How to Win the Battle Between Selfish and Selfless
We run into real-life versions of this scenario every day, because we live in a society based on profoundly divided values. Almost everything that dominates our lives (education, work, even play) demands and rewards individual achievement. ("Get good grades! Get promoted! Get the ball into the hoop!") But equally powerful social rules tell us to forget personal achievement and focus on supporting others. ("There is no I in team!") Whenever these values conflict, we hit that crazy-making T junction, with its mutually exclusive instructions.
You may be facing such a situation right now. A friend's wedding is scheduled on the same day as an important professional conference. The babysitter calls in sick when you're already late for work. Your mom breaks a hip, and you can either pay for her surgery or invest in your own retirement. In countless situations like these, you face powerful, contradictory social mandates. So where is the sweet spot between honoring your obligations to others and honoring your obligations to yourself? Where's the line between responsible self-care and just being a selfish jerk?
Answering this question requires you to (1) recognize that you're caught between irreconcilable cultural directives, (2) examine each individual choice in light of all these directives, (3) choose the action that feels right to you regardless of social consequences, and (4) rest in your truth rather than join others in judging your choices.
Let's start with component 1. Bluntly put, you live in a no-win society—especially if you happen to be female. In one famous study, psychologist Inge Broverman and her colleagues asked mental health professionals to define a well-adjusted "man," "woman," and "adult, sex unspecified." The experts described a healthy adult and a healthy man similarly, as active, independent, and logical. But a healthy woman, they indicated, was more submissive, less independent, and more emotional. Gentle reader, are you confused yet? If not, permit me to smack you with the ugly truth one more time: Broverman's study showed that oftentimes if you choose to act like a successful person, you'll be judged a bad woman—but if you act like a good woman, you'll be seen as an unsuccessful person.
This contradiction affects you constantly: when you're distracted and rushed frying up the bacon you just brought home; when you pull an all-nighter finishing work you postponed to take your sick dog to the vet; when you're promoted for strong leadership, then get a performance evaluation that says you're too pushy.
There is no "sweet spot" between these contradictory expectations, just four possible options: Go left, and be judged for not going right. Go right, and be judged for not going left. Run frantically back and forth, and be judged indecisive and muddled. Or freeze like a deer in headlights, and be judged for not doing enough of anything. All these spots—believe me, I've done the whole tour—are bitter.
But wait! Didn't I say there was good news to go along with this cluster-clump of bad? I did. Einstein is believed to have once said, "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it." When the level of consciousness that creates a problem is a set of cultural values, the only solution is to stop following cultural rules at all. Standing at that impossible, unfair T junction, we can make a quietly radical choice. We can learn to fly.
I tell this to many clients, and they say, "Cute metaphor, lady. What the hell does it mean for me, right now, in practical terms?" Here's the process I recommend, one I use myself every day. First, review all the social rules that apply to your situation. Then break them.
I'm not just being a smartass. When guidance from outside is clearly insane, the only place to look for sanity is inside. And a wonderful way to sense inner guidance is to feel ourselves pushing back against the rules of the system.
I once knew a Buddhist teacher who used his pet canary to illustrate this concept. Birds become airborne by jumping upward as they spread their wings. The teacher let his bird sit on his finger, but when it tried to jump, he dropped his finger downward. With no pressure, the bird couldn't generate lift. The moral? Resistance can be a good thing. To leave an insane system, we can push off whatever feels most wrong to find the path that's most right.
Suppose you're trying to choose between that important work conference and your best friend's wedding. You write down the rules you've internalized that tell you to choose the wedding. An abridged list of these rules might be:
• If I don't attend her wedding, Donna will be hurt, and I must never hurt a loved one.
• Friends and family are everything. I should never pass up a chance to gather with them.
• A best friend's wedding is a once-in-a-lifetime event that trumps all other commitments, including my own death.
Of course, even as these beliefs conga-line through your head, an opposing set of social rules insists that you attend the work conference. Some of them might be:
• I signed a contract. Blowing off an important conference for personal reasons constitutes a breach of that contract.
• Plenty of people would love to have my job, and they'd skip their own wedding, let alone a friend's, to keep it.
• If I miss this chance to shine, it could slow or stymie my career for years.
Once you've written down all the rules on each side of the decision, read through each one while feeling for inner pushback. Pushback is any sense of tightening, clenching, anxiety, anger, or gloom that arises as you read a rule. Remember, pushback is a feeling, not a thought (initially, thinking will follow cultural guidelines into deadlock). When you feel pushback, stop. Let your inner resistance express itself. Write down what it says.
For example, as you read through the sentence, "If I don't attend her wedding, Donna will be hurt," you may feel simple agreement from within. But when you read, "and I must never hurt a loved one," you may tense or frown. Listening nonjudgmentally to this pushback, you may realize the rule is too absolute—none of us can guarantee we won't ever hurt a loved one in any way whatsoever. You may find that it feels truer to say, "I never want to hurt a loved one, though sometimes I may not be able to avoid it."
You'll need to go through all your rules, or a good many of them. But for this demonstration, let's skip to one from the second set listed above—the pro-conference list. Perhaps as you read, "I signed a contract," you feel pushback in the form of a slight sadness. When you listen, the feeling says, I never wanted to give this company my whole life. I feel like I'm in prison. The next sentence, "Blowing off an important conference for personal reasons constitutes a breach of that contract," may cause the pushback to intensify into despair, anger, or panic. Let that feeling speak. It may tell you, This job is obliterating my joy, and a joyless life isn't worth living. Your new pushback-derived rule for living may be "No job is worth a total loss of joy."
This exercise is somewhat laborious, but less so than being caught between irreconcilable demands. If you actually do it, rule by rule, situation by situation, something terrifying and wonderful will happen. You'll see that you—not friends, bosses, parents, or generalized others—are responsible for all your choices. You'll also see that while no choice pleases everyone, there's always a choice that feels righter than the rest.
As you practice this way of living, people will find you peculiar, unpredictable. One day you'll choose a wedding over a conference, and just when everyone thinks they've got you pegged, you'll rear up on your hind legs and choose a conference over a wedding. Passersby may gossip. Rivals, relatives, politicians, and preachers may condemn. True friends will come; false ones will fall away. Because whatever choice you make, the process by which you make it will no longer have anything to do with them. You'll be operating from a new level of consciousness: not established custom or social approval, but pure, unabashed personal integrity.
If you think this way of making life choices sounds frightening, you're right. But it's also exhilarating. It will enable you to rise above insane systems and unfair criticism, responding creatively to every circumstance you face. Pushing off from more and more injustice and impossibility, honoring truer and truer rules, you'll gradually care less about others' judgments and more about inner peace. You'll find that like a migratory bird, you have an inner magnetism that always aligns you with true north. As you fly out on unprecedented adventures, looking down at the divided path a confused society laid out for all of us, you'll learn wisdom, confidence, and calm. Up there in the clear air of freedom, you'll find a sweet spot as wide as the sky.
Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One.