Healthy Selfishness – what is it and why does it matter?

Can Therapy Make You Selfish?

Do you worry that having counselling might be indulgent or selfish? Do you fear that focusing on your own desires and needs might result in neglecting or hurting others? Lots of people who go into therapy have these fears. And the fear of selfishness is understandable given that many of us were brought up to put others first. However, I’m wondering if there is a different way to look at this issue? Perhaps there is a kind of ‘healthy selfishness’ that we can explore in therapy and which might help us get our lives in better balance?

Take journalist, Sally Brampton’s**, experience. In ‘Shoot the Damn Dog’, a brave and excellent memoir of her own suicidal depression, she recounts how a therapist told her she was abandoning herself every time she:

  • pretended she was fine when she wasn’t
  • refused to rest when she was tired
  • didn’t ask for what she needed from a person with whom she was intimate, and
  • put someone else’s needs before her own but resented doing so.

The therapist explained that Sally suffered from a failure of care; care for herself but also care from her parents who should have taught her how to take care of herself in childhood. Sally explains that as a child she unconsciously learned that it was better not to need or become attached to people or things, because anything she loved – people, dogs, houses, schools – were taken away from her. As an adult she was able to see other people’s needs but not her own, and this contributed to her serious depressive symptoms.

Narcissim… is therapy just ‘all about me’?

Selfishness, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “…concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others”, is not to be confused with pathological narcissism. This condition is characterized by self-inflation, grandiosity and lack of empathy, which are ways of coping with very low self-esteem. Narcissistic traits include self-serving attitudes and behaviours that exploit others. By contrast, therapy aims to help clients become less fearful and more accepting of their own feelings, which in turn fosters the capacity to build self-esteem, and relate more openly and fully to others through increased empathy, compassion and intimacy.

So, if ‘healthy selfishness’ actually promotes self-respect as well as respect for others, how can it be achieved? Our experience suggests the following:

* honest self-reflection, especially after setbacks

* taking responsibility for yourself

* self-care and self-respect

* acknowledging what you need and what brings you joy and meaning

* celebrating your achievements

* connecting with your authentic self

* learning to tolerate differences between yourself and others

What is Good-Enough Parenting?

Donald Winnicott, the famous paediatrician and psychoanalyst, coined the term ‘good-enough mother’ in 1953, and his thinking went on to become pivotal in understanding child development. If we are lucky as infants we will have had good-enough parenting; our primary care-giver will have responded to our needs and feelings, reassuring and comforting us in a fairly predictable and timely manner, and empathising with or tuning-in to our emotions. If this ‘good-enough’ parenting is available to us during our early years, we stand a chance of developing the ability to manage and care for ourselves through life’s inevitable ups and downs.

If good-enough parenting is not available, or we experience a great deal of loss or trauma, we don’t learn healthy selfishness and consequently get used to putting on a mask for the world, and living to please others. Therapy can be crucial in addressing this imbalance, helping clients learn to be their own ‘good-enough’ parent and to properly honour and care for themselves. In her book, Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, writes about the peace she found through rediscovering herself during a quiet island holiday, away from her busy life as mother to five children: “When one is a stranger to oneself then one is estranged from others too. …Only when one is connected to one’s own core is one connected to others.”

Perhaps it is only when we can consider ourselves as important that we can find peace and fulfillment? But why does it matter?

What Happens if we are not Healthily Selfish?

Anne* had been married for 18 years, and came to therapy with marital difficulties. She had always tried to please her husband, but recently he had become frustrated and withdrawn. The more she tried and failed to please him, the more Anne perceived him to be selfish.  What was really happening was that Anne was projecting her own unmet needs onto her husband, who in turn felt trapped and somewhat manipulated. Additionally, Anne had become silently resentful of her husband and had also developed stomach pains and indigestion. When her therapist commented that there didn’t seem to be “enough of her” in her life, she felt criticised and rejected. She enjoyed looking after others, she said. Surely this was a good thing? Gradually, in therapy, Anne realised that she had taken on the role of ‘pleaser’ early on in life, and whilst this gave her an identity, it made her self-worth dependent on another’s appreciation. Behind the role of helper she didn’t know who she was; she had become an empty shell.  And so had their marriage.  This pattern of relating, in an attempt to gain self-esteem, was simply no longer working.

Change came as Anne began to acknowledge her own feelings, needs and desires, and to believe she could exist in her own right. She began to develop an authentic sense of self. She started to take charge of her life, taking pressure off her husband and their marriage. The tension that was causing her indigestion also eased, because her unspoken, repressed resentment had been faced, understood and let go. Anne moved from unhealthy selflessness, to healthy selfishness.

Healthy Selfishness enables us to care for ourselves and others

Therapy promotes a ‘healthy selfishness’ which enables us to take better care of ourselves and helps us to form more satisfying relationships. It is better not only for the individual, but for all those we relate to.

We cannot take responsibility for our own happiness if we habitually or compulsively put others before ourselves. The concept of ‘healthy selfishness’ gives us permission to care for and nurture ourselves, which is particularly important if we have learnt to get love and affirmation by pleasing others. Indeed it is often those of us who protest most that therapy might be selfish, who have the greatest need of it!

 

Author: Wendy Bramham, Psychotherapist & Proprietor “Wendy Bramham Therapy”

*  “Anne” is a fictionalised conglomorate of clients and changed to protect confidentiality

** This article was originally written in 2015.  We were shocked and saddened to read of Sally Brampton’s apparent suicide in May 2016.

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