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The next time I’m standing on a rooftop, here’s what I plan to shout:
“I’m selfish and I love that about myself!”
But it wasn’t always that way.
It used to be that in my head “selfish” equaled “bad.” Unworthy. Undeserving. Unacceptable.
I believed that if people thought I was selfish, they would leave me and I would be all alone.
So I went to great, often self-defeating lengths, to prevent the thought “she’s selfish” from ever crossing someone’s mind.
I would sabotage my own self-care. Over-give to others. Over-book my schedule so I was always “busy enough” to feel justified in saying no to others’ demands on my time and energy. Subconsciously make myself sick so I would feel like I “deserved” a break. Over-explain. Compulsively let others off the hook, take responsibility, and apologize for the fact of my existence.
But then one day, a peculiar question crossed my mind: how can I be a Self and not be Self-ish?
I suddenly came to a confronting realization: it was selfish of me to desire to be seen as self-less. Ironically, it was my “selfish” ego’s need to control others’ opinions of me that led to this.
I realized that what I had been doing was kind of nasty. I wanted to make myself look good and feel better than others by being “less selfish” than them. How selfish of me!
I also saw that the pattern I had been stuck in was fueled by insecurity, fear, self-judgement, and guilt and that I was roping others into this. Simultaneously, two things arose within me: compassion for myself and the cycle of suffering I had been stuck in, and a fierce commitment to transform this pattern.
I realized that I cannot help others end their suffering if I am stuck in my own.
The more I meditated on the duality of self versus other, the more I realized that the distinction between the two is far more imagined than real.
Since then, I have realized many perspective-shifting paradoxes of being “selfish” such as:
To be identified with the ego is inherently painful and limiting. Living a life of service feels so much more free and expansive than having our attention fixed on ourselves. It is selfish to be self-less.
Pema Chödrön puts it simply and beautiful in her book Becoming Bodhisattvas, “At some point, we realize that what we do for ourselves benefits others, and what we do for others benefits us.”
To be of service to others is intrinsically rewarding and so putting our attention on others is one of the greatest things we can do for ourselves!
Another paradox is that sometimes, one of the kindest things we can do for others is to allow them to contribute to us! Our willingness to receive support from someone gives that person a great gift: they get to experience themselves as being generous.
There really is no such thing as someone who is wholly “selfish.” Nor is there such thing as a person who is entirely “self-less” (to be entirely self-less means to not exist).
Rather, selfishness is a spectrum. One end of that spectrum is caring so much about the needs of others that we forego our own—which, ironically, is unkind to others, because when we are not resourced, we are not available to contribute to others!
On the other end of that spectrum is caring so much about the needs of ourselves that we forego the needs of others. And this is unkind to ourselves because it leaves us with a stifling sense of smallness!
Both extremes of the spectrum are equally maladaptive. Equally unenlightened.
For each of us, there is a perfect meeting point somewhere toward the middle, where we find balance between selfishness and othered-ness, which results in our being nourished, resourced, and excited and inspired to be of service and share our gifts with the world.
So the next time someone calls you selfish (or you make this accusation of yourself in your own mind), rather than trying to convince them otherwise, see if you can, without defensiveness, be grateful for the opportunity to reflect.
Ask yourself: how do I feel about where I am on the spectrum?
If, upon reflection, you realize that you are “too far” to one side or the other, based on your own values, then great! You’ve just created an opportunity for yourself to shift back into balance.
If you find that you’re already at your perfect balance point, then that’s great also! You’ve created an opportunity for yourself to fully own your place on the spectrum, feel proud of yourself for finding it, and let go of the need to control others’ opinions of you.
After all, if someone judges us for being “selfish,” it’s probably because they aren’t giving themselves permission to meet their own needs.
By unapologetically caring for ourselves, we not only make it so that we are more available to be the change we wish to see in the world, but also, we also give others permission to do the same.