Some time ago, I went to a lecture on self introspection. The speaker began with the statement, “Half of you in the audience need to do a better job of looking out for the individuals you interact with. The other half has to do a better job of looking out for yourselves.”
With one exception, I couldn’t agree more. If he was talking about the population in general, he’s 150% correct. But I doubt that he was accurate, with regard to his audience. The reason being that individuals who need to do a better job of looking out for others, don’t go to lectures of that type. Nor do they go to therapy. At least, not for more than one or two sessions. What they do is complain about the people they interact with. They rarely see themselves as having a problem and almost always attribute their difficulties to others. They leave therapy the moment their therapist suggests “You might benefit more if you were to look at yourself, because you can’t change someone else. But, if you’re successful changing you, it might have a positive affect on those around you.”
Having said that, let me speak to those of you who have to do a better job of looking out for yourselves. I cannot stress this thought enough. You need to dare to be selfish. For most of you, that’s almost an impossible task, because your whole sense of worthwhileness is dependent on an image you developed early in life and still strongly cling to and project, that you are an emotional, caring, helpful, generous human being. It’s even possible that you occasionally hear a little voice inside you saying, “You’re a good person, unlike other people who are selfish, egocentric and insensitive.” All the while that voice is speaking, there’s a bit of a grin on your face, that implies, “What a good person I am.” That’s your identity. It’s one you learned early in life. In many ways, it permeates every interaction you engage in and, in many more instances than you might suspect, it is more destructive to your relationships with others, particularly those you love, than any other attitude you might present.
I know that it may appear that what I’m saying is totally inconsistent with basic Judeo-Christian belief. After all, what’s wrong with being a good guy? Nothing, but, when applied to your long-term relationships, it’s hurtful. An identity that stems from being a “better” person, turning the other cheek and waiting for bad people to “get theirs” in life, or after death, never helps you. I know you’ve heard the expression thousands of times, “what goes around comes around”. But, I really ask you, is that totally true? Because, throughout my life, I haven’t found that to be the case. I have met many people who behave in terribly selfish, dishonest, abusive ways, take advantage of and disregard the feelings and welfare of others. But, sadly, I haven’t seen them “get theirs”. Conversely, I’ve seen a multitude of good people who temper their feelings of anger and resentment, avoid negatively judging others and even feel guilty for thinking selfish thoughts who wound up living lives filled with sadness and disappointments. They mean well, but, too often, their self-righteous orientation serves as the seed for hidden resentments and passive-aggressive behaviors. If you constantly do more for others than yourself; see yourself as a victim who is always taken advantage of and think the world is unfair because good things don’t happen to you, you may be one of those people.
What may be close to the truth is that you’ve hidden behind “goodness” and made yourself a martyr. In effect, you became a highly judgmental, moralistic, self-righteous victim, who is quick to criticize anyone who doesn’t share your values or sense of right or wrong. I can say this because I feel I am a converted “good person”, who got tired of living in an “unfair” world and thinking good things should happen to me because, in truth, I didn’t have the backbone to stand up for myself.
Your reaction to all this may be, “He wants me to be selfish”. You’re absolutely right, if selfish means having a rational self interest. Note that I say, “dare to be selfish”, because if you are a “good person”, you have to work at it. When you initially put yourself first, you’ll feel guilty. To help you deal with these feelings, remember that, “God only helps those who help themselves”. I interpret that to mean that, long-term, when you do for you, you wind up doing more and better for others. You’ve also heard that good people are supposed do good things for others, without expecting anything in return. But I know you’ve also heard the expression, “Cast your bread on the water and it will be returned, ten-fold”. I believe that, as well. When you do good things, people often return the favor. But, where do you get your first bread? I think, by doing something for you! In effect, I am trying to say that it’s alright to have a rational self interest.
As a child, whenever I had a friend come over, my mother told me - probably because we never had very much in the house - “Here’s a cookie. Break it in half and give your friend the biggest piece.” Even then, it didn’t sound right. Now, I’m aware that my mother spent most of her life doing just that. She lived her life as an angry, resentful person, constantly complaining that she always got the smaller piece. As a result of her instruction, I became the world’s best divider of any portion of food. Give it to me and I promise you, it will be cut so close to 50/50 that I at least ensure that I get my equal half.
Let me assure you, however, that if you’re one of those good people, similar to me, you’ll never be a totally selfish individual. You’ll always feel more comfortable giving more than you get, but you won’t resent it because, when you have the wherewithal to say “no”, it’s easier to say yes. Even so, the first few times you look out for yourself, you may fear that others won’t love you or will reject you. But, I’ve learned they’re more likely to look up to you and respect you for not being a self-sacrificing, self-righteous person who makes your life and theirs, hell on earth.