This weekend, I spoke with two women whose lives couldn’t be more different but who were struggling with the same issue, being selfish, in nearly identical ways. One was 40 and the other was 20. One lives in the Northeast (Pennsylvania) and the other in the Southeast (Georgia). One was grappling with her desire to move to Atlanta to build her career and the other person was confronting some major personal health challenges. Both of these women are stuck in their own lives, trying to make a way out of no way and steadily trying to figure out how to take other people, specifically their families, with them.
Here’s what I thought was interesting. First, these women want to bring their family members with them along their respective journeys without any assurance that their family members actually want to join them. Further, neither of these women considered that it is not possible to do the work of self-improvement for another. Moreover, they didn’t see that they were assuming responsibility for others, adults at that, when such requests hadn’t even been made of them. These women had not considered that they could make a bunch of unrequested and unwanted sacrifices! Can you imagine the bitterness of making life changing-decisions and not getting the outcomes you want and somebody saying, “Who asked you to do that?” Can you imagine that punched in the stomach feeling when you realize that the only person responsible for your feelings and choices is you?
My friends’ chief concern was making sure the path was paved and present so that they could make their family members’ lives better and more stable. Neither asked herself whether she wanted more for her family members than they wanted or envisioned for themselves. As much as we can want people to do better because we believe we know better, it is not advisable to drag somebody on your journey. Your values may not be theirs. Even when values are similar, the commitment, momentum, and willingness to toil for it may suggest that they are not fully wedded to the values, that no fire has been set under them. Guess what? That’s their choice to make. I dared not ask my friends if they were subconsciously trying to control their family members.
Second, both of these women saw making themselves their primary interest as selfish and self-centered. I was floored that they flat out said being concerned about their own growth, stability, and success was selfish. I was floored at their inability to frame it any other way. One of them said this perspective was so “republican” of me (In my social circle, being a republican is far from God…..a long way from God….. a long long long long looooooooooooooooooooong way).
With as much as care possible, I asked how they were going to go pour from an empty cup. Both of these woman had major gaps in areas of necessity; thus, it baffled me how they didn’t see themselves as complicit in their own drowning. One woman said, “I don’t see my family as a burden!” In turn, I said, “But it’s a weight that you can’t maneuver, and it’s crushing you. You’re forever complaining and talking about what they don’t do DESPITE your proselytizing. Can you love somebody without doing the work for them, without rescuing them? The other woman said, “But I feel guilty”. To her, I asked a question and offered a share. My question was this, “Could it be that your guilt is also fear about not being able to make it and needing them? Additionally, do you think being unable to meet their needs or unwilling to sacrifice what is important to you makes you a bad person?” I offered her one last question: “Could you be setting yourself up for a life of resentment?” My young friend got out of my car and said she needed to think about it a bit more. On the other hand, I’m not sure if my more senior friend is speaking to me: I touched a raw nerve.
Sometimes, we need to be self-centered, which is a little different from selfish. Self-centered is about figuring out what you need to fill your own cup, not being ambivalent to others. Here’s my other take on self-centered: it’s also about making sure you aren’t a burden to other people and is also an expression of love toward those who make up your support system and safety net. If you take care of yourself as best you can, including considering the long view of your choices, you reduce the need to rely on them which allows them to live their lives more fully.
Have you ever considered that the expectation that you won’t explore what’s important to you is a selfish demand? Oh yeah, when you decide to focus on you, you’ll deal with inner conflict for a while and somebody is bound to call you a selfish bitch (ask me how I know)!