Is Starting with Myself Selfish?

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Recently, my dear friend gave a talk for her graduate work in Marriage and Family Studies. The topic was self-compassion, a term that goes above and beyond self-esteem to encompass the whole range of who we are as humans. It includes self-care, but goes beyond it to explain how we should treat ourselves, taking our sin seriously and repenting while taking our mistakes less seriously and showing ourselves the grace that God has shown us.

Afterwards, someone gave her the following critique (which I am paraphrasing secondhand):

“Self-compassion seems selfish and too self-focused–not how God wants us to live. It makes it all about me.”

I had a professor in college who mentioned her friend who sent newsy emails about her life. This professor said that the emails were all “I” and “me” and “my”–entirely too self-focused. For a while, this made me scared to send emails or talk about myself–what if others saw me that way too? What if, by talking about myself, I was being selfish?

Through high school and college, I mostly avoided “I” in writing, thinking it was less scholarly and not MLA enough. Many of my students also did this (it was incredibly hilarious when they used third person to tell a story about themselves!). But two professors challenged me that first, “I” is acceptable in MLA (though not in all writing assignments) and second, starting with your own experiences is a totally valid–dare I say incredibly helpful–way to start working on a topic.

This freed up my writing in incredible ways. Suddenly I saw that I could have ideas that started with me–with my experience. My senior thesis was about teaching writing holistically, and it came into being because a professor challenged me to start with what I know and had experienced–with what had worked for me as I learned to write.

We are at the center of our own lives. This doesn’t mean I am to be the center of everyone else’s lives. Nor does it mean that life is all about me. It does mean that everything is filtered through my own experience and prejudices and lenses. There are appropriate times to step outside of these, to constantly expand my view and explore my blindspots. But I have no choice but to start with myself.

My lessons in self-care showed me that I can only love others well and have compassion for them if I have compassion for myself. In fact, I finally began to stop criticizing my husband when I realized that I spoke to him the way I spoke to myself. And speaking to either one of us that way was not okay.

You are you. You start with you. Ignoring this is impossible, and ignoring your own unique desires and interests, strengths and weaknesses, failures and success, what makes you happy and what grieves you is not truthful.

We hear a lot about how self-consumed our generation is. We are told to think about ourselves less and stop being so selfish. In context, these challenges are often good and necessary, but we can’t stop thinking about ourselves–about our real, flesh-and-blood bodies, the things our senses perceive, how our childhood experiences shape who we are.

In fact, starting with ourselves is the only way to understand the Gospel. Side by side with seeing what Christ has done for me, I must see what I did to Him. I must see that he had to die for me. Yes, he died for you, too. But though this grand story is not centered on me, I must see that I am a part of it.

Many theologians, pastors, and ordinary people encourage us to look at what makes us angry, what makes us weep, what makes our hearts sing. In these things, we are told, lie our God-given passions and abilities and dreams. In our individual talents and experiences lie the gifts that make up the body of Christ.

We’ve all heard Christ first, others second, and self third. That’s great, but even in that system, self cannot be ignored. And it is not selfish to think about and change the negative messages we give ourselves, or the way we treat our bodies, or our physical and emotional experiences. After all, I can only change myself (and that only by God’s grace).

I find that sharing my experiences is often the thing that leads others to share about themselves. Talking about myself is what leads them to talk about themselves. And the reverse is also true. Removing “I” forces us to be less than truthful, to see things as facts that are instead subjective, to exaggerate our points.

So to the student who complained about self-compassion being selfish, this is what I say: you can’t help but start with yourself. If you try to do otherwise, you are deceiving yourself or will wind up confused and entirely spent. Yes, this is a community. Yes, there is “our” and “we” in the Gospel. But though there is no actual “I” in the word “team,” I make up a team and I must take care of myself and learn about myself and start with myself to be able to run the good race. To say otherwise is simply untrue.

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3 thoughts on “Is Starting with Myself Selfish?

  1. That reminds me of a common example psychologists and social workers use: on a plane, in case of emergency, you must always put oxygen mask on yourself first and only then help others. Air stewards emphasize it very much during pre-flight briefing. The same way, psychologists say, you can’t give love to another person if you don’t love yourself. You can’t be kind to another person if you’re not kind to yourself. It would be like pulling a shipwreck victim into your own boat, while the boat is sinking. Heroic, but not helpful to anyone.

    I definitely saw examples of this, both in myself and among other people. For example, I became much less judgmental of others once I allowed myself to make mistakes and have weaknesses. But not being a religious person, I sometimes feel I am a little too centered on myself. That makes it hard to notice others and the relationships suffer as a result. Not sure, maybe this is a trade-off, or maybe that’s just another thing I need to learn, next step in life.

    • Yes! I love the airplane oxygen analogy! I’ve heard that once we start caring for ourselves, we tend to often swing too far into the realm of selfishness (I know I did and still do). I think it’s probably always one of those things that involves balance (and I have to continually reset the balance). I definitely agree with your point about being less judgmental; I had to start with being kinder to myself, as well, before I could be truly gracious toward others. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Pingback: Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image: A New Series | Pilgrim Sandals

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