Rebranding Selfishness

May 2022 Soul Notes

“Remember when you were younger and you practiced kissing on your arm?”

asks Pádraig Ó Tuama in his searingly heartwarming poem How To Belong Be Alone. For me, this question evokes endless balmy summer days, wanderings, child chatter and a sense of contentment and peace as I recall practising kissing on my arm…often under a tree. He’s right, we were onto something in those days when we could give ourselves that simple comfort of our own love and affection and really feel it. My body remembers it vividly. A cradling. An embrace. A loving practice. A lesson in being alone. One I had forgotten for over 40 years….until now…..

The poet philosopher, David Whyte, writes and talks of innocence as something we know, then we forget, and which is returned to us as we get older so that the world can find us. A way of knowing ourselves and our true sense of belonging, that gets disappeared beneath the masks and personae we try on so that we may feel we belong to others. He says:

“Innocence is, in a way, the ability to be found by the world. It’s not a state of naïveté. It’s the ability to be found by the world you’re now inhabiting.”

I love this idea….that this instinctive way of being that assumes nothing, feels its way and allows us to be alone with ourselves, is the way to feel how we truly belong.

But there’s something that gets in the way of this openness to ourselves….

Another memory from my early years is of sitting at my grandma’s house, tucked up in my favourite position with a book. My grandma bustled in…”there you are,” she announced….”put your book down and go and play with your sister.” I resisted. I was happy where I was, ensconced in another world with all my character friends and eager to live the next chapter. She insisted….”Don’t be so selfish…your sister wants to play….”. And there it was. The word to inject the deepest sting. How selfish of me to want to do something for my own pleasure. To not think of others. So up I would get, hollow in my chest as I abandoned my book to fulfil my role as playmate, trundling out into the garden sullen and resentful.

This rebuke still echoes daily in mine and so many others’ lives. I hear a lot of people talk about their fear of being “selfish” - an idea that they can’t take time for themselves, pursue a passion, say something to a loved one – because it is “selfish”. Often these people are caring, kind, considerate – they put others first and yet still worry that they don’t do this all or enough of the time, as they ritually suppress their own needs.

What does it mean to be selfish? The dictionary defines it as being “concerned excessively, or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others”.

Oscar Wilde believed that “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live; it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.

Both ideas suggest that selfishness is a dismissal or coercion of another, rather than a focus on oneself. Yet, in my own experience and the stories I hear, people brand selfishness onto the mere inkling that I might do something for myself. We wrestle with ourselves and others to avoid this shaming identification mark. As though anything that is for my self, is inherently sinful.

Activist, Loung Ung writes of the consequences of this belief:

In our society, there’s a belief that a good, nurturing woman gives and gives and gives….until she drops. If she takes time off for herself, she is selfish. Too many of us buy into this belief and give and give and give until we’re so exhausted we can hardly move. Then we give some more!”……..”The first thing I had to learn was to speak up for myself. I learned to say no. Then I learned to choose…”

So where does this notion that we have to give and give, come from? Well, it’s a lot to do with our attachment patterns. Psychologist and physician, Dr Gabor Mateì describes the human dilemma in his short YouTube video, The Dangers of Being Nice. As humans, we’re wired to attach to our caregivers and they to us which drives a deep need to belong. We wouldn’t survive without the protection and nurturing of others and so we learn to adapt to ensure that we will be taken care of. This need can drive a compulsive helping/giving pattern and being “nice” becomes a coping mechanism. People suppress their own needs in order to feel safe and a false self develops. At the same time, there is a competing need to be authentic. Again, this is about survival. We need to be ourselves. If you’re not in touch with yourself in the wild, acting on your instincts, you won’t survive. The dilemma then becomes if I am aware of my needs and act on them, but my acting on then threatens my relationships, what do I do? The answer is often to suppress my own needs. To not risk being labelled as “selfish”. To not risk rejection.

But these choices have a cost. For as the poem above describes:

“There is a you telling you another story of you. Listen to her.

Where do you feel anxiety in your body? The chest? The fist? The dream before waking? The head that feels like it’s at the top of the swing or the clutch of gut like falling & falling & falling and falling It knows something: you’re dying. Try to stay alive.”

The essence of our self cannot be snuffed out so easily. It tells “another story of you”. If you don’t hear it, your body will start to tell you. You may become sick, depressed, anxious. You will feel that something is out of whack. At these times, we are forced to ask what is not authentic here? For there is a life to be lived through each of us and it will try to stay alive, in spite of our best efforts to live another, socially conforming life.

Author, Audre Lourde wrote:

“We have been raised to fear…our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for…many facets of our own oppression.”

Buddhist teacher and author, Tara Brach writes about how we reject our own longings in her book Radical Compassion:

“In the myth of Eden, God created the garden and dropped the tree of knowledge, with its delicious and dangerous fruits, right smack dab in the middle. He then deposited some humans close by and forbade these curious, fruit-loving creatures from taking a taste. It was a set up. Eve naturally grasped at the fruit and then was shamed and punished for having done so.

We experience this situation daily inside our own psyche. We are encouraged by our culture to keep ourselves comfortable, to be right, to possess things, to be better than others, to look good, to be admired. We are also told that we should feel ashamed of our selfishness, that we are flawed for being so self-centered, sinful when we are indulgent.

Most mainstream religions—Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Confucian—teach that our wanting, passion, and greed cause suffering. While this certainly can be true, their blanket teachings about the dangers of desire often deepen self-hatred. We are counseled to transcend, overcome or somehow manage the hungers of our physical and emotional being. We are taught to mistrust the wildness and intensity of our natural passions, to fear being out of control.”

However, if we fear and push away our desire and resort to serving others instead, we lose the vital connection with our self and with life itself. The well within runs dry. We wither. And when this happens, the world becomes a dangerous place. We are both vulnerable and our own oppressor. Fear rules inside and out. And as Lourde writes, we settle for “many facets of our own oppression.”

I’m not advocating that we only think of ourselves. Quite the opposite. I’m rooting for each of us to see that our fear of not belonging, and our disconnection from ourselves, can so easily be misdirected by others. Politicians, leaders, anyone with an agenda - all play on the fear and divert our energy in service of their cause and their desires, and away from what is truly needed in our broken world today. We follow pliantly, because we are stroked for our giving and our service, whilst at the same time, we feel how barren the land is within is. This too is reflected in the world as we witness the brutal destruction of the land around us; the rights around us; the lives around us. So what may be deemed “selfish”, may in fact be the most selfless of acts. For if we truly sense into what wants to be lived and loved through and by us, then surely we would find a courage there to risk a belonging to this, rather than to the structures that have been built around our fears?

Selfishness is not about not doing something for me, it is about doing something for us. If I honour me as part of this wonderful collective called the human race, then I am better able to contribute to the wider collective from a place of resources, of life, of tree dangling and arm kissing. From a place not governed by fear, but by love, where all life matters.

As Ó Tuama writes:

“…. listen to the community of madness that you are. You are such an interesting conversation.”

Being alone can be belonging. Being selfish can be selfless. Being ourselves is the greatest gift we can offer each other.

With much love


If you would like to learn more about who I am and what I offer, please visit my website or instagram.

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