Beyond Selfish or Selfless

I mentor a lot of young women, who are trying to find their independent identity. In doing so, I find that many of them have to go somewhat inwards, and find out what really matters to them. This tends to provoke some outrage from their family, their partners, and even their friends, who accuse them of becoming ‘selfish’, of only thinking of themselves. The socialized model for women is to become ‘selfless’, and specifically to become selfless mothers, devoting their lives to their families. I suspect this model never worked as well as some think. I remember the stress and sense of futility of women’s lives in 1950s suburbs, that is well captured in the middle story and the role played by Julianne Moore, in the brilliant movie ‘The Hours’, directed by Stephen Daldry.

And the caring professions (what I sometimes term ‘swamp work’ aka social work) are full of both men and women, who selflessly devote themselves to others, and often burn out in the process. I am reminded of a story I heard of an order of nuns, most of whose members spent time overseas in war zones and refugee camps, doing great work, and who came home every few years, totally exhausted physically, mentally and spiritually. The order had a rest center for them. One of the young nuns in the rest center had been in a silent order of nuns for some years before deciding to help in a different way. She had acquired through thousands of hours of silent contemplation an inner light that meant she could cope with the stress of restoring the exhausted nuns, and it was said she had to just come in the room for their morale to rise. She had gone deep insight herself, and made deep spiritual connections that made it unlikely she would burn out, whatever happened.

Using this story, I suggest to the young women I mentor (and it is usually young women as young men, when lost, don’t ask the way), that the dichotomy between selfish and selfless is a false one. That selflessness without knowledge of self,  without compassion for self, is unsustainable, and leads to burn out. But also selfishness is deeply unsatisfactory as an end state as it cuts us off from others. To get the most out of life we need to transcend this dichotomy. So I invented the term ‘selfie’ to describe a more dynamic process, in which we take some time to really find out who we are. This stage will look like selfishness to others, and draw down some denunciation. But it is not an end state, but ‘a station on the way’ (to quote Leonard Cohen) to use as a base for reaching out to others, once we know who we are.

In keeping with the Creative Conflict Model behind this blog,  being ‘selfie’ means we really get to understand ourselves, our identity and our real interests, and use this knowledge to later move on to empathetically understand others, their identities, and their real interests. Of course once we do this, we may feel internal conflict between their interests and our own, but if we do this relatively mindfully, if we can say to ourselves, this is how the world is, conflictual, we can stay with the feeling and use it to do work. To find creative solutions to the conflicts between ourselves and our families, our partners, our co-workers whoever.

And it is not a one time process. Being ‘selfie’ is a circular, cyclical process. We will need from time to time to withdraw a little from the world to reconnect with ourselves, before re-emerging to engage with others from within a strong sense of self, that means we are clear about our boundaries and respectful of others’ boundaries and can make strong connections with them without losing ourselves in others and their problems. And of course, like good therapists, we know what is our stuff and what is other peoples’ stuff and don’t mix the two up.

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Movies, Conflict Processes, Marital and Relationship Conflict, Religious Conflict, The Conflict Model, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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