I was reading an article online today about a woman who was dying. She was describing the good qualities her husband had in an attempt to match him up with a love interest after she was gone.
I admired her idea – encouraging her husband to find love again after she died.
I kept reading through this woman’s list of her husband’s good qualities when one of them stopped me cold: She described him as selfless.
The word felt like a punch to the gut, in a bad way.
I read the word over and over again and I saw it in a way I never had before. Here we had a word, a quality, that society idolizes and says “this is a good thing to be.” Some people even believe that selflessness is a path to enlightenment. Religions teach this, schools teach this, society teaches this – the epitome of a good human being is someone who is selfless. Who puts the needs of everyone else above his own.
Why do we believe this is a good thing?!
The absurdity of this idea hit me all at once and hard. It actually made me a little angry. So I decided to look at it and write it out.
I remember when I operated from this selfless place. I put everyone’s needs above my own. I wanted everyone to like me and be comfortable around me. I tried so hard to be a good person. I rarely, if ever, stopped to ask myself if how I was living and what I was doing made me happy or fulfilled.
I was sick for many years, yet I continued to work through it. While I myself was sick and struggling, I took care of other people. I worked at rehabilitation centers helping other people recuperate from their own illnesses. The irony was not lost on me.
Most of the time, I was unhappy. I felt drained and tired. Giving to others all the time without taking care of myself or my own needs was exhausting. I imagined myself and my energy as a bathtub – half-full with nothing over flowing to give to anybody. The faucet of my own self-love and nurturing was turned off. The water was stagnant.
Eventually I had nothing left to give. I realized that I needed to turn inward, rest and take care of myself. What everyone else needed from me had to be dropped. It felt bad, wrong and made me feel very guilty for a long time to do this, to stop giving and to nurture myself. In the eyes of the world, I was no longer selfless and this was a bad thing. I felt guilty taking care of myself first.
Going through this made me realize this hugely important thing: Helping others from a selfless place is not really being helpful. Sure, they may like you for a short time and you may do some good temporarily, but do this too long at the expense of taking care of yourself and you’ll be sick, tired, and resentful in no time.
And does anyone really enjoy being helped by someone that is resentful? That is only helping you because they think they should?
I know I don’t. I can feel it oozing off of someone like an odor.
Now that I’ve been taking care of myself first, I feel like I can be truly helpful. My bathtub is now overflowing with self-love and self-nurturing, so much so that I have plenty of energy, love and compassion to share with others. It’s effortless now. It doesn’t drain me. I’m no longer trying to help others from a place of should anymore or trying to be a good person. I’m now doing it because it comes naturally.
My energy is now full of self-love and this is what’s truly helpful to others. I look back at my sick self trying to take care of everyone else and I wonder how my energy must have felt back then to my patients. I wonder if they could feel my exhaustion and resentment. Even though I was being selfless, how helpful could I really have been?
What I want now in friends, partners, and myself is to be selfFULL – to be so full of self-love, self-care, and self-nurturing that it just overflows onto everyone else in my life. I desire to love myself so much and take care of myself with so much tenderness that my joy and happiness inspires everyone around me to do the same.
I believe one of the things we all want in life is to be taken care of, to be supported. That must be why selfless seems like such a good quality to have in a parter. “Great,” we think, “someone to take care of me.”
But in reality, the only ones who can truly take care of us and give us everything that we need are ourselves. Forget selfless, I want to be self-full.