Is selflessness always a good thing?
From a young age we are taught that it is wrong to be selfish and that self-sacrifice is the ideal.
And it is true that helping others is not only good in itself, it also makes us happier and healthier too.
But there are circumstances where people go too far in this direction and they find themselves always putting others first at their own expense.
In fact the world is full of helpers whose activity has turned into a desperate strategy to avoid confronting their own problems.
How many of us have experienced the feeling that we can see a way through a friend’s problem whilst secretly burying our own?
This self-evasion is sometimes mistaken for selflessness and can appear to be reinforced by the dictates of religious doctrine.
It seems that self-love, or the instinct or desire to promote one's own well-being, has become confused with selfishness, a lack of concern for others.
So how do we confront ourselves and pay attention to our own needs?
Some people have found that meditation is a good route to their inner thoughts. Others have discovered that moderate exercise like walking can help them achieve the necessary state of introspection and ultimately self-knowledge.
But of course we can find that when we do start to look inside the process of self-examination can be really painful and confusing. Perhaps we cannot make sense of what we feel – or we feel unworthy of the attention that we are giving ourselves.
It is at this point that some people turn to alcohol, drugs, food or self-harming as a means of blotting out these distressing thoughts.
I am a counsellor who has been trained in the ‘Person-Centred’ approach. Under this method the counsellor needs to have the ability to love themselves before they can be in a position to offer a client ‘three core conditions’ needed for a successful consultation. These are empathy, congruence (honesty), and unconditional positive regard.
Dave Mearns and Brian Thorne describe self-love as a willingness to give oneself time, attention and care.
In therapy the counsellor helps to promote feelings of self-love by offering the three core conditions that allow the client to feel they can risk expressing difficult emotions – for example self-disgust. They feel safe because they know that the counsellor will accept without judgement but also not collude with the condemnation that the client heaps on himself or herself.
In this way the client can come to see that the habit of always subordinating their own needs leads to low self-esteem, and they place a lower value on themselves. They also come to realize that it is not selfish to care for oneself – it is our responsibility. Only then, when we are in a good place, can we confidently reach out to help others.
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