I was taught from the earliest age that the most important thing was to be nice to everyone, to put my needs second to others', and in short, just to be good. To be fair, it was mostly religion in the deep south talking, not my parents, who have long since found deeper meaning outside the confines of the Baptist faith. Still, the message that selfishness is sinful was etched into my psyche, and it is hard to erase. For starters, my name is Sharon, and there is nothing that makes me happier than to share. I was born that way; my mom said when I was 3, I gave away my favorite doll, Baby Glory, to a child I hardly knew. Generosity is my nature, and I don't want to lose that in my effort to stop the cycle of people-pleasing. But many of us fear that if we begin changing our behavior around those who are accustomed to us putting our needs second to theirs, we risk being accused of being selfish.
There are two ways to interpret the meaning of this dreaded word. Of course there is the dominant cultural meaning implying egocentrism and general lack of concern for others bordering on sociopathic tendencies. But if you look at the actual definition, it simply means attending to our own needs over those of others, and being "concerned chiefly with one's own personal profit or pleasure." Hmmm, that doesn't sound too bad to me, as long as I do no harm to others in my pursuit of said profit and pleasure. In fact, being selfish - and more importantly self-compassionate - is how I defeated the habit of self-sacrifice that I believed was essential to being a good person. By putting my needs first, I have more genuine, strings-free love to give. I still lapse into the familiar care-taking role, putting my needs second. But it usually leads me to resent the person I sacrificed my needs for. And they never even asked me to do anything. Sweet, silly, dear self.
Mary Oliver has something to say about not being good in her poem, Wild Geese, and she minces no words. It is likely you have come across this poem before, but in case this is you're first experience, I will say this: do not argue with Ms. Oliver. You really, really, really do not have to be good. Just do no harm, especially to your dear, imperfect self.
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.