We’ve all been there, right? You’re walking down the street, or through the mall (do teens still hang out at malls?), or at the park talking about your friend’s ex-boyfriend or girlfriend or boss who has been less than kind lately, and your friend utters the cliche we all know and love: “You know her: always looking out for Number One.”
Ok, maybe I’m dating myself thinking that’s a common phrase, but either way, you’ve heard it before, right? We all know that those who put themselves in the #1 spot every day of their lives have a problem with being selfish and don’t spend enough time thinking about or helping others.
Wait, wait WAAAAAAAAIIIT!!!! Don’t go yet! Just hear me out first! This is very, very important because I think so many of us have been conditioned throughout our lives to always put others first, to forget yourself, to exist only for the good of others. And these are all great and wonderful sentiments! In theory, anyways. But they can cause a lot of confusion, as does this idea that putting yourself first is a self-absorbed way to live your life.
So let me see if I can clear this up. Now, I’m not a big fan of labels for myself or anyone else, but I do think it’s important for us, as we go about our lives, to make judgements about the acts or humaneness of others so as to help us decide what we want to choose for ourselves and what kind of people we want to be in our lives. The purpose is not deem a person “good” or “bad” or to pit ourselves as “better” or “worse”, but instead to simply and objectively say, “That thing that person did, or the person that human is seems selfish, so I don’t think I want to live my life that way, it doesn’t seem like it would benefit me as a person.” (I find it helpful to avoid “that person is selfish” and rather say “they seem selfish” because it reminds me that I don’t really know their circumstances).
So, with that in mind, I will openly acknowledge that I have known a lot of people throughout my life who seemed to live rather selfishly. Some of them have had a very drastic effect on me, and others have just made for good observable guinea pigs. Either way, I’ve tried to learn something from them. And this is what I’ve found:
I should probably remind you that I am not a psychologist or sociologist, or even anything cool like a Magician or a Lance Corporal. Nor do I really have any credential for anything related (though a certain affinity for card games has earned me the nickname ‘cobra’ – more on that later), so I am speaking very simply from careful observation and a [fairly obsessive] desire to understand.
Being selfish or self-absorbed has very little to do with putting yourself #1, and everything to do with how far beyond #1 you put #2 and #3.
I’m a visual person, so I’ll try to help illustrate this with a picture. Let’s say we’re looking at an “Importance Meter” where you’re ranking the people/things most important in your life. At the very top you have #1 followed by #2, #3, #4, etc. But in this case, there is no set distance between each number. So while #1 is always at the top, #2 can be halfway down the meter, a quarter of the way down, or even all the way at the bottom depending on how important your second priority is to you.
According to much of the common knowledge we’ve been taught, #1 should be everyone else at the top, and #2 – you – should be (depending on how much the “think of others before yourself” rhetoric has been drilled into you) halfway down, maybe even at the very bottom in some cases. Fantastic idea in theory; great way to overexert, exhaust, and depress yourself in practice. But wouldn’t the reverse – putting ourselves at #1 – make us incredibly self-absorbed and not concerned about others?
I often wonder who came up with that idea – maybe someone who was worried that if s/he taught people to put themselves first they would cease to serve him or her’s every whim? There’s the cynic in me for you. 🙂
It’s simply not true. BOTH selfish and unselfish people put themselves at the top in the #1 spot. The difference between a selfish and an unselfish person (assuming labels for simplicity’s sake) is that a selfish person puts #2 (typically family and friends) at the bottom of the meter, or maybe doesn’t even have any other numbers on the meter at all. An unselfish person, by contrast, puts #2 perhaps just inches below #1, or maybe even feet below at times when their individual health and sanity needs more attention than usual.
To be sure this idea makes sense, let’s look at it a couple of different ways to see if it justifies itself. There’s, of course, the most common justification I hear for putting yourself first which is that “if you don’t take care of yourself, how can you take care of anyone else?”. Which has some merit, but at the end of the day is kind of like saying “put yourself first so that you can put other people first” which is confusing and takes away from this incredibly valuable truth:
You are worth putting first.
Put yourself first simply because you deserve it. Because you are valuable, because you are worthy, because you are amazing. Put yourself first because no one in this world merits your love more than your own self.
If you’re anything like me, your brain fights you on this justification. It wants to step back and take a holistic viewpoint: isn’t everyone as valuable as me? Ok, let’s humor that side of us. If you’re looking at it from an outer space view of the whole world, yes, every person is equally valuable. But even in this paradigm, it does you no service to value others over you because you are the only one you have control over. You are the only one you can truly nurture, love, and embrace and KNOW that it makes a difference and brings value in your life. Yes, please, absolutely keep your loved ones very close to the top; there will be times when their needs take over and you have to give unrequitedly for a while. But always, always return vehemently to the respite that is the caring and nurturing of yourself. Maintain it as often as you can without letting your loved ones slip too far down the meter.
The ironic thing is that, by doing this, you will inevitably teach others to do the same. Prioritizing yourself and your physical and mental health makes the world a better place, and more importantly, you a better person.
It makes you more Real.
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