It’s coming in 3…2…1… “Sara, that sounds so selfish!”
Right on cue. I’ve come to expect this response when I start talking to my clients about a subject that is at the core of being human: the feeling that “I matter.” When I hear the word “selfish” from them, I know we’re on the right track.
More specifically, the thing that I have dared to suggest is that it’s good for them to have what matters to them or what they really want. They probably think I’m really crazy when I tell them that it’s good for everyone when they have what they want. Usually, if I ask them to imagine that it’s a close friend who I am suggesting should have this, my client will immediately agree that it’s good thing. But when it comes down to having what matters for themselves, I get the “selfish” response nearly every time.
We have lots of justifications for why wanting what matters to us feels selfish. We’ve been taught that it’s better to give than to receive. We should always think of others first. Some people have gotten what they wanted and then been accused outright of being selfish, so they want to avoid that in the future.
But really, it goes much deeper than our learned lessons or experiences. It comes down to survival.
Early in life, we develop a survival mechanism that allows us to fit well with those around us. From conception until the age of 2 1/2, our brains are sponges, absorbing how those around us feel about being human. In addition to absorbing and expanding the feeling that it’s good being human, which is the kernel of energy we begin with in the womb, we also absorb the feeling that there is something wrong being human. I call these two types of feeling well-being and Learned Distress, and they are very personal: “It’s good to be me” and “there is something wrong with me.” After the age of 2 1/2, our brains use these stored feelings as the energy that generates every moment of our lives.
One fundamental piece of Learned Distress we all absorb is the feeling that “it’s not safe for me to matter” or simply, “I don’t matter.” Some develop the survival mechanism that what’s safe is to keep this feeling buried and along with it, the desire to matter. Others develop the survival mechanism that the way life works is to feel and express the feeling that they don’t matter. No matter which one of these you are, your brain keeps generating moments in which you feel that you don’t matter.
The way it feels right or safe to respond to this negative feeling is also embedded into your survival mechanism. You might pretend that it’s OK that you don’t matter. For instance, if someone stands you up for lunch, you might say, “Oh, she’s had so much on her mind since her mom died,” or, “She’s so forgetful, that’s just how she is,” or, “We must have gotten our signals crossed.”
You might be the person whose survival mechanism dictates that you shouldn’t matter. “The way I should be is to always put others first and to make sure they’re doing OK. It’s not about me.”
Or, maybe you’re the person who feels dependent on others, so the feeling of wanting to matter is extremely buried, because to survive, you always need to make sure “they” are happy. For you, it’s always about what others want and allowing them to win in some way.
Or, perhaps you’re the person who strongly feels “I don’t matter” all the time, and you just give into it. You know that others will probably call you selfish, but you tend to power through things so that you will at least get what you need, if not what you really want in your heart of hearts.
All of these survival mechanisms feel lousy in some way, but there’s an even even bigger problem: When you keep what matters to you buried, when you squelch your own voice, when you continually deny your own wants and needs, you bury your uniqueness.
Your unique voice in the world is what you are here to express. No one wins when your uniqueness is buried. In fact, the part of you that stores your uniqueness is where you are connected to everyone and everything else. So, when you keep yourself under wraps by not wanting, having, or voicing what matters to you, you’re squelching your connection to others, and you’re denying them your creativity. Perhaps, you’re even holding back the crucial piece that will allow someone else to express their uniqueness.
So, what happens when my clients run with my crazy idea that it’s good for them to have what they want, and they let this change start to happen for them during sleep? They start to uncover their unique voice in the world and express it more fully than ever before. And when their feeling shifts internally in this way, others start to welcome what they have to offer, instead of responding negatively.
- One client found an entirely new facet to himself. He’s now pursuing a new direction in his career, and people in his field are excited for the unique perspective he’s bringing.
- Another found a man to date (and eventually marry) who is the first man in her life who has ever cared about what she wanted.
- Another found herself spontaneously stepping out of the way things are usually done in her profession and the response was enthusiastic.
- Yet another was told by an important mentor that the artistic outlet he considered was just for his personal enjoyment is actually something that will benefit others and that he should share it with a wider audience.
- Another client’s teenager grudgingly let him help her with homework in her most difficult subject. To his surprise, at the end of the study session, instead of being mad at him, she thanked him!
Notice that in each case, it’s not just my client who “wins”—there is at least one other person involved whose life is better as a result of this “selfishness.”
What do you really want? What would you like to share with the world? Do you feel safe to have or say these things? Or does it feel selfish to even think about it? I would encourage you to consider that the world needs your uniqueness. So, what’s really selfish is for you to withhold it.