Why selflessness doesn’t make you a good person

good person

Click the play button below, or subscribe and listen through our podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play.


A client of mine, Molly, is burnt out.

She’s got two jobs that have her working at least 50 hours a week (usually more like 60-65), including night and weekend shifts. Sometimes after working 6 days in a row, her boss will ask if she can fill in for someone on the 7th day … and she usually agrees, even though it means she doesn’t get a single day off in a week.

She’s also involved in multiple social groups, and she gets roped into helping plan and coordinate events, even when she can’t make it to the event (because she’s working so much).

I pointed out that this is not a sustainable pace, and she fully acknowledges that. She’s constantly sleep-deprived, and her naturally sunny personality is slowly being replaced by a grumpy, snippy, unmotivated person who she barely recognizes.

Molly knows that something’s got to give, but whenever she considers backing out of a commitment or saying no or taking something off her very-full plate, she becomes consumed by guilt.

Recently she told me, “I really wanted to tell my boss I couldn’t take on another shift this week, but I knew they didn’t have anyone else they could turn to, and it felt selfish to say no when I didn’t have any other plans that day.”

We dug more into what “selfishness” is all about, and she (like most of us) has a warped view of what it means to be “selfish.”

I told her, “You’re so afraid of being selfish that you’ve gone to the other extreme and become a martyr. But those aren’t your only two choices, you know.”

WE’RE ALL AFRAID OF OUR INNER TODDLER

When I asked Molly to describe what she thought of when she imagined a selfish person, here’s what she said:

“You know how toddlers can’t help but be completely self-absorbed? All they can think about is what they want and need, and they’re totally oblivious to other people’s needs. That’s what selfishness makes me think of.”

It’s true — toddlers are the embodiment of pure ego. Their little brains aren’t developed enough to think, “Hmm, I wonder if my mom is tired and could use a break right now? I think I’ll refrain from throwing this tantrum to make her day a little easier.” They want what they want, and they want it NOW, regardless of who it might inconvenience.

This image was solidified for Molly through the messages she got as a kid about how “bad” it was to be selfish. She got scolded by her parents and teachers and Sunday School teachers for being selfish, and praised for being selfless.

So she learned to fear any part of her that even vaguely resembled that ego-driven toddler. She couldn’t bring herself to ask for time off, or say no to a request, or state her preferences in fear of seeming selfish.

Molly’s experience is not unique. Most of us internalized the same beliefs about selfishness when we were growing up:

Selfishness = you’re a bad person, and selflessness = you’re a good person.

So naturally, she wanted to avoid feeling like a bad person as much as possible, and instead defaulted to setting her own needs aside in favor of everyone else’s.

The problem is…

MARTYRDOM IS NO BETTER THAN SELFISHNESS

Extreme fear of selfishness usually sends people to the complete opposite side of the spectrum: martyrdom.

In the same way our society has condemned selfishness, it’s also lauded martyrs. Martyrdom has become a virtue in our culture, so we all feel like we should strive to be just a little more selfless, to make sure we’re a “good person.”

How many of you watch The Good Place? In season one, when Eleanor is meeting other people in “the good place,” she hears all about what they did in their lives to get sent to the good place. They all tell stories of sacrifice, selflessness, and service to others, no matter the cost to themselves.

That’s a perfect example of how we all assume that martyrs — the people who give all their time, money, energy, and sometimes very lives in service to others — are the ones who count as “good people.”

(One of the reasons I love The Good Place so much is that is has a major twist that throws this whole theory into question. But I digress…)

Anything less than martyrdom clearly makes you a bad person (deserving of “the bad place”) … or at least, not a particularly good person. Right?

Except we’re all missing one big fault with martyrs:

Totally selfless people are actually awful … to themselves.

If you’re loving to everyone else, but not to yourself … are you truly a loving person?

If you’re generous to everyone else, but stingy with yourself … can you really be considered generous?

If you’re thoughtful of everyone else’s needs, but neglectful of your own … are you actually thoughtful?

I’d argue no.

What martyrs get wrong is that being a good person doesn’t just apply to your interactions with other people — it’s equally about how you treat yourself.

Which is why…

THERE’S A SWEET SPOT BETWEEN SELFISHNESS AND MARTYRDOM

Imagine selfishness and martyrdom as opposite ends of a see-saw.

