today what I want to talk about is a different type of selfish person. Truth be told, you would likely not call this person selfish at all. This is because this person comes dressed in the very clever disguise of a selfless person. As a matter of fact, this disguise is so clever that even the person wearing it is fooled. So how can we distinguish between someone who is actually selfless and someone who is wearing this disguise? And worst of all, horror of horrors, what if... WE are that person?
Well, my friend, here are a few signs that you are or have been at some point in your life, this wolf in sheep’s clothing.
If you’ve ever run yourself into the ground giving to everyone around you, you are this person. If you’ve ever tried to please others or meet all of their expectations, you are this person. If you’ve ever felt like you gave everything you had to give, sacrificed everything for someone else, you are this person. If you’ve ever wondered whether “he,” “she” or “they” even care how much you do for them, you are this person. If you’ve ever felt obligated to do something for someone, you are this person. If you abhor the idea of giving to yourself, you are this person. If you think your needs always come second, you are this person. If you bend over backwards to do something the way someone else wants you to do it, you are this person. If you resent people for what they have, you are this person. If you resent people who do what they want, you are this person. Shall I go on or have you found something in this list that resonates with your experience?
The truth is that most of us are or have been this person at one point or another. While we may believe we are being selfless, and a part of us may very well have the best intentions for the person on the receiving end, underneath this type of self-sacrifice is a very self-serving motive. Deep down in the inner workings of our subconscious, hidden from even our own sight, is a desperation to confirm that we are good enough, love-able enough, important enough, doing a good enough job, living up to the role we are in, worthy of being seen, heard and valued, or get our need for connection and belonging satisfied. In essence, this type of selflessness stems from our deeply rooted insecurities about ourselves and how we are perceived by others.
So if this is self-serving, what then does it look like to actually be selfless? The difference lies in a very important detail. In the scenarios I described above, although most of us are unaware of it, the act of giving to another is overlaid on top of the self-serving motive, meaning that the two things are happening simultaneously. You are both selfless and selfish at the same time. Just like a person in a costume is both the person they are dressed as, as well as the person underneath.
When you act from a purely selfless place, however, being selfish and selfless happen at different times. Being selfish comes first. You fill your own cup, you deal with your own shit, you do what you need to do to feel good and recognize your own worth and lovability, and this then allows you to give freely from the heart with no subconscious motive to soothe yourself.
Now this may go against something that many of us learned is a quality of a decent human being, which is that you should give to others first. While this is very lovely when you are serving dinner to your guests, it simply doesn’t work in the context of more important life matters. So that you can see what I mean, I’m going to give you an example I give to my clients who struggle with the concept of being selfish so they can be selfless. If as a coach I were to sit in our session anxiously lost in my own thoughts, worrying about my own problems, concerned with whether you or anyone else thinks I’m doing a good enough job, or using our session to validate my own self-worth, would I be able to focus on you and your problems? Absolutely not. I may be physically present, but I would not be able to hold even half the space necessary to listen and empathize with your struggle and to lead you into the energy of the solution. Furthermore I would be feeling incredibly guilty and probably trying to cover up the fact that I can’t entirely serve you.
The reason that I or anyone in the human services industry, whether you’re a coach, a therapist, a teacher, etc, is able to hold so much space for others is because we’ve done our selfish part, and we know that without selfishness, real selflessness cannot exist.
Taking care of yourself does not make you a bad coach. It does not make you a bad teacher. It does not make you a bad mother. It does not make you a bad son or daughter. It does not make you a bad friend. It does not make you a bad boyfriend or girlfriend.
It makes you better.
You may have heard the saying, “The best gift you can give to someone is your presence.” So let me ask you this, what does it take for you to be completely present with someone? Getting enough sleep? Having enough downtime? Engaging in activities that bring you joy? Dealing with the issues and traumas that keep your mind preoccupied?
If you have a true desire to be present, generous and supportive of the people you love, whether that’s your friends, family or clients, you need to include yourself in that group of people you love. Your needs are just as important as theirs. You deserve just as much attention and care as you are giving to them. And you don’t have to wait for someone else to give you that attention and care. Expecting and needing this to come from the other is the epitome of codependency and it is the very reason that you are actually not receiving it from the other.
I guarantee you that the more you give yourself what you need and want, the less you will perceive others as unappreciative of what you do for them. You won’t need as much recognition. Giving will no longer feel like an obligation. You won’t feel exhausted from all the self-sacrifice. You won’t feel like you are failing to meet other people’s expectations, or else you will find that you simply don’t need to meet them. You won’t resent others who do what they want. You won’t feel guilty asking for time to yourself.
What will happen instead is that you will find yourself genuinely being of service to others, and others will in turn genuinely give that back to you. Now it may not be a direct exchange. The energy you put out may come back to you from a totally unexpected place.
For example, I have been doing a lot of inner work to heal myself from traumatic relationships, learn what self-love really means, stop asking the other to change, and become the type of partner who’s heart is open and full, ready to give and receive and to connect with someone on a profound level. While I’ve been just bumbling along doing me, trying to live my best life, and not seeking from others what I feel is lacking in me, two of my ex-boyfriends on separate occasions, with whom I’ve had no interaction with for years, sent me a message to apologize for how they treated me during and after our breakup and would I please forgive them. A third ex-boyfriend, the only one with whom I’ve remained friends, has become increasingly kind and caring and extremely supportive, and not because he wants anything from me.
Are these coincidences? Sure, if you’re not the type to believe in energy and vibration and all that, these could be pure coincidences. But, coincidence or not, these are the types of interactions that have been showing up in my world since I started taking care of myself first.
Now let’s be realistic, most of us have so much baggage that it’s nearly impossible to be completely present, open and selfless in the way that I described above, all the time, to everyone around us. However, you can become more mindful of what you need to do for you, in order to bring the best possible version of yourself to those around you. The version that shows up on time to your meetings, remembers important days like birthdays, checks in with friends and listens to what stories they share, contributes in your work environment, guides your children to become incredible human beings, makes your partner feel supported and loved, resolves conflicts with grace and compassion, or whatever is your version of truly showing up. And the best part is that none of this will feel like an obligation. It is a pure choice that comes from the heart.
With awareness, you can also be more understanding of where others are coming from, and better communicate your needs or ask others to be patient with you if you don’t truly have it in you to be completely present with them. You can let go of the guilt you once felt if you weren’t totally self-sacrificing and you can release yourself from the stigma of being selfish.
Being selfish does not always mean you have no consideration for others. Being selfless does not always mean you have pure non-self-serving motives, even if they are subconscious. There is no such thing as being selfless without being selfish. Make your desire to be purely selfless, the reason for your conscious, intentional and deserving selfishness, rather than a disguise for your insecurity. And lastly, stop giving those egotistical, narcissistic assholes the right to define the term “selfish.”
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