Growing into Selflessness

Many of us believe that selflessness is the way to goodness, but here’s a fresh thought for the New Year. Instead of striving for selflessness, how about if we work on our own maturity and self-connection first? Then we might be in a better position to be truly generous to others.

Trying to be selfless before you know your own heart is not only mistaken, it is impossible. Aspiring to selflessness before you are ready leaves you feeling chronically guilty and overextended. Plus, if you try to be a good person by ignoring your own feelings and needs, it will lead to all sorts of relationship problems.

Many of us may have been told that sacrifice is not only the way to be good, but is the best way to build a happy relationship. However, too much self-sacrifice inevitably leads to keeping score in a relationship, with bitter results. The smoldering rage of a person who is sick of putting himself or herself last is something to behold. If you give until it hurts, you will end up hurting them back.

Imagine how much more fair and enjoyable our relationships could be if we were clear and above-board about our own needs.

Unfortunately, that can be hard to do when we have been taught since childhood to idealize selflessness and revile selfishness. Parents see the normal selfishness of children and fear they will stay that way when they grow up. So they encourage their children to be good by giving and putting others first. This would be fine if giving and thinking of others were offered as guiding principles that we will grow into. But far too often, parents and religious teachers explicitly tell children that their intrinsic goodness depends on that selfless behavior right now. They are told to share without resentment, to eschew possessiveness, and to sacrifice their joy for someone else’s needs.

When children cannot manage such selflessness, they feel guilty. Worse, they might worry they are bad people. They find themselves in the impossible situation of trying to be selfless, but deep down knowing that they can’t help caring most about their own needs.

Teaching selflessness too early expects developmentally immature children to do something that religious masters only attain in full adulthood.

Interestingly, by learning and managing your own needs first, you actually are emulating our highest spiritual teachers. The greatest religious leaders developed their spirituality not through exclusive self-sacrifice, but by first attending to their own psychological and spiritual development. If these great people needed time to develop in order to discover their spiritual mission, surely we too need a little time to mature before we start serving the world.

For instance, if you ask what Jesus or Buddha or Mother Theresa would do in a certain situation, it might make sense to specify which stage of their lives you’re referring to. Are you asking what they would do as a young person, or what they would do after full development? If it was early in life before they had found their adult mission, their choices might look quite self-preoccupied. This is because all of them knew they had to develop themselves first in order to fulfill their missions. All our spiritual masters spent their early careers making the inner effort to develop an unshakable self-connection with his or her inner source.

Think about it. These masters all individuated from their families in their quest to find themselves. They listened first to their own inner promptings, reflected on themselves and what their place might be in the world, and went through a long process of training and maturation. They gave themselves time to evolve, time to develop a sturdy adult self with good boundaries and common sense. Surely we need to take the time to do the same. If as children we were told we should already have the fully formed adult sensibilities of a spiritual genius, we were being set up for feelings of unworthiness when we inevitably failed.

Spiritual masters teach us to first seek a change of heart so we do good from the inside out. They do not judge goodness on the basis of our external behavior alone. Like our spiritual leaders, we could realize that the goal is not to prove our goodness, but rather to pursue our psychological and spiritual growth so that we can develop true compassion for other people.

In this New Year, let’s encourage both our children and ourselves to first build a solid self-connection, forming a deep bond with our own inner self so that our giving comes from a full place inside. If you develop a strong emotional connection with yourself as a worthy person, giving to others will feel easy and rewarding because it comes from your mature self-expression. You can’t attain goodness through acts of selflessness, but you can seek a path of enlightened self-development that will result in more love for yourself and others.

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811 or visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.

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