I see it with clients again and again. Relentlessly putting the needs of others before their own needs resulting in spiritual exhaustion and resentment. There seems to me to be an epidemic of the belief that one’s 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.
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.