The idea of living selfishly will probably put some people off. After all, we all agree that it’s difficult to be around people who are self-involved or narcissistic. And of course, I’m not encouraging you to feel entitled, think only of yourself, act arrogant, or exploit others. This takes selfishness to the extreme. But most people aren’t selfish enough. They try too hard to be good and do the right thing – which holds them back from true happiness.
Most people believe they are “good” if they do what is expected of them. And if they don’t do what they “should” do, they are usually guilt-ridden, and possibly guilt-tripped by family and friends – especially those who are following what they themselves think they “should” do.
I believe the key to happiness is to live a selfish life instead of following “shoulds.” That means one where you do what you “want” to do instead of allowing other’s expectations to guide you. That does not mean that you shirk your responsibilities. You still need to pay your bills, keep promises, and follow through on commitments you’ve made. It does mean that you need to think carefully before you create responsibilities that will tie you down and possibly create resentment on your part, responsibilities and commitments that will keep you from living a selfish life.
My sister followed the rules. I did not. For years, my sister thought that I was a bad person because: I got a divorce, chose not to have children, moved far away from my parents, and dropped out in Aspen in my 20’s. I quit jobs I didn’t like, sometimes drank too much; I tried various drugs, and was promiscuous. In other words, I didn’t let others expectations or the understood rules of society guide my life. A lot of my behavior was simply rebellion from growing up in a Midwestern Baptist home. But rebellion is often necessary for us to figure out who we are.
Although I was as disgusted as everyone else at Miley Cyrus’s sexual display at the VMA’s, she is no doubt experimenting and rebelling. After having to grow up in front of everyone as sweet Hannah Montana, following all of the expectations set by Disney, her parents, and most of all her fans (or parents of her fans), she’s trying to figure out who she is. In an interview in the October, 2013 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, she opens up about her image and says, “I was an adult when I was supposed to be a kid. So now I’m an adult and I’m acting like a kid.” Most of us who did rebel didn’t have a camera following us, so our secrets were kept safe. An identity is made up of beliefs and morals from your past, but also includes a total of your vast experiences, along with your mistakes and successes. Obviously Miley’s identity isn’t completely formed yet.
I have many clients who come into my office that still don’t know who they are or who they want to be in their 40’s, 50’s and even 60’s. They don’t know because they’ve simply done what they thought they “should” do, became who others wanted them to be. They may have rebelled a time or two, but usually go back to following the expectations of others, never becoming who they want to be.
Following Society’s Expectations
We all want to be loved, and fear that not doing what others want will keep that from happening. And of course, even when you do what they want, it’s never enough, so you still end up feeling unloved. Growing up, becoming your own person, means choosing a path of your own regardless of what your parents, the church, your work, your friends tell you to do. Don’t follow others’ expectations unless you want a life just like theirs
Many people, women in particular, are overgivers – which is of course the opposite of selfish. They’re trying to be a “good” person by society’s standards, believing that this will make them happy. They think that helping others and doing what others want you to do somehow wins you gold stars in heaven and in other people’s eyes. And it sort of does. But it also causes you to lose yourself, and often even causes depression. When you overgive and follow the “shoulds” of others, you often feel good in the process, but not in the long run. First of all, whether it’s your husband or a friend, or your adult children, overgiving creates inequality in the relationship. In a somewhat positive way, you’re on top, being the strong one who has something to give. In a negative way, you are on the bottom, getting used again and again. And although you’ll probably claim you are altruistic and expect nothing back from the various people you overgive to, there is always an expectation of some sort, even if it’s just gratefulness or simple kindness toward you. But you seldom get it because you yourself have set up this unequal relationship. Most people you overgive to have two opposing feelings toward you: a little gratefulness but also a lot of resentment that you are superior enough to be able to help them.
So, although overgiving may get you into heaven or have your neighbors and churchgoers saying, “He/she’s such a good person,” that will be your only reward. Being selfless does not bring happiness or joy. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a good feeling when helping a homeless person or a friend out of a jam, but continual overgiving is simply enabling, which is actually a disservice to others, but especially to you and your happiness. I continually tell my overgiving clients to work at being more selfish.
How to Live Selfishly
Start small. Instead of following every obligation or expectation put on you, ask yourself, “Do I want to do this or not?” Maybe you usually mow the lawn on Saturdays, but this Saturday you don’t want to. Don’t. You still have an obligation, so maybe you mow it Tuesday after work, pay someone to do it, or renegotiate (and trade a different chore) with your family.
You become aware. You continually ask yourself, “Is this a ‘should’ or do I want to do this?” Then, like above, you find a way to deal with your answer. And some “shoulds,” you may decide, are okay, like brushing your teeth every day.
You check in with who you are and who you want to be. If you aren’t living your life the way you want, you set some goals to make some changes. Maybe you just decide to buy a guitar, or take a walk in the park every day after work. Or maybe you want to make bigger changes like changing jobs or moving. It’s up to you – it’s your life.
You set long-term and short-term goals. Be sure your goals are not what someone else set for you, but what you want. When my nephew decided to drop out of college and work on cruise ships so he could see the world, everyone thought he made the wrong decision and “should” prepare better for his future. Turns out, his decision helped his future. Now he works in Real Estate with buyers who sometimes look for properties in other countries, and he’s just the one to help them.
You start your “bucket list” now. It’s great to make a bucket list at the end of your life so you feel you didn’t miss out. But what about trying to live your life according to what’s important to you now. How about putting on your bucket list: to bring as much joy to myself as is possible.
In living a selfishly, your focus needs to be on your own happiness. The focus is not to harm other people, but to stand your ground for things that are important to you. Many people still believe that it is your mate’s responsibility to make you happy and vice versa. Some believe that if two people both live a selfish life and no one in the marriage sacrifices, the relationship will die. But actually if both people focus on their own happiness, communicate this to each other, and compromise on the differences, you’ll both be happier as unhealthy behaviors usually caused by resentment should disappear. Make yourself happy by living selfishly and ask others in your life to do the same.
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