The other day, I was talking to a client about their difficulties in a close friendship. This friend asks of them things that require significant self-sacrifice, and they tend to feel guilty if they say no or reassert their own needs. They exclaimed – but if I put myself first, isn’t it selfish?
I have heard this many times before in my practice. I tend to work with helpers – people who have in some way devoted much of their life to taking care of other people, whether professionally or personally. I have observed and worked with voices inside my clients’ heads that say this very thing – If you don’t prioritize x person’s needs – you are selfish! You only care about yourself! This can be somewhat difficult - and dissonant - for me to witness, as, again, these tend to be people who have literally devoted their lives to helping others.
Most of the time, I help people work through this part of the self – this Critic part that calls them selfish if they don’t prioritize everyone else. That makes them feel guilty, full of shame, even sometimes unable to breathe, holding the weight of the world, if they don’t devote themselves to the care of someone else. In my practice, we land on this part in order to help transform it.
Usually this transformation involves some kind of Anger. As clinical psychologist Harriet Lerner says in her book The Dance of Anger, self-sacrifice tends to result in stores of – often repressed – anger. Anger that our own needs are not being adequately met – that we are giving too much – and not receiving enough – and that it’s just not fair! Another important point that Lerner makes is that Anger and Guilt are incompatible feelings – meaning that if we allow ourselves access to the anger, the guilt just about melts away.
However, usually, when we have a Critic part that calls us selfish, that urges us to self-sacrifice, the anger is repressed, and therefore inaccessible.
As well, this Critic part usually holds some pain, some past memories about how hard they tried to maintain relationships, or help significant others. Most folks have learned this pattern from early development. They have been the helpers of their families, tending to others emotional or practical needs. There is usually the sense as a child that – if I don’t help, my caregiver may fall apart. Or somehow no longer be available to me. Or worse – be mean. So I have to help in order to receive.
For this blog post, however, I clearly can’t work directly with you, your memories, or the part the calls you Selfish. All I can really do is appeal to the other side, the side that knows self-care and boundaries is not selfish, and I will try to call up this part in you. I will offer some of my own ideas, from the part of me that believes that self-care is one of the most profound ways that we can bring kindness and compassion into this world.
So, first and foremost, I want to appeal to the notion that You are Worthy of Care. How do I know? Because you are alive.
Spring has sprung, and shoots and small plants are finally starting to come alive in Toronto. Crocuses, daffodils, and a blue/purple wildflower whose name I don’t know that has begun to dust some of the city parks. Each plant has its own willful determination to rise out of the ground, reach toward the sunshine, works to transform sunlight to energy to keep it alive, to meet its needs.
Doesn’t each individual plant deserve the water, sunlight, and minerals that it needs? Would it be fair to pick one out – and say – this one isn’t that important – it should devote all its resources to the other plants?
But isn’t that just what this Critic voice says – that if you don’t prioritize the needs of everyone around you over your own, you are SELFISH?
I’m actually about to board an airplane. We’ve all heard the safety instructions when you board a plane, yes? Always put on your own oxygen mask before assisting other passengers – even your own kids. The only way that you can help anyone else is by first and foremost making sure that you are safe and well. Imagine trying to help when you are oxygen-deprived, flailing around, trying to find the other masks but not fully conscious yourself! Don’t we as helpers get pulled into doing just this – continuing to help even when we are totally burnt out, need a break, but the relentless voice inside says – YOU MUST HELP!
The drive to help is a beautiful, precious, much-needed quality that makes the world a better place. But when it becomes compulsive, it robs us of the ability to honour our own needs and boundaries.
This week, I am celebrating the holiday of Passover, and so its themes are on my mind. On this holiday, Jews re-enact the Jewish collective memory of being redeemed from slavery in Egypt; it is a re-living of the transformation from slavery to freedom.
Compulsive helping, compulsive caregiving, is a kind of slavery. It is the product of an internal voice that says – if you don’t do this – You are BAD, you are Unworthy. It is a trap. There is no choice. It is a kind of giving from a place of scarcity.
Freedom is about choice. It is about coming to learn and know that we are free to choose – that in the tension that can arise between our needs and those of the people around us, we can sometimes prioritize our own needs, and sometimes those of others. When we are overflowing with abundance, let’s say, we can choose to share. But we need not feel compelled to give even when we have run out for ourselves. Freedom is saying – yes – I choose to give and help when I can – it makes me feel good, it gives me a sense of purpose and meaning – AND I can also choose sometimes to reign in my helping, and redirect it toward myself. I can choose to Invest in myself - both because I am Worthy of Care AND because when I invest in my own wellness, I ultimately have more to give.
If you feel trapped, enslaved in helping, you may need some help practicing compassionate boundaries. This is simply a way of saying no while still validating the experience of the other person. It can sound something like this:
Dear friend/loved one/child/client/spouse: I’d love to help you right now, and I care deeply about what you are going through, but I need to attend to my ________ [own needs] right now. If you like, you can also add – “Can I help you later/in a different way/?
If you are a compulsive helper, I’d also like to encourage you to think about your rigid helping as a way that you neglect yourself. I know this sounds harsh – but I am responding to the voice that says – You are Selfish if you don’t prioritize others’ needs. So, I’m trying to be equally dramatic😊 But I do believe this to be true on some level. How dare you, as the person who is in charge of putting on your own oxygen mask, deny yourself your own needs?! How can you call yourself a compassionate person when you are consistently placing your needs behind everyone else’s? That is not treating yourself with the honor and dignity you deserve by virtue of being alive.
So, if you have resonated so far with this post – I urge you – BE MORE SELFISH! Honor your own needs above all else – and then you will have the freedom to choose to give and help from your bounty.