Have you ever thought about how strongly we have been indoctrinated into the idea: “Don’t be selfish?” When I think back about the southern culture I was raised in, I remember very clearly being told, “Don’t be selfish,” again and again. Before too long, whenever the word “selfish” was mentioned, I immediately thought of the Golden Rule or that I should be devoting myself to loving my neighbor. These responses had become conditioned in me in stronger ways than Pavlov could have dreamed of.
And then, somewhere around midlife, I faintly began to hear the idea that if you don’t or can’t love yourself, what you do for your neighbor may not turn out to be all that great. That idea left me perplexed. I always thought I loved myself until I realized that I couldn’t love someone I didn’t really know.
Oh, I knew my likes and dislikes, or at least, I thought so. I knew my job, the entertainment I liked, and had a favorite beer. But I didn’t know the complicated landscape of my heart, the home of my deepest needs. Nor did I know that seeking out my real needs could become one of the most thrilling and worthwhile endeavors in my whole life. This is the path of true Sacred Selfishness, in contrast to sickly selfishness which is oriented toward self-serving ends.
Sacred Selfishness means making the commitment to knowing ourselves, to valuing ourselves and our lives…to become people of depth and substance, people who are filled with gold – who aren’t hollow or filled with lead. It’s the commitment to building the foundation within ourselves that will support our growing capacity to give and receive love.
In Chapter Four of my book Sacred Selfishness: A Guide to Living a Life of Substance in the “Befriending Our Needs” section, I share the following personal experience I had, and some of my reflections about it:
Not long ago I was asked to give a class on some of the topics we’ve been discussing at a local church. When I asked the people in the class to think about why it’s important to be carefully aware of our needs and what we might be missing if we aren’t, they found these questions initially difficult.
Maybe they found these questions more troubling because we were in a religious setting. On the one hand our religious institutions generally try to teach us to think of other people and not ourselves. On the other hand our culture teaches us we should think of ourselves on a material level.
I then broke the class members into small groups and had them look at these questions, and talk about them for a while. When we all reassembled as one group, sharing our answers, I was pleased by their thoughtful responses:
• We can’t know ourselves if we don’t know what we need.
• Our real needs can show us what our lives are about.
• If we don’t know our needs, no one else can really know us.
• If we don’t know our needs, they are unlikely to get met.
• If we don’t know our needs, we’ll expect other people to know them.
• If we don’t know our needs, we may become more demanding than we realize.
• If we don’t know our needs, we’ll live like sheep.
• Being aware of our needs makes life more personal and real.
• If I own my needs, I actually lessen my demands on others because I’m living honestly.
Questioning ourselves in ways like this can help us overcome old cultural mind-sets that keep us from thinking about and figuring out what our needs are, what they’re telling us about our lives, and how we need to pay attention to them. If we aren’t aware of them they’ll be down in our shadows, stirring up our unconscious energy and coming out in ways we don’t intend them to.
We have all known someone who puts on the facade of being self-sacrificing while actually being controlling and demanding attention. Or, we’ve found ourselves volunteering or being pressured to serve on some committee or in a campaign and then ending up feeling full of resentments.
A few years ago a woman told me that she tried to ignore her needs because she thought that made it easier to be happy. Walling ourselves off to our needs doesn’t make it easier to be happy. Before I figured out that I was repeating my father’s patterns of not showing needs, I found myself resentful every year at my birthday about how thoughtless I felt my children were. I’d numbed my needs but not the hurt of feeling alone and unknown to the people closest to me.
Our needs, especially our need for love and for people to love, have nothing to do with being selfish or self-indulgent. They have everything to do with being human. Listening to our hearts, our minds, our bodies, and our unconscious helps us realize our full humanity and its potentials. If we don’t, we will be following the machine model of living and creating a wasteland in our souls and relationships.
Most of us are brought up to believe that showing our emotions is embarrassing. Learning to hide them almost always means learning not to act on them. To become passionate whether it’s from love, desire, suffering, or anger is a call to action and action can upset the sense of order on our islands.
Acting on our emotions can sometimes bring shame or the appearance of being naive, out of control, or irrational. Many people in our culture, especially men, have become so used to hiding their emotions they’re rarely sure of what they feel…
Childhood wounds also surprise us by recycling themselves every time we move into a new stage of growth. I was devastated when my mother died in my early teens. Within a few years I thought I’d dealt with the experience. But its vibrations come up every time I go into a new phase of change that affects the way I perceive myself or life.
In some ways this early experience left a wound that was slower to heal than I could imagine, living deep within and making it difficult for me to trust life and relationships. But its effects over time have also toughened me, and given me a more refined sensitivity toward suffering.
Everyone has something from childhood that recycles. Fifty years later a friend of mine vividly remembers a third grade teacher who shamed him in front of his classmates. A woman I know still recalls the acute loneliness and feelings of inferiority she felt when she was sent to an exclusive boarding school at an early age. She’s told me how quickly that old feeling can return if she isn’t careful when entering new situations.
Robert, a man I once worked with, like many of us, constructed a protective wall around his feelings because he was afraid of them. Over this wall he’d put on an illusion of feelings, a “person” of appropriate emotions who he’d come to believe was real. He thought he should feel happy so he put on a cheery act. He bought into the assumption that if we achieve the model of success in our society we should feel happy.
But as he became more honest about how he felt he openly expressed his grief about life’s difficult times and only acted happy when the feeling was genuine. Several things are indicators when Robert or any of us have walled off our feelings:
• Their absence. A lack of feelings, usually a coolness or remoteness, based on the mistaken belief that it’s generally better to be non-emotional and objective.
• Being overly sentimental. An excess of ungrounded or undifferentiated feelings that come unexpectedly or in outbursts.
• Having mood states. Unexplainably going from high to low, or dropping into touchiness, sulkiness, criticism, self-criticism, or vulnerability.
But Robert learned, as I have, that mining our deepest feelings, our deepest needs opens us to a life that can become richer than we ever imagined.
photo by Pasquale Vitiello
Articles by Drs. Bud and Massimilla Harris, Book Excerpts and Resources
, authenticity, creative life, honoring your own needs, Jungian psychology, living authentically, Sacred Selfishness, self-loving