It’s a trait that is pretty universally known as a negative. Being selfish means you don’t care about others, that you only care about yourself. At the extreme end some can use it to describe a person that lacks empathy or is narcissistic. Where is the line, though? That’s where it gets fuzzy, and where my anxiety lies. For people raised in healthy homes it seems clear that taking care of yourself and being selfish are two completely separate things. For us that were not raised in healthy environment the two become one in the same. Attempting to learn the difference between self care and selfishness as an adult has proven difficult.
First I had to process what it was that made the line so fuzzy in the first place. For me, and many others like me, it was both obvious and subtle. Obvious things, like getting punished for using your earned income as a teenager to purchase something on a class trip for yourself instead of purchasing souvenirs for family members. Things like being punished for having an emotional reaction to being verbally abused in public. These things would make a developing brain think that what they want or need does not matter and that in order to survive they must put the needs of those around them before their own in every instance. Then there are the more subtle things that groom us to be over-givers and overly empathetic, like never having your thoughts or feelings acknowledged as valid. Like being expected to know the adult’s mood instantly and behave accordingly or suffer the consequences.
For example, I remember at 8 years old or so, that when my dad came home in a good mood he enjoyed walking in and “looking” for us, so we were expected to hide and play the game. If we didn’t do this in anticipation of his arrival he would be upset and make us feel guilty for not wanting to make him feel special after his long day at work. If we did hide in anticipation of his arrival and he came home angry we would stay in our hiding spots until he and my step mom moved their fight out of the living area and then we would scurry down stairs to stay out of sight of his anger. Recalling memories such as this one helped me to see that I was groomed to be self-less to a fault. I was explicitly taught that any thought for myself was a selfish thought.
Now that I know where the wires in my brain got crossed, how do I move forward to straighten them out? How do I recognize the difference between positive self care and selfishness as an adult? How much longer to I have to live with this dissonance while I figure it out?
Right now, logically and rationally, I know that going to therapy is the best thing I could be doing. I know that putting my son in daycare instead of trying to pull double duty working and watching him all day is the best thing I can do. I know that taking time to read, write, get a pedicure, meditate, is a good and healthy thing for me to be doing. Rationally I know this. But instinctively my brain tells me that all of those things are selfish and wrong. It tells me I should be focusing on my son, not giving him to another to care for, no matter how much the double duty wears on my mental health. It tells me that taking time for myself, whether its for therapy or a pedicure, makes me a horrible wife and mother. It tells me that if I wanted to be deserving of my family I would be willing to put myself last at all times and sacrifice my health as needed. Better yet, it tells me that I don’t deserve my family because if I did I would be able to do everything on my own without it negatively affecting my health.
My anxiety is me having to talk back to my brain constantly. It is me seeing my irrational thoughts and not being able to change them. The best I can do right now is to counter my irrational thoughts. To remind myself of the rational reality and to model my feelings and behaviors off of rational thought. That is a big step forward, being able to recognize and dismiss my irrational thoughts, to see where the wires are crossed. It doesn’t make arguing with your own brain any less exhausting, though. When it comes to selfishness and self care I fear I will have to live with this dissonance for a while longer. Some of these problems are so deeply embedded that even after you see them it takes diligent work to affect actual change.
When you see someone who is overly-generous, who is extremely sensitive to the emotions of others, who never seems comfortable doing things for themselves, maybe take a step back and realize it could be traumatizing events and abusive grooming that made them that way. There is a good chance they developed those qualities to survive. Think on how those qualities affect that persons quality of life before you default to it being a positive character trait. There is such a thing as being selfless to a fault and if more people understood this perhaps there would be less stigma around the term “selfish”.