In the recently released movie "Higher Ground," the heroine, a devout Christian, struggles with growing doubts as her close friend falls gravely ill, and her intellectual and sensual curiosities are repeatedly thwarted by a solemn marriage and the strict rules and narrow boundaries of her faith community. In one pivotal scene, a Christian counselor she has agreed to see at the request of her husband admonishes her with his most dire condemnation: "You are worshipping at the altar of yourself. "
My (admittedly anecdotal) observation from clinical work is that women in general, not just the religiously devout, are more vulnerable to an accusation of selfishness than are men. True, the impulse to care for and attend to others is not unique to women but rather appears to be a part of our species' genetic makeup. We are herd animals. Interdependency is one of our defining features. Alfred Adler famously defined psychopathology as the absence of he termed our ‘social interest,' an innate feature of our hardware that must nevertheless be nurtured and cultivated by family and society lest it shrivel like a seed in a harsh climate, leaving the individual stuck in a ‘misguided lifestyle'--selfish, scared, manipulative, and ultimately bereft of meaning and usefulness.
Nevertheless, the caring imperative--putting others before oneself--seems to be especially urgent and binding in the lives of women. A man will more easily shrug off an accusation of selfishness. After all, part of society's definition of manliness involves a striving toward self-enhancement, ambition, competition, and aggression. For women, an accusation of selfishness hits harder, since an ethos of caring is seen as a bedrock of the concept of femininity. The desire not to be seen as--and not to feel--selfish seems to motivate and shape the lives of women more than the lives of men.
This idea is not new. Years ago, for example, feminist scholar Carol Gilligan made a name for herself by advancing a variant of this very claim to explain gender differences in moral thinking. She was responding to the research of the cognitive theorist Lawrence Kohlberg, who, after arguing that moral reasoning advances through the years in stages--from immediate, selfish calculus to a focus on abstract ideals of justice--discovered that the uppermost echelon of his moral reasoning pyramid was populated mostly by males. To counter the implied conclusion that women are somehow less morally developed than men, Gilligan proposed instead that they were merely different. Women, she argued, experienced caring for everyone's needs as a higher moral imperative than adhering to abstract notions of justice. Thus the fact that they tended to cluster in Kohlberg's earlier ‘social contract' stage of moral reasoning showed not that they were morally inferior but that Kohlberg's thinking was male biased.
Generally, I think it's fairly safe to assert that the association between femaleness and nurturing, caring and consideration permeates our culture. A man can abandon his children with far less harm to his self-image and social standing than a woman. Think of the difference between the terms "fathering a child" (you're thinking: sperm donation), and "mothering a child" (you're thinking: raising, loving, and taking care of baby). I don't think a tune named "Mama was a Rolling Stone," however catchy, would have made it to the top of the charts.
Selfless caring, like everything else, may have both productive and counter-productive consequences. Certainly, adhering to a caring ethos has its benefits both for society and for the women who live unselfishly. Society benefits through increased hours of volunteering, community service, and unpaid care for children, spouse, parents, family and friends. (Interestingly