On the Necessity of Being ‘Selfish’.
I’ve been contemplating the word selfish lately. A bad word when I grew up in my family, a label that was applied to me, implicitly or explicitly, often.
When I tried, in big or small ways, to look out for myself, or do what I wanted, or go to where I wanted to be.
As a child, I was abused chronically by my father who had an undiagnosed mental illness, including narcissism and sadism. The abuse was almost daily and took various forms. Often there were rages at me that were violent in their intensity. Those storms were directed at me and me alone, out of the four children in the family.
And there were demands, far beyond what could be expected reasonably from a child. My mother, apparently helpless, mostly simply looked on. She didn’t provide any comfort to me, emotionally. She failed to stand up for me in the ways that I needed from her.
Much can be hidden, or obfuscated, behind closed doors. And even within the rooms inside, in plain view of all who are there. And, sometimes, even when the doors are opened. Sometimes, we only see what we want to see. No one outside the family seemed to notice what was going on.
In fact, because my father had a status occupation in our small town, and I had some nice clothes, some people thought I was lucky and told me that. And I believed that too. Because I was told that my truth was lies.
As I grew older, well into my adulthood, I failed to stand up for myself and the abuse continued. There was the double whammy of being terrified of my father, physically, while being conditioned to feel sorry for him. And also I was ashamed to exist.
I felt… invisible. And trapped, a hostage. At times, I felt I would never be free.
I failed to unfold as an adult as I should have, went mostly on autopilot, dissociating myself from my emotional pain. I developed deeply flawed ways of thinking and behaving based on my subconscious beliefs about my lack of worth. Beliefs that were drilled into my head by my father’s rages and demands, my mother’s neglect.
Yes, this happens to children. In obvious ways and in more subtle ways. And more often than we care to admit.
I never had a chance to understand that looking out for myself, doing what I wanted, or going where I wanted to be was exactly what I was supposed to be doing — what all of us are supposed to be doing.
Looking out for ourselves, our own needs, goals and aspirations, doesn’t mean being cruel to other people or unkind. It means loving yourself. Self-love isn’t selfish, it’s essential. Every one of us is unique. We have our own feelings, needs and passions and dreams. If we don’t love ourselves — if we aren’t selfish in that way — then we don’t get to realize who we are fully and wholly. And then the world misses out on that.
Tragically, some of us don’t know how to love ourselves enough — to be selfish enough — even to survive properly, let alone realize our dreams.
I’ve been one of those people. Abused and conditioned through all of my formative years to look after my father’s needs, I never learned fully that it was okay — no, essential — to look after my own needs.
In fact, I learned quite the opposite: in many ways, I learned that I wasn’t worth looking after.
I learned that I wasn’t worth being loved.
And some people learn those wrong lessons more than I did. Some of those people live on the streets.
As an adult, I attended to my outward appearances and image of success as that is defined socially because that’s what was most valued in my childhood home. Self-worth and self-love weren’t valued. My parents would tell you differently, but I don’t think they really knew what love was.
I appeared to be happy and successful — sort of — on the outside. But most people who tried to get to know me could see very quickly that there was something wrong. I didn’t know how to relate to them. Hardly anyone had a chance to actually get close enough to me to find out though. I was very good at pushing people away in creative ways, even though I wasn’t aware I was doing that at the time.
Although my outward appearances were sort of status quo, my insides were not. Not even close. I was racked with anxiety and depression. Exceedingly low self-esteem and guilt and neediness and expectations of perfection from myself and from others. And when I wasn’t perching other people on some sort of pedestal because I thought they were perfect, I was judging them rather cruelly.
I wasn’t very aware of much of that stuff though. It had always been that way.
The truth is, I was desperate for closeness from people. But you don’t learn to trust when you’ve been abused like I was.
And so I was very, very lonely.
But I didn’t really admit that to myself either.
I couldn’t afford to see myself in that way. I couldn’t afford to see my own pain. Or at least not much of it anyway. I didn’t have the self-esteem necessary to acknowledge a lot of my vulnerability.
I used wine to dull my senses and to bury the reality of my life, my loneliness and my self.
And I spent myself. Literally. I spent money to try to have things that I thought fit my image of myself and then I worked my butt off to try to pay off the debt. And then I spent more and worked more to try to pay off that debt. And then I spent more to try to make myself feel better about all of the work.
I got more credentials so I could earn more so I could spend more so I could look better. And on and on and on. All in the name of my outsides. The mind’s ability — or maybe it’s a compulsion — to justify our self-destructive behaviors seems to have no end.
I wasn’t conscious of my drinking problem for a very long time. Until well after things fell apart and I’d had a chance to slow down for a bit. Until after I’d read a lot of blog posts and books by other women and some men who’d stopped drinking and saw myself in their posts, their stories.
And I was one of the lucky ones. I figured it out while I was only drinking two or three bottles of wine a week. Only. Sometimes — often — most of a bottle drunk in one night. By myself.
I fell apart. Well, that’s not exactly true because I was never together. What actually happened was that I lost the semblance, the appearance I assumed, of being together.
And that’s when I actually started to pull myself together.
With a lot of help.
A therapist, finally, saw me for who I was. She noticed, where others had not, that underneath my carefully fashioned exterior, I was broken. She told me that often people like me put on a good act.
But she knew enough to see me. And she knew more than others what to do. She knew enough, and cared enough, to try to help me see myself.
I’d been told to ignore the abuse by my parents. Terrified into doing that, by my father. Taught how to not see it, by my mother. Kept in ignorance by a society of adults that doesn’t talk much or openly about their own negative childhood experiences and is unaware of the consequences.
But finally, I was found out and I was found. It took me until I was almost 50 years old, but I was found.
I was lucky in that way too. Some people live their whole lives without being found.
And now, with a lot of help, I’m picking up the pieces — my pieces.
And I’m starting to learn the necessity of being selfish. I’m learning that it’s okay — it’s necessary — to say Mine. To defend my self — my pieces. Because what I want, where I want to be, is important.
And I believe I am good. And worthy of love. Self-love and love from others.
I don’t have to give up myself to survive anymore. And it’s not good enough for me to only survive. I want to thrive.
But first I have to heal.
And sometimes, I have to be selfish. In order to heal, and to thrive, I need to be selfish.
Annie Spence writes under a pseudonym. A former mental health therapist, she’s now focused on healing her own mental health issues, including previously undiagnosed dissociation stemming from chronic abuse in her family as a child. For the past two years, she’s been blessed with living relatively simply in a rustic, rundown cabin on a gravel road, surrounded by nature and the forest. She finds that nature and quiet are healing, as are good psychotherapy, writing and other forms of creative expression. You can find her at Rebel Recovery.