One spring weekend, many years ago, before I became a mother, I sat on my crappy townhouse deck with two of my favorite people. Over some inconsequential cocktail that I can no longer recall, the three of us shared parts of ourselves with one another. We became vulnerable, daring to disclose our deepest hangups about ourselves. Each of us realized we had one “button,” one tenaciously rooted belief/anxiety about ourselves that we carried around shamefully. Each of us had a sense of “too-muchness,” and yet our anxieties were unique and reflected something important. Something we believed. Something we’d internalized. Some “work” we had to do.
I shared mine first. That I’m too selfish, I confessed. That, in my mind, was one of the most painful things another person could reflect to me. It represented the most shameful of my qualities; I worried that it was perhaps the worst of me that I could bring to any relationship or interaction.
That I’m too annoying, my first friend, the youngest of her family, contributed. Likely developed as a result of being the pesky younger sibling who was in the way- too noisy, too bothersome, too silly.
That I’m too intense, my second friend concluded. That I am simply “too much.” A deep thinker and brilliant mind, my friend was often too much for others to handle.
What’s Your Button?
It made for interesting conversation, trying to figure out the origin of these hangups we’d shared. Why did we feel that way? Was there truth to our worries? (Probably a little.) What did it mean about us, and what could we learn from them?
I’m certain that each of us has a buried concern that we are “too” something.
And perhaps we have more than one button- but I think there may be one that is the biggest, darkest quality that we fear in ourselves. The thing that makes us the most flawed. And mine is selfishness. When I was younger — a child, an adolescent, a young adult– that was the word that had the most impact when hurled at me as a criticism, a frustration, a character evaluation. So obviously, if I heard it more than once, there was some truth to it, no?
When someone “pushes our button,” it can be the most hurtful thing of all, because we believe the truth that lies within their accusation to be something that paints us as flawed, as our worst selves.
I recently spent an evening in the company of four more of my favorite people– different than the two who participated in my deck conversation a decade earlier– and the subject of selfishness came up again.
This time it was in the context of motherhood, a condition that has reframed my selfishness insecurity in new and uncomfortable ways, through a different and unflattering lens. We discussed topics and concerns that were deeply personal to me; my friends listened, they supported, they validated, they demonstrated that they really knew me.
This is the most meaningful part of life, as far as I’m concerned- taking the time to really show up for our friends, to be present, to listen to one another and reflect true understanding. In fact, the kindest thing those women did for me that night was witness my fears and false beliefs, and frame them for me in a deeply compassionate, loving way. The ultimate act of kindness, in my opinion, is spending time with “our people”, really digging with them in the emotional dirt, helping them to understand themselves better. Showing them that we see them, that we love them, that we accept them.
It’s the late night conversations, the two empty bottles of wine and Kleenex box at the ready, the communal plate of dessert. The abandoned departure time, discarded because things needed to be said. And really, getting to bed at a reasonable time never had a chance when stacked up against helping each other figure out our shit.
I once again shared with them my “button”- I am too selfish to have another baby, I confided. They sprung to my defense.
“You are not selfish!”
“Now I know someone who is selfish- and you are not anything like her!”
“Taking time for yourself as a person is not selfish!”
“Focusing on your career and dreams is not selfish.”
“You are a loving mother, and you are doing a great job.”
I smiled, and ruefully added, “OK, fine, maybe I’m not selfish. Maybe I’m just selfist. Like a Buddhist? No? No good?”
The next day I Googled my apparently made-up term to discover that it actually existed, and had been referenced in several psychology books and even Eastern religions including Taoism, one of my personal favorites. In fact, the quote given in the Free Dictionary to accompany the definition of “selfist” read as follows.
The selfist mother is one who can devote herself both to her children and to herself.
~Carin Rubenstein, The Sacrificial Mother
Selfism Vs Selfishness
So apparently selfist is a real thing. And I think I will make it my mission to wipe out selfish, at least as I apply it to myself, and replace it with selfist. Because, sure, there are people who are truly selfish. But in my own unique definition, if one is to be considered a “selfist,” they must be an advocate for the selves of people other than just themselves.
Selfists can be selfless, too. Recognizing that their own needs are important, that it is essential and even noble to pursue their dreams, view themselves as whole people, they are able to promote this awareness in others, too. A selfist encourages her husband to spend time with friends, to devote some weekend hours to pursuing something that makes him happy, (and accepting it when what makes him really happy is spending time pruning in the yard. Weirdo.) and to take care of his physical and emotional health. A selfist reminds her retired mother that it’s perfectly okay to say no to the social obligation looming that she really doesn’t have time for.
Selfism can appear to be contradictory at times, because it incorporates both ‘selfishness’ and ‘selflessness’ in their more traditional senses. Being selfist means:
- Choosing to go to yoga class on Saturday morning instead of cleaning the house.
- Saying “NO” to volunteering for the bake sale planning committee.
- Missing family dinner one night to catch up with your best friend.
- Letting your husband sleep in on Sunday because you know he’s been neglecting his own needs.
- Babysitting for your neighbor so she can go get a massage.
- Telling your son that you’d rather sit in the sun and watch him ride his bike than join him.
- Encouraging your child to try the new sport or music lesson they are passionate about.
See what I mean? Being a selfist means you value your own personal needs as well as accepting that other people’s needs matter, too. I think this can be especially contradictory for women. I recently had two interesting conversations with a couple of moms. One of them was lamenting that she’d signed up for Spanish class per the urging of a new friend of hers, and then the friend had dropped the class in order to take a gymnastics class. She felt like the other mom owed it to her to follow through with the obligation- after all, she’d only signed up so they could take the class together!
I listened sympathetically and affirmed that, yeah, that kind of sucked of her friend to bail on her like that. But then, literally the next day, another friend of mine said that she’d signed up for a preschool dance class to take with one of her close friends, and she decided to drop it because another class opened up, one where she’d be able to take both her children to the same class.
“We have so many classes and lessons each week, and it would be so much easier to take both the girls to one class,” she explained guiltily. “I’m going crazy running around so much, and it would be so much more convenient to switch to this class. But I feel like I’m letting her down- do you think she’ll be mad?”
Again I shared my support, “You need to do what’s right for you,” I told my friend. “You have three children- you give all day long. You get to make a choice that’s right for you for once. Do what you need to do.”
Almost immediately I was struck by how different this sentiment was from backing up my jilted friend the day before, and I squirmed at the duplicity in my well-intentioned support and advice. Why do we expect that our friends should always prioritize our comfort and happiness over their own convenience and sanity? Shouldn’t we support them making choices that are right for their own families, peace of mind, and quality of life, even if it pisses us off or inconveniences us?
To be clear, I’m not talking about those flaky repeat-offenders who are never there for us, constantly cancel dinner plans because “something came up,” or are always taking but never giving. I’m talking about giving our friends a break sometimes. And, just as importantly, giving ourselves a break when we choose ourselves over someone else.
That night, my four friends gave me a tremendous gift. They took a deeply rooted fear and feeling of inadequacy and helped me reframe it in a more compassionate, enlightening way. It was the most selfist thing they could have done for me.
So what do you think? Is there a difference between being selfish and being a selfist? Are YOU selfish or a selfist?
This is a subject that is very close to my heart, and one I am extremely passionate about. I was honored to be chosen as one of the BlogHer 2014 Voices of the Year with a piece I wrote about injecting “selfism” into motherhood- My Beautiful Girls: Raising Feminist Daughters.