Selflessness is a much extolled virtue, and selfishness a much maligned trait. But these perspectives seem simplistic. Because I have found that to be truly selfless, I must be selfish first. This is why.
As a little girl, I learned that it was noble to sacrifice my needs for the needs of others. I learned that I should aspire to live at least parts of my life selflessly. And that the more selfless I was, the more worthy my life was.
So as a child, I shared my stationery, lunch, and candy; and played whatever everyone else wanted to play. And as an adult, I did things for others that I didn’t have the time, desire, or energy to do. Because I thought that I should be selfless.
It wasn’t a terrible way to live. I didn’t always mind going along with others preferences. Or putting their needs ahead of my own. But I didn’t realize that my choices had consequences.
The first consequence was that I constantly felt unfulfilled. Something in me believed that having needs and preferences was selfish, that my needs and preferences would inconvenience others, and that they weren’t important anyway. So, I suppressed them. But they didn’t go away. They lived inside me, and bubbled to the surface every so often where I denied them. Again. And again. And again. And I felt unfulfilled.
Feeling unfulfilled made me resentful. I thought I was doing good. But I didn’t feel good. So, I looked for someone or something to blame. And the people or situations that had “caused” me to feel unfulfilled were my easiest targets. So, I blamed them. And over the years, I started to resent them.
Finally, I infested my “selfless actions” with negativity. Doing things for others when I didn’t have the time, desire, or energy to do them felt arduous and draining. And was resentment-inducing. I didn’t know how to deal with those negative feelings. So I directed them towards the “selfless actions” that were causing them. And doing that made those actions feel inauthentic.
My feelings felt messy. I didn’t understand how being selfless could make me feel bad. But I didn’t know how to fix anything. So I stayed unhappy. Until eventually, I learned a few things that helped.
I learned to love and respect myself. I learned that truly loving and respecting myself meant that I had to accept who I was. I had to accept my needs and preferences. And realize that they were no more and no less important than the needs and preferences of others.
I learned to be kind to myself. I saw that when I denied my needs, I was unkind to myself. And that I deserved my kindness and selflessness just like everyone else did.
And I learned that I was responsible for my happiness. If I wanted to feel fulfilled, it was my job to make sure that I did. It was my responsibility to ensure that my needs were met. If they weren’t, it was my fault and no one else’s.
So, I changed my ways.
I became “more selfish.” I asked myself whether my needs or preferences were more important to me than the needs or preferences of others. Often they were not. And I went along with what others wanted. But sometimes, they were. And at those times, I did what I could to ensure that my needs were met. Not from a defensive place. But more from a place of wanting my needs to be met along with the needs of others.
Ironically, the more selfish I became, the more selfless I felt. Because my needs were taken care of, I could more often and easily put the needs of others first. Because I didn’t need anything, I could give without expectation. And because I felt fulfilled, I could give with abandon.
Finally, instead of giving with resentment and negativity, I could give with joy, love, and well-meaning.
And so I learned that it was important to be fulfilled. If my well was dry, I would have no water to share. And if I gave from a dry well, I would have a cost to contend with – the negativity I generated. But if I kept my well full by being “selfish,” I could give more freely, and more honestly.
So I started to choose my actions based on whether my well was full or needed filling. As I did, I became both more selfish and more selfless. And above all, I started to feel less messy, more peaceful, more fulfilled, and so much happier.