A Problem of Selfishness

When I was seventeen I asked my grandfather to help me figure out my university major.  Theatre, history, politics, basket weaving?  He told me the question was irrelevant.  It doesn’t matter what you study, it only matters how it will be used. How will you give back what you learn to the world?

Huh? Said the impatient, arrogant teenager.  What does this have to do with basket weaving or anthropology?

My grandfather used to drive me crazy with cryptic, wise old man sayings.  He’d sit around the dim sum table, drinking chrysanthemum tea, pretending like he really didn’t know anything, yet speak with tremendous certainty.  The contradiction was infuriating.  But eventually I figured out what he meant that day.  When he said give back, he didn’t mean donate ten dollars to every charity that asked.  He was thinking more philosophically. That whatever you took away from life had to be given back somehow.   And although my granddad is now gone, this idea has stayed with me.   That every thing in life, in some way, works best on the basis of a win-win exchange.

And yet.

If there are givers and takers in the world, I confess I am a taker.  Ask my husband.  Ask my old boss who used to remind me at my uglier moments that I could be generous.  In writing this post, I sat down and went through a list of my nearest and dearest friends- you know, the people that don’t have to put up with you- and I realized I get so much joy and comfort and encouragement from them (in fact, it’s thanks to them that I’m even able to know the word generous), that I find it difficult to imagine what it is I offer in return that would be fair in the exchange.

By the same token, those people in my life who leave me feeling worse off, or indifferent tend not to stay on facebook page for very long.  I admit I do a bit of culling each year.  It’s not always a reflection on them; sometimes there is just too much static or distance to broker any kind of real relationship.  And the thing about me is, I’m kind of a bulldog when it comes to keeping in touch.  I don’t like to lose people who mean a lot to me.  But it takes work. It takes investment.  And that investment of time and energy and mindspace generally comes with the hope of some kind of return.  And by return, I don’t mean it in the material sense.  Let’s call it a return in one’s sense of self, one’s well being.  A good belly laugh.  A renewed faith in humankind.  A moment.

Sounds selfish, right?  But then I’m a taker. I’m a little selfish.  In fact, I’m generally a big proponent of selfish.  You know, the kind of selfish you need in order to take care of yourself, the kind you need in order to prioritize, in order to be able to give.  Oprah says you need it to stop those who would take advantage of you.   The kind that comes from knowing yourself and believing in the value of yourself and what you’re worth.

Of course, there are other kinds of selfish out there.  The selfish whose situation is always that of the underdog, who is always a victim and up against it, who consistently self preserves at the expense (or even ruin) of others.  Or conversely, the kind of selfish myopia that leads to guilt and regret regardless of how selfish or selfless the decision.  I’m no expert, but I’d wager that these breeds of selfishness are buttressed by a good dose of insecurity or arrogance.

For good selfishness to exist, it needs a few support beams (like running with a good sports bra).  Self awareness: recognition that whatever you may believe is valid but may not always be the be all and end all truth.  And social awareness: the ability to empathize with others, the ability to situate yourself vis a vis someone else and respect that accordingly.

But recently I’ve found myself in a bit of prisoner’s dilemma on this selfish paradigm of mine, and I could use some advice from those of you more generous than myself.  I have this friend, and well, she’s talented and intelligent, and driven.  I think she might even know it.  How else can I explain the extent to which she toots her own horn?  Now, I have no problem with a woman tooting her own horn.  But here is what bothers me: she’s great at what I call the ‘Ask’.  I need this. Help me with that. So I can achieve my itsy bitsy dream.  And I do, I do because I can be generous and I believe and support her.  But the thing is, there’s no end.  She is an endless empty well that needs filling with all my love and support.   There is little graciousness, just some self promotion (See! Look how great I am!) and the next ‘ask’.  Now you’ve given me this, give me that!  Support me!  Feel good because I’m getting my dream. I’m giving you an opportunity here.  Give to me and you will receive.

Except that in all honesty, I ain’t had much yet.  Aside from a few quickly typed words of thank you.  Certainly, she’s not liking my sweated over facebook page, or sending me cute little cards in the post that say ‘keep on girl!’ in support of my aspirations.  It’s as if her voice is calling so loudly for her dream, I can scarcely hear myself think.  I’m being bulldozed by her desires.

A card from my friend?

So whose being selfish here? Me, for wanting more, or her for her preoccupation with her ambitions, to the exclusion of all others?  And how do I stand true to my grandfather and find my win- win situation?

To be fair, I don’t think it’s intentional what she’s doing.  Really, I don’t.  And yes, I’m well aware that I risk sounding like the mean girl.  In fact I was afraid to post this because, well, let’s be honest Mother Sugar Babes, what I’m telling you is kind of ugly.  But I’m not someone who begrudges her dream. I want her to have it.  I do.  I just don’t understand how I have to be drained in the giving.

Maybe it’s supposed to be enough for me, a brief altruist sensation vicariously living her dream?  If it is, I guess I’m too selfish for just that.  And maybe the attainment of her dream is giving back to someone, somewhere.  It just isn’t me.


Entitlement (Photo credit: howard.hall)

So what to do?  Dig deep and be zen and continue to give?  Pull back?  (but isn’t that a little petty of me to withdraw my cheerleading squad because there’s no quid pro quo?  Talk about selfish!).  If it were me, I’d want to know, however hard a thing it might be to hear, and if this were a best friend, I would say something, challenging as that might be.  But she’s not.  We’re just friends enough that erasing her from my facebook page seems a little severe.

I have no answer.  And I know, it’s really my problem, not hers.  Sure, I might wish she’d be a little less narcissist and realize how other people might be knocked about by her insistent elbows.  I wish she’d show a little more consideration, a little more awareness and generosity for all the generosity she’s received in turn. But I guess she’s a taker too.  A taker without a grandpa who told her very wisely to always consider in the taking, what it is you will give back in return.

15 thoughts on “A Problem of Selfishness

  1. I have to admit that reading your posts always so gentle and patient, makes me want to be able to respond in a way that is similar, but I can never be articulate or thoughtful as you are.

    I wonder about this person you’re talking about? If she doesn’t realize shes doing it, or isn’t doing it with a black hole of need, or malice, is there a way to make her aware of it without expressing how frustrated you are? Is she worth it as a friend? Do you get enough back from her to warrant the discomfort?

    Because to be perfectly honest, I’d rather have the bossy friend, that tells me when I’m being a jerk than abandons me or leave me with no explanation. If I were that girl, I’d want to know. She probably didn’t have the wise grandpa and maybe you can find it in you to impart some of his wisdom to her. If not, fair enough.

    But I were her, I’d rather have the bossy wise friend. If she doesn’t take your kindly offered wisdom well, then there is your answer. If she continues to do “the Ask” then you know. But at least you’d have tried.

    • Of course, you’re right. And maybe here is the real true: maybe I’m not sure it’s worth it. Also, I’m not sure she would be able to handle the bossy friend, at least not this one (she’s sort of oddly fragile for all her trumpeting). And so out of an odd sense of compassion, while I might be backing away, it is without hard feelings and for what I think might be best for her..

      • Except I meant you as the bossy compassionate friend. Backing away works if you dont value it enough to continue. And thats completely fair!

  2. I’ve always been a giver… like too much. After an abusive marriage ended, my wonderful therapist had to work hard to teach me about the good kind of ‘selfish’- the kind where I take care of myself and love myself. What I’ve learned is that it makes me a better friend, a better partner, a happier person, and a better giver. Which is what I want to be anyway. Thanks for writing…

  3. It’s odd to see you describe yourself as selfish, because I consider you to be one of the most generous people I know. Yes, you take care of yourself, but I find myself wondering if that’s what allows you to be generous with others; maybe it’s an extension of generosity to yourself. I’ve found that when I was hard on myself or withheld from myself, I was harder on and less generous to others. This is something I’m still working on.

    In terms of your predicament – I don’t think it’s unfair or selfish to want a friend to be there for you.

    • I guess the fact that I describe myself as selfish just goes to prove how hard I really am on myself! And maybe if I let myself get away more with how I’m feeling about this whole thing. I’ll be less hard on the friend too?

      It’s just disappointing when you cheerlead someone on, only to learn how little it might mean- how little you might mean- that it isn’t in proportion to the effort you’ve expended.

      incidentally, I can’t imagine you not being generous to others. Ah, the people we are inside ourselves… vs. what the world sees. Thanks for reflecting me back at myself, I don’t feel so guilty now.

      • No need to feel guilty at all! And it is disappointing when you’re really there for someone, and they don’t appreciate or recognize that.

        And yes – maybe we all need to let ourselves off the hook sometimes! 🙂

  4. You do not sound like a selfish person to me at all even though you think that way about yourself and because you think that way, you are attracting that kind of person to your life. We often do this because we have something to learn. Give more to yourself rather than your friend. Nourish and care for the woman you are, be there for yourself and give yourself a break. This is not selfish. It’s impossible to be all things to all people. 🙂

  5. An interesting post B & Z – and one that I’m sure all of us have had to deal with from time to time. I think that all relationships, whether they are deep running or of a more casual nature have to be balanced in order for them to be worth while for both people involved. Not necessarily like you have me over for dinner so I have you over, you send me a note of support so I send you a note of support, but it is more of a feeling of being included in someone’s sphere of consciousness in an equal manner. It sounds to me like that isn’t the case here – there is no “push against” but there is no “pulling for” either – just a kind of indifference. I think this is one of the biggest mistakes people make in their relationships – indifference. I hate confrontation, so the only times that I have ever mentioned this to people when they were doing it to me were when the relationship was more deep running and it was really important to me, otherwise I just let the freindship subside. In almost every case that I dealt with it by directly talking about the issue, it made no difference to the person’s behavior other than them being upset at thinking that they had failed in some way – at least that was their immediate response – and perhaps later they were able to see the truth of it, but I wasn’t around to see it.

    I believe that there are all kinds of ways that one can give to others, and all kinds of different ways that someone can learn – you can give by telling a story about someone else that has behaved in a similar way (like you have done so well here), someone reads it (maybe even the person you are talking about), takes the hint, and perhaps a seed of some change can grow from it. Or perhaps both of you could best be served by you simply deleting her from your Facebook friends (this is part of the reason I’m not on Facebook – oh the pressure of Friending and Unfriending :)). What seems harsh, might in fact be the best way for her to get the message she needs to get.

    • “a feeling of being included in someone’s sphere of consciousness in an equal manner”. Yes, this is exactly what is missing. And I am similar to you, in the way you feel about confrontation (how Canadian, eh?), and I do think she is too fragile to take on board any feedback. And I want to be fair, I’m part of the problem, somehow, in the way I feel about it all, however inarticulate it might be. I’m not sure I have the right to take apart her view and subordinate it to mine. So yes, actually, I did take a facebook step back, not a complete block, but it seems to be giving me the space i need without sacrificing a total relationship at the same time. Thanks.

  6. I think you made the right decision by stepping back from the Facebook barrage. You have to look after yourself first.

    I’m coming to feel that Facebook isn’t really a place for real friends anyway. It’s a convenient tool for real friends to connect (and we do) but I’ve come to feel that if I’m not emailing, calling or seeing someone outside of the Zuckerberg Platform then we’re really just acquaintances. I don’t expect much from them and I’m offended when they expect something of me (i.e. “Comment if you’re reading my posts and if you’re not I know you’re not my real friend, blah, blah, blah.” Give me a break!)

    In this case, I actually enjoy reading those crazy self-promotional posts. I’ve never been friends with this person and expect nothing in return which is part of why I can just enjoy it vicariously. It’s almost like it’s not really about her but about what’s possible, in general. If I felt she was a real friend though, and the only kind of support I was receiving was an inspirational Facebook stream…? I’d be taking a step back too.

    I’m glad you are finding some space and hope it’s guilt-free. The only thing this decision reveals to me about you is that you actually care about that relationship and want it to be real which isn’t selfish at all. Longing for authenticity in relationships must be a good thing no?

    • What a great response, thank you. Wise words, Lemon Tart. I think that what you’ve said is exactly right, I had hoped it to be more. I have lots of relationships where the expectations are lower and are matched and exist happily on FB or whatever other platforms. But what we have here is a disconnect. And what stung was at first it felt like we were matched, but when I say something and mean something, clearly it isn’t at the same intensity or authenticity as her. I can’t blame her for that either. It’s interesting, does wanting a relationship to be real signify that I’m not selfish, or that I am selfish? It’s a reasonable expectation that offers much but is also demanding in its way. And yes, I think longing for authencity is good, but selfishness can be good too.

  7. Pingback: Why I’m taking the stroller to a desert island | Mother Sugar

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