“I feel so stuck,” she says.
I pass the tissues. “How so?” I ask.
She tells me.
Her husband bowls every Wednesday, golfs weekends, watches tv each night until bed. Never talks to her, never compliments her, hasn’t taken her out to dinner in years. Expects sex regardless.
“Regardless of what?” I ask.
“How I feel about it,” she says.
She has two teenagers, whom she serves as cook, laundress, chambermaid, tutor, therapist, referee and chauffeur. On Mother’s Day they gave her a World’s Greatest Mom card from Wal-Mart, then spent the day with friends.
Her parents are in from Florida. They visit frequently without asking, stay a week at a time, and criticize everything from her haircut to her parenting. (I jot critical parents on a mental note card, file it away for a later session.)
Her best friend is recently divorced, and calls her nightly either to exult or to mourn her new freedom, depending on how her last date went. (“And do you ever call her?” “What for?” she asks, without irony.)
Her mood’s been sliding downhill for years. She sleeps badly. Feels tired. Feels alone. Feels sad. Cries.
“Ever take a day off?” I ask.
“Ever take a nap?”
“Have any hobbies?”
“Have any friends or family who aren’t totally self-involved?”
She half-smiles. “No.”
“Ever tried therapy?”
“I didn’t see how it could help,” she says. “Can it?”
“Yes,” I say.
“How?” she asks.
“By teaching you to drive,” I say.
She looks puzzled.
“Imagine someone who learned to drive a car without ever being taught how to make a left turn. So whenever they go out all they can do is turn right. What would happen to them?”
She frowns. “They’d go in a circle.”
“Exactly. That’s what you’re doing now.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Think of all the choices you make in a day. Now think of each choice as a fork in the road. When you put others first, you turn right. When you put yourself first, you turn left.
“When was the last time you made a left turn?”
Her eyes widen. She thinks.
“I don’t make those,” she says finally.
“Right,” I say. “You’re driving in circles. It’s why you feel stuck.”
“And therapy can teach me to turn left?”
I nod. I’m expecting the next question.
“But isn’t that selfish?”
“Yes,” I said. “What’s your objection to selfishness?”
I’ve asked that question hundreds of times. No one has a good answer.
“That’s what everyone says,” I say. “I suppose some believe it. But most people use it to convince others to put them first. The most selfish people I know tend to be the first to condemn selfishness in others.
“Me, I think of it as a survival skill. Selfishness is essential, at least some of the time. If you don’t take care of yourself, who will?”
“Well, this isn’t working.” She blows her nose. “I guess I should hang a left once in a while. But my family won’t like it.”
“Probably not. You’ll have to train them.”
“We’ll talk details later. But it amounts to putting yourself first and letting them adapt to it.”
“And that works?”
“Sure,” I said. “Look how well it’s worked for your husband, your kids and your parents.”
* * *
Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting.
~ Shakespeare, Henry V
* * *
At least if I give, the thinking goes, others will like me. Better yet, they may even come to need me. Then I won’t be so alone in the world.
Giving becomes a kind of barter to belong — a bid for love, rather than an expression of it.
~ From “Healthy selfishness” at daily.om.
* * *
I think if you do not allow yourself to know them and to exercise adequate levels of self-care by satisfying those wants and needs in ways that make you feel good you will find unhealthy and unsatisfying behaviors that you do in order to be safe.
The relationship will become toxic and cycle through predictable patterns of acting out, failure and disappointment.
Selfish behaviors that take advantage of or hurt someone else are not what I am describing. Behaviors that are done in service of the health of the self are self-ish.
~ From “The concept of healthy selfishness in therapy” by Brett Newcomb.