Too much selfishness, and you become disrespectful of others. Too much martyrdom, and you become disrespectful of yourself. We need a healthy amount of both to balance out the seesaw.

Molly desperately wanted to find that balance, but she’d spent so much of her life sitting on the “martyr” side of the seesaw that she had no idea what that balance even looked like. So I gave her three questions to ask herself whenever she was tempted to say yes to a request, volunteer for something, or generally fall back into her over-giving ways:

  1. What would a selfish person do in this situation?
  2. What would a martyr do?
  3. What’s a middle-of-the-road option? Go with this one.

For example, the next time her manager asked her to take on an extra shift at work, after an already jam-packed week, she asked herself these questions and came up with the following answers:

  1. A selfish person would say, “Hell no! I already worked more than my fair share this week. Not only am I not taking on another shift, I’m calling out the next two days, and I don’t care how it affects the team.”
  2. A martyr would respond with, “Of course! I’m happy to come in on my only day off. Is there anything else you need? I can put off sleeping and showering for another day or two.”
  3. A middle-of-the-road response would be, “I’m happy to support the team when I can, but I’ve already worked my hours this week and need a break so I can be fully rested when I come back next week. So I need to say no this time.”

Answering those questions helped her realize that a gracious “no” isn’t selfish at all — it’s self-loving. And then she had a lot more love and energy to give back after she’d taken care of herself. I’d call that a win-win.

So tell me, do you have a fear of selfishness? Do you find yourself over-giving, sometimes to your own detriment? How will you start to take care of your own needs, as well as others? Leave a comment to share how this resonates with you!

Much Love,

Kristen (& Rachel)


TIRED OF PUTTING YOURSELF LAST?

If you’re feeling burnt out from taking care of everyone else at your own expense, or if you don’t even know who you are and what you need/want because you’ve spent so much energy looking out for other people’s needs … that’s something we can help with in 1-on-1 coaching.

The whole point of coaching is to help you discover the REAL you — your needs, your wants, your desires, your passions — and then build a life that’s right for that person (instead of living your life solely to make other people happy).

If that sounds like exactly what you need, and if you’re ready to invest in yourself (maybe for the first time ever), then we should chat about 1-on-1 coaching!

Fill out the quick form on this page and we’ll talk it out.

LINKS

Take the Passion Profile Quiz

Submit your question for a future episode of Dear Krachel

4 Comments // ADD COMMENT

4 comments

  • Sarah Rhyne

    YES!!! I can totally relate. I have the hardest time asking for time off. I’m working a part-time retail job, so nothing super important, and I still can’t ask for days off or to change my schedule so that I can take an exercise class. My problem is another aspect of the martyrdom position – I don’t want to be a burden on my manager or my co-workers. By taking time off or changing my schedule, I’m creating more work for my manager and possibly giving my co-workers inconvenient shifts. I don’t want to be seen as “that” employee – the one that has a lot of issues and creates more work for other people. I want to be the employee that people can depend on and in my “black or white world”, I’m either dependable or not.

    • Rachel East

      Hey Sarah,

      It’s understandable to not want to burden your co-workers with more work or inconvenient shifts. But here’s the thing–When you don’t ask for time off, or advocate for your needs, you’re just joining in on the groupthink that creates the problem in the first place! Your co-workers and manager can ALSO ask for time off, or advocate for their needs. Which means every once in a while you might get a shift that’s less convenient, or a little extra work. But that’s part of being in a group; you each share the burdens AND the ease. If you don’t set the example, then no one else may do it. And I bet one of the reasons it’s not more common is because no one wants to go first. If you demonstrate another option, some people might follow suit. It’s corny, but it’s really the whole, “Be the change you wish to see” thing! 🙂

  • Sarah

    Thanks for your reply Rachel! I wish I could say it was hard for everyone else to ask for time off but it’s not. I’m definitely jealous when I hear of my coworkers taking time off – it seems so easy for them. I feel like this is more of a “me” problem than a group-think issue, though I do like how you described that when you’re part of a group you share the burdens and the ease.

    • Rachel East

      Hey Sarah! Well then, if everyone else has an easy time of it, that’s a good indication that they’re not actually judging you or feeling bad about creating more work when YOU ask for time off. They understand it’s just part of the deal, and they roll with it. Which gives you permission to do the same! 😉