I’ve been contemplating the word ‘selfish,’ lately. A ‘bad’ word when I grew up in my family. A label that was applied to me very strongly (to put it mildly), implicitly or explicitly, often when I tried to look out for myself, or do what I wanted, or go to where I wanted to be.
I was badly abused by my father who had an undiagnosed mental illness including narcissism and sadism. And when that happened, which was on most of the days of my young life, my mother mostly simply looked on. She failed to stand up for me in the way that I needed from her.
And as I grew older, well into my adulthood, I failed to stand up for myself and the abuse continued. And I failed to unfold as I should have. I had developed deeply flawed ways of thinking and behaving. I never had a chance to understand that looking out for myself and doing what I wanted and going to where I wanted to be was exactly what I was supposed to be doing — what all of us are supposed to be doing.
Looking out for ourselves, our own needs, goals and aspirations, doesn’t mean being cruel to other people, or unkind. It means loving yourself. Self love isn’t selfish; it’s essential. Every one of us is unique. We have our own feelings, needs and passions and dreams. If we don’t love ourselves — if we aren’t ‘selfish’ in that way — then we don’t get to realize who we are, fully and wholly. And then the world misses out on that.
Tragically, some of us don’t know how to love ourselves enough, to be selfish enough, even to survive properly, let alone realize our dreams.
I’ve been one of those people. Abused and conditioned through all of my formative years to look after my parents’ needs, I never learned that it was okay — no, essential — to look after my own needs.
In fact, I learned quite the opposite: I learned that I wasn’t worth looking after.
I learned that I wasn’t worth being loved.
As an adult, I attended to my outward appearances and image of success as that is defined socially because that’s what was most valued in my childhood home. Self worth, self love, wasn’t valued. My parents didn’t know what that was.
I appeared to be happy and successful — sort of — on the outside. Most people who got close enough though could see soon enough that there was something wrong. I didn’t know how to relate to most people. But hardly anyone had a chance to actually get close enough to me to find out. I was very good at pushing people away, in creative ways.
Although my outward appearances were sort of status quo, my insides were not. Not even close. I was wracked with body bending anxiety and depression. Exceedingly low self-esteem and guilt and neediness and expectations of perfection from myself and from others. And when I wasn’t perching other people on some sort of pedestal because I thought they were perfect, I was judging them rather cruelly. I wasn’t very aware of much of that stuff, though. It had always been that way.
The truth is, I was desperate for closeness from people. And I wasn’t conscious of all the ways I was pushing them away. But you don’t learn to trust when you’ve been abused like I was.
And so I was very, very lonely.
But I didn’t really admit that to myself, either.
I couldn’t afford to see myself in that way. I couldn’t afford to see my own pain. Or at least not much of it, anyway. I didn’t have the self-esteem necessary to acknowledge a lot of my vulnerability.
I used wine to dull my senses and to bury my life, and my loneliness and my self.
And I spent myself. Literally. I spent money to try to have things that I thought made me look good and then I worked my butt off to try to pay off the debt. And then I spent more and worked more to try to pay off that debt. And then I got more credentials so I could earn more so I could spend more so I could look better. And on. And on and on. All in the name of my outsides.
I wasn’t really aware of what I was doing to myself.
The mind’s ability to justify our self-destructive behaviours seems to have no end.
I wasn’t conscious of my drinking problem for a very long time. Until I’d had a chance to slow down for a bit. Until after I’d read a lot of blog posts and books by other women and some men who’d stopped drinking and saw myself in their posts.
I was one of the lucky ones. I figured it out while I was only drinking two or three bottles of wine a week.
Only. Sometimes — often — most of a bottle drunk in one night. By myself.
But before I got help and changed, I didn’t think I had a problem. I didn’t think I was lonely or over-stressed by the work and the spending.
And I certainly wasn’t aware of all the angst in my mind and my body because of my abuse in the past. I wasn’t aware of that because it had always been that way.
Before I realized fully that I had a problem, I didn’t really think about my drinking or about my strong compulsion to drink, much at all.
But when I did, some small part of me thought I was glamorous. It’s a sign of sophistication to be able to drink by yourself in the evenings as a woman, isn’t it? Wasn’t this yet another sign of my ‘success’? I had it all.
And I didn’t think the spending and the working were problems, either. Stuff costs money and I thought I knew how to hustle to get what I wanted. I thought I had to hustle. I was an extremely hard worker. And that’s good, right?
But I wasn’t getting what I wanted. Because there was no end to what I thought I wanted. Thought I needed to have in order to be worth something, anything. Zero self esteem is a bottomless pit.
And I was still trying to please my father, somehow. He’d seen me as no more than the value of how hard I could work for him. And there was no end to how hard I could work for him.
Until he didn’t need me any more.
And then he threw me away.
Eventually, I spent myself up until there was no more of me left to spend. I used myself up like I’d been taught to do.
Some years later, I fell apart. Well, that’s not exactly true because I was never together. What actually happened was that I lost the semblance, the appearance I thought, of being together.
And that’s when I actually started to pull myself together.
With a lot of help.
A therapist, finally, saw me for who I was. She noticed, where others had not, that under my hard shell, I was very, very, very broken. And she knew more than others what to do.
I’d been told to ignore the abuse by my parents. Terrified into doing that, by my father. Taught how to not see it, by my mother.
But that therapist knew enough to see me. And she knew enough, and cared enough, to try to help me see myself.
She told me that often, people like me put on a good act.
But, finally, I was found out and I was found. It took me until I was almost 50 years old, but I was found.
I was lucky in that way, too.
And now, with a lot of help, I’m picking up the pieces, my pieces.
And I’m starting to learn the necessity of being selfish. I’m learning that it’s okay — it’s necessary — to say, ‘MINE.’
To defend my self — my pieces — with my life.
Because without my self, I have no life. There is no me.
What I want, where I want to be, is important.
And maybe there’s nothing more important than that. Because if I can’t be me, go to where I want to be, then what am I here for?
I believe in a grand design. I believe that we’re all meant to be who we are. I believe in my unalterable inherent right to be my self.
I believe I am good. And worthy of love. Self-love and love from others.
I don’t have to give up myself to survive anymore. And it’s not good enough for me to only survive. I want to thrive.
And sometimes, I have to be selfish.
I wish all of you complete healing, complete self fulfillment. Complete love.
Thank you for reading.