Progress Not Perfection

My journey to heal depression, anxiety, and OCD

It's OK To Be Selfish

Learning to take care of myself before giving to others

Airplane oxygen mask
I recently heard someone say that when you feel like you are lacking, you should give to others. This is a spiritual principle that gets tossed around a lot, the logic being that it sends the message to the Universe that you believe in abundance rather than scarcity, and therefore sets you up to receive future abundance. And sure, it can feel good to give, and sometimes even make you feel more plentiful. But if you have a history of codependency and a pattern of self-sacrificing behavior, like, for instance, I do, then this is very, very bad advice to follow.

I'm a nice person (but I'm working on being less nice), so people ask me for things a lot. And regardless of how outrageous the request is or how busy I am, just by the mere fact that it has been asked of me, I immediately feel obligated to drop everything and do it. This comes at the high price of my own depletion and self-neglect, though.

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A few years ago, I got an email from a casual acquaintance thanking me for the apartment hunting pep talk I gave her, because she got an amazing apartment right away. Shortly thereafter, I received an email from another person I barely knew, thanking me for encouraging to her to do online dating, because she immediately met a wonderful man and had just gotten engaged.

Staring at her emaiI I thought, Great! I'm so glad I could help YOU! I hated online dating and had had mostly nothing but horrible dates from it, but in my compulsive need to be positive and help, I'd touted the virtues of it to her. Now she was engaged, while I was perpetually single. And I'd helped an almost-stranger get a new apartment, while I'd been living in a small studio for years, dreaming of a brownstone floor-through, or at least a cozy one-bedroom. I felt angry and resentful, and then I saw that the reason their happiness was so painful to me was that I'd helped them in ways I was not helping myself.

People from friends to strangers ask me for things from career assistance to help with apartment searches. Sometimes these requests would take a lot of time and research, and it's clear that I'm too busy to be able to do this. But other times, I know the answer or information off the top of my head, and it would be easy to respond and take only a few minutes tops. But I still don't want to do it, and feel a strong resistance to helping them. I didn't understand why, until it occurred to me that regardless of how seemingly quick or simple the request appeared to be, there was an energetic cost that was much greater. This was usually because they wanted help in one of those areas where I was neglecting myself, and to give to them would result in my own depletion.

There's another spiritual principle, the Airplane Oxygen Mask Theory, that encourages taking care of yourself first before you can give to others. One of my favorite quotes is by Greg Gumucio, the founder of Yoga to the People, who said, "I want you to be really, really selfish. The more selfish and nurturing you can be for yourself, the by-product for those that you love or work that you do is greatly enhanced."

When you feel like you are lacking, the answer is not always to give to others to affirm your trust in abundance. Often, the best thing you could possibly do for yourself when you are depleted, is to be selfish. The point is not to do this so you never help others; the point it to give to yourself first so that you are able to help others. Not out of obligation or resentment or a forced belief in abundance, but from a true spirit of generosity.

I am going through a phase where my foundation is shaky, and I have to be rigorously selfish and get myself stabilized before I can assist others. Thinking about how one of my primary motivations is helping people, I was trying to reconcile how my I Don't Help Anyone policy fit into this. And then I realized that I can be of the most service to the most people if I am rested and nurtured enough to use to my gifts and talents, and not run ragged responding to every single apartment-hunting or career-related favor that crosses my Inbox. Since I don't think that my main talents are Real Estate and Human Resources, when someone asks for this kind of help and I'm feeling run-down and depleted and like I've been neglecting myself, I'm going to have to be selfish, and say no. I've got my hands full putting on my own oxygen mask right now.

 

Jennifer Garam is a Brooklyn-based writer, blogger, and teacher, and the founder of Writeous Chicks.

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