I see it again and again: clients relentlessly putting the needs of others before their own, resulting in spiritual exhaustion and resentment.
There seems to me to be an epidemic of the belief that one’s own needs do not matter.
Self-denial then leads to weariness and often depression.
For a nice southern girl like me, this argument is counter-intuitive. We are taught early on that self-denial is a virtue—and in some circumstances it is. But when we consistently do for others what they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves, self-denial is a soul sickness.
A few weeks ago it was a mother seeking to manage the family schedule, earn a living, teach Sunday school, be of service to some young women she mentors, get exercise, and work on her spiritual disciplines. The result was that she felt she wasn’t doing anything well. Over-extended, she sat in my office feeling depleted.
“Is it okay for me to say no?” she asked.
This week it was a middle-aged father, providing well for his family, participating in the activities of his children, addressing the lengthy honey-do list handed him by his wife, and caring for his aging parents.
“Is it wrong for me to want a little attention for myself?” he wondered.
At times like these I’d like to raise my voice and shout: “Please say no! Please ask for what you need! How can we possibly give with any fullness of heart or any sense of joy if we are consistently putting the needs of others ahead of our own?”
It is time, friends, for a little selfishness here.
There is a vast difference between what I call “productive selfishness” and pathological, or morbid, selfishness. Productive selfishness is about developing one’s gifts and embracing pursuits which bring pleasure. These pleasurable experiences are really about living into the authentic self, developing creativity, and expanding natural gifts. Joyous selfishness is about living into the fullness of who you are.
Many of us have spent years taking care of the needs of others: our children, our parents, our spouses, our employers. While responsibility and accountability are necessary, there seems to be an over emphasis on self-sacrifice and a vacuum where self-fulfillment should dwell.
It is time now to receive the full self, in all its wonder, while embracing a kind of selfishness which our work-driven culture doesn’t recognize. This productive selfishness enhances who we are, giving us energy, vision, and hope. Ultimately, it enables us to give of our best self. This is very different from morbid selfishness which leads us to turn in on ourselves, always wanting more, a stranger to wonder and joy.
And let me tell you, I know what I’m talking about. I spent years in relationships with demanding people. For a variety of reasons it I felt I didn’t have the right to ask for or carve out space for myself. I neglected the pursuit of my own interests while doing things for others I should have been letting them do for themselves. These things included doing my entire family’s laundry, making them meals, caring for other people’s children, and saying yes to parent organizations, my church, and other volunteer groups.
After finding myself on a silent retreat one weekend completely exhausted and still working on a writing project between meditation sessions, I thought, “what am I doing?” From that moment on, I broke the retreat guidelines and slept like a dead person. All afternoon and all night. I got up for breakfast the next morning and then went back to bed. I made my late morning massage appointment, went to lunch and then, you guessed it, I napped.
I broke the rules! After that, there was no turning back. I resigned from committees, quit doing other people’s laundry, and began to say no.
And then something amazing happened. I became a member of the local art museum. Because I enjoy going there. I joined the local art house cinema. Because I like movies. I took some trips on my own and found pleasure. Now, I’m living my life. Because it’s my life. Choosing selfishness is one of the best decisions I’ve made. And I highly recommend it.
Now when I decide to do something for someone else, it is because I really want to. And because it will bring me pleasure. Not because I think it is what I ought to do.
Apparently, I’m not the only one dealing with this issue. This morning I had coffee with my friend Cee. We sat outdoors on the deck at a favorite coffee shop, enjoying the sunshine and unseasonably cool temps for Nashville.
Cee enjoys cooking for others; it really brings her pleasure. She makes sweet rolls, quiche and other yummies for a group of men who breakfast together once a month. She enjoys giving to them and they appreciate her efforts. On this evening the guys were getting together for a dinner party and Cee was invited but didn’t want to go. She gets pleasure from her gift of baked treats, but didn’t want to spend her Friday night this way. I said, “then don’t go.”
I saw the light cross her face. This was an entirely new idea to Cee. She’d felt obligated to attend the dinner party and I could see it sinking in that she didn’t have to go.
Later in the day I received a voice mail from Cee: “Thank you for giving me permission to not go to the party.” My pleasure, Cee. Really. A complete pleasure.
A bold embrace of self enables us to truly offer the whole self, from the heart, in service and love in a most freeing manner, unconnected to duty or guilt. Take some time, friends, for selfishness.
Janet Tuck is a freakishly intuitive Presbyterian minister. She blogs, is a journalist, and sees clients for spiritual coaching and guidance from the spirit world. She loves living in Nashville, the coolest city around, with her college age sons and her little dog, Toto. If you’d like to read more of her work you can on her blog, Sipping from the Firehose.
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Assistant Ed: Renée Picard/Ed: Brianna Bemel