'The art of being selfish ...it’s not selfish'
When we were growing up, our parents instilled many things in us. Many things we listened to, and some we ignored… Be polite, don’t answer back…
Don’t be selfish…
That was a biggie. Always think of the other person; always share. And growing up, not being selfish was a key part of development. Showing us how to; and helping us to build our identities and relationships – to find our way in the world. And as a father of two young girls (five and two) I’m already helping them to learn the fundamentals of life and relationship building. And not being selfish is right up there. I’m sure if you’re a parent you’ll remember this. Maybe not fondly (it’s a struggle) but well.
As I grew up, I tried to be that person. I tried to be there for people, to help people however I could, whenever I could. I’ve always wanted to make people happy. Which is reflected in the jobs I’ve had in my life, and how my relationships have started and ended.
But things eventually started to unravel. I put too much into relationships that were not working out, and was consequently blinded to their failings… The result? I almost certainly got hurt more than I would have done had I been realistic and seen things clearly. But even then, I carried on doing it.
Looking back, it was a way of being able to ignore how unwell I was. And all the shit I had in my head. This went on for decades - trying to help and save people, when I was in serious trouble. I thought it was helping me, this pursuit of other-people’s happiness, but it was destroying me.
It took until about four years ago to change my outlook and perspective. I had a breakdown. I stopped functioning, became an emotionless shell – couldn’t even cry, couldn’t leave the house, couldn’t eat. I couldn’t go on…
But after seeing my doctor and discussing treatment options, I decided on therapy…
And slowly started to see things differently…
My therapist said I needed to have balance. To start looking after myself more. To take more care of myself; and say ‘no’ to people. Not all the time, but if something was going to be unrealistic, or stop me doing the things I need to do. I live with very low esteem and a very bad guilt complex. Telling people ‘no’ wasn’t something I was used to doing, or comfortable with.
But the ideas behind it are clear. You are not able to properly look after and love other people until you are looking after; and loving yourself. This might mean something as small as a quick walk every day; or meeting a friend. It might also mean properly getting away from your family home, and the people in it. A heart-breaking part of the problem is trying to reassure the people in your family home that leaving the home, and needing this time, it not their fault. That it’s about you, not them.
And I think there’s something in this for everyone. Life is often busy. Life is sometimes hard. Life is not always easy. Self-awareness and preservation are so important. We need to make sure we are well, and able to manage everything. Otherwise things can go wrong; and quickly.
But as with everything, there must be balance, and it’s both possible and necessary. Doing good things for other people makes us feel good. And is part of human engagement. But we must feel right in ourselves, to be able to manage everything. So, it’s about picking and choosing what you can or should be doing, and what it just not realistic. And there should be absolutely no guilt attached to saying no. Or any need for justification.
We must look after ourselves first and foremost. I didn’t, and the result was that not only did I hurt myself, I was in such a bad way I ended up hurting the people closest to me. This might sound familiar, but if I’m truly honest, I hope it doesn’t.
Being selfish had taken on a new meaning for me, and in that, has helped me to reconnect with myself, my family and my friends. It slows life down. Enables you to take the time you need, not rush decisions; and enjoy life. Rather than just rattling by in a blur.
I used to get uptight with people, when plans changed, or people weren’t available. But now I try and look at it differently. I try and actively encourage my wife to be selfish; and take time away from our family unit. To see her friends, to go out, to go to bed early. Just to take some time for herself. However short. And I’d recommend this to my friends too. I’d much rather see them less, and well. Than see them more often, and see them rushed, stressed and under pressure and unhappy. That’s not healthy or sustainable.
Take that time, don’t be afraid, don’t feel guilty…. And embrace the art of being selfish.
Stephen Gillatt is the author of Mad, sad, dysfunctional dad. A memoir about fatherhood and mental health, to be published on July 1st. It will be available in bookshops, on Amazon, and via Conrad Press. For writing, to purchase a pre-publication book or for any other enquiries he can be contacted via email or connect via Twitter