Selflessness. Noble or Nonsensical?

I have become very aware recently of a very dangerous virtue. Dangerous because this quality is practically branded into our minds as noble, even heroic. Being selfless is regarded by the majority as ‘the right thing to do’. But this admirable quality is causing havoc. It is destroying people’s lives.

When we are taught /trained/brainwashed into believing that self-sacrificing behaviour is admirable, we essentially agree that our needs are not as equally valid as another. It is preposterous to me to hear how many clients- who sit with their lives in tatters, burnt-out and often abused- because they did not believe their own happiness was as important as their partners (or any significant other).

People pleasers have it the worst. It is not in their nature to disappoint and let someone down. It is already difficult for them to say ‘no’. On top of that add the belief that selflessness is good, and you have a recipe for self destruction and or self neglect. However, if the opposite of being selfless is selfish, no one wants to describe themselves that way either.

Perhaps I’m arguing semantics here. When I hear talk about selfish people- perhaps they mean: self absorbed, egocentric, narcissistic, self-indulgent, self-centered, self-important, self-serving? If so, then I would agree, selfish is ‘bad’. So now what? The problem is, there is no middle ground. It is almost as if there are only two options, you are selfless or selfish. Extreme ends of the continuum, neither one balanced nor accommodating. How about a different, healthier option? Self-respecting.

The selfless person does not accommodate their own needs and selfish people do not yield for others. Neither one is ideal. Self-respecting individuals however, take into account their own needs as well as their partner’s/child’s/parent’s needs and makes a choice in the best interest of both if possible. If a win-win option is not available, if possible, a choice can be made that neither trivializes nor dismisses their own needs. Rather, one that protects themselves and their own sanity or fulfillment.

Cheryl Richardson, bestselling author and life coach says about self-deprivation, “If you want to live an authentic meaningful life, you need to master the art of disappointing and upsetting others, hurting feelings and living with the reality that some people just won’t like you. It may not be easy but it’s essential if you want your life to reflect your deepest desires, values, and needs.”

For sure there are times when we all need to sacrifice our own needs for the greater good. And I am definitely not suggesting to never disregard your own desires, especially if you can see it is for the greater good of most people. I am saying however, that if you default to martyrdom every time and have a pattern of sacrificing your own needs, you will eventually become depressed. Or resentful and angry. Or feel disempowered and helpless in your own life. Of course you will. There is no other logical outcome. Your behaviour reinforces the belief that you are not someone who is deserving of your own satisfaction and contentment. Everyone else is, just not you.

Play out that belief for a while. Everyone else in your life is getting what they want and need at your expense. Interestingly or ironically, the more you give the more they demand. The more submissive you are, the more the other feels entitled. The more subservient you become, the more room for them to take advantage. And you think this is a good thing? It is virtuous and generous.  Until one day the life has been sucked out of you and you feel exhausted and depleted. Not the kind of tired that even 10 hours sleep can help.  Chronic fatigue. Depression. Having handed out all your energy leaves you feeling depleted and empty which can also makes you feel angry and resentful. If you allow yourself to get angry. Getting angry would mean you are a bad person because you should be selfless. And so the cycle continues.

If it wasn’t so sad to witness it would be comical. How can we expect to create fulfilling extra-ordinary lives if we put everyone else ahead of us.  It’s a juggling act, accommodating everyone in the family and their needs. But guess what, NO-BODYs needs are more important or more deserving than your own. At the very least, bare minimum, your needs are equally valid. And if you are in a real partnership, both individuals have a mutual interest in accommodating each other’s needs. Sometimes I sacrifice. Sometimes you sacrifice. Hold on. Let’s not even say sacrifice. It’s too martyrdom-ish. We collaborate together in the best interest of our relationship and each other which means there is yielding and flexibility required. Sometimes I yield. Sometimes you yield. Sometimes I compromise. Sometimes you compromise. Neither one is selfless. Both are self-respecting and other-respecting.

I really believe we need to reframe selflessness is admirable. It’s not. Its self-destructive and self-depriving. Please, destroy that idealized conception. Move toward self love. Self worth. Dignity. You are worthy. You are deserving. And there is nothing selfish about that!