Putting you first
Surely, nobody who values their relationships with others would like to be called an egoist. An egoist is surely an antisocial creature, that’s at least how he or she is perceived. But if we do not solve our own problems first, how can we attempt to help others? Perhaps a wise, healthy egoism is what is needed. Many clients struggle with the idea that they are allowed to put their needs first, and many more find the idea quite alien, despite the fact that not doing so makes them unhappy. Counselling can help by not only enabling a client to recognise and challenge certain behaviours, but also by creating a therapeutic relationship where the client’s needs are indeed put first.
If one has any doubts whether looking after oneself is the right thing to do, one should consider whether looking after others is also a form of egoism. It may make us feel better about ourselves or feel that we have an advantage over someone, to subjugate someone, or to show how good we are for others. A dependency we create this way cannot be healthy. We need to help ourselves first. Putting your oxygen mask on first before assisting others is a good analogy. The wise egoist gives himself permission to prioritise his own needs, recognises them, and tries to satisfy them, without crossing the boundaries of others, and without feeling guilty. He knows his capabilities and his limitations, and he accepts his imperfections. He is looking after his own interests, and seeks self-fulfillment, but will not trample on others to achieve his goals. This approach allows him to find out, develop, and express his own potential, leading to a fulfilling life. He can also share the best part of him with others.
Healthy egoism is a complex process both internal and external. It is not enough to simply decide "I am putting myself first today". You need courage, determination, and trust in yourself. It is important to be able to distinguish between things that are important, and those that are moderately important or insignificant. What is also important is taking responsibility for your choices. Think about getting hold of Aladdin’s lamp. If you had only one wish, what would you ask for? Stop and think, what are your priorities? It is all about deciding what you want, and working on achieving those goals. Sometimes we can get quite overwhelmed by everyday life, and separating what is important from what is not can be difficult, but it is worth developing the skill of being the captain of your own life without allowing others to take over the rudder. At the beginning, other people in your life may not like it. They may even protest, and deny you any decency. I think at this point it is useful to remember that whatever we decide to do in our life, someone may not like it. You will not be able to change them or persuade them, but you can change your approach, and that can change everything. Therapy can help you with this by creating a kind of ‘testing ground’ where you can challenge, test yourself, and think of different ways how you can change things for the better in your life, before you attempt to make changes in real life. You can spend as little or as much time as you like trying things out and testing your ideas, in a safe and confidential space with a counsellor who is not only OK with you putting yourself first, but who will actively encourage it.
There are two main obstacles on the journey of shaping your own happiness; the external environment, and the internal resistance. We all try to adapt to our environment to some extent, as we believe that in some way it defines us. It provides attention, appreciation, honours, and ‘likes’ that we crave. It makes us feel safe. Since the early days, we hear that it is horrible to be an egoist, and only think of yourself. We adopt these expectations, but there is a high price to pay. While we are looking up to others, and trying to fulfil their wishes, we are neglecting our own needs, and burying our dreams. We do not even see that we are manipulated, and that the others do not especially care about our independence. “Those who look for support in others and not in themselves, live with an illusion that will never be fulfilled. This is why we all have the right to think more of ourselves than of others.” (Josef Kirschner). This internal resistance is linked with the fear of being judged and rejected. Being loyal. We live amongst other people and, naturally, we are in the net of certain dependencies. The problem arises when people feel that they cannot survive without the approval of family or friends. They agree to absurd demands, they allow others to criticise, tease, and exploit them because it is a brother, cousin, auntie, your blood, as if this was enough of a justification. Why accept certain behaviours from family members, if we would never allow strangers to treat us in the same way? How does this happen? Why do we allow this artificial being, this coercion to exist? Why do we feed it and give it energy and power without even noticing it? Healthy, positive egoism will nail that being, and not allow it to take advantage.
Positive egoism is not about a rebellion, or proving that our needs are more important than those of others. It is the verification of those needs which is the key. Which of them are really mine, coming from my heart, coherent/consistent with me? Identifying those needs will allow us to live in a more authentic way. The positive egoist turns to himself, not only to satisfy his needs, but also to find support and his own ground within himself. This type of egoism will be all about self-awareness, not losing oneself in various races for money or power, but focusing on things that directly contribute to our development, and our life goal, or even life mission.
If putting yourself first was something that was never encouraged, or even often discouraged in the client’s life, this can often be a lonely and difficult journey riddled with guilt and self-doubt. A counsellor can help by empowering their client to seek their own fulfilment and happiness, and reinforcing the idea that doing so does not mean causing harm to anyone else. Changing your thinking will require a lot of time and practice, and this is where therapy can really help.
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About Alexandra Kubit-Hope
Alexandra Kubit-Hope is a qualified integrative counsellor who works in private practice in Kent. You can find more information about Alexandra and her work on her profile and website.