Do you think of yourself as a selfish person? Over the years I’ve been surprised to learn how many people harbor the same “secret” about themselves — “If people knew what I’m actually like inside, they’d be surprised to find out how selfish I really am.” An age-old tactic of exploiters and oppressors plays on this vulnerability. If you shame people into believing that pursuing their own interests is immoral, then it’s easy to divert them into serving yours instead.
People who grew up in so-called “dysfunctional” families are often convinced that they’re too selfish, because dysfunctional families are by definition systems in which members are taught to sacrifice their legitimate needs and developmental goals for the “good” of others. Recently I talked with a young man I’ll call John, who got a scholarship to a university on the other side of the country. He was also accepted at a local college. He wanted to go to the university, but his father told him “If you leave it’ll just kill your mother.” After much agonizing, he went to the university, but when he returned to visit for Christmas his mother had gone into a deep depression. He felt remorse and guilt and considered dropping out. Hadn’t he harmed his mother?
My answer was “No. What’s causing your mother’s suffering is her own immaturity, her need to cling inappropriately to her son when it’s time for you to get on with your own life. That’s her problem, not yours. It’s speaks well of you that you feel compassion for her suffering and for her difficulty in letting go, but you owe it to yourself to resist her passive-aggressive attempts to hold you back. You won’t help her or yourself by relinquishing your own dreams in order to comply with her unreasonable demands.”
John’s struggle wasn’t with wasn’t selfishness; it was with feeling unrealistically responsible for his mother’s well-being, to his own detriment. Like John, many of us learned in our families that growing up and becoming independent is an act of betrayal; that separating means abandoning; that taking care of ourselves means neglecting others; that paying attention to our own feelings equals indifference to the feelings of others, and that pursuing personal goals means hurting others.
You don’t have to read any boring Ayn Rand novels to understand that there’s a legitimate domain of “self-care” distinct from “selfishness.” Broadly speaking, it’s selfish to exploit, use, and manipulate others for your own ends, but pursuing your own happiness while respecting the rights and needs of others falls into the domain of legitimate self-care. It’s a simple idea, and to some people it may seem obvious, but if you’ve been raised to believe that your life isn’t your own there is no more effective way to inoculate yourself against vulnerability to being exploited than to grasp this basic distinction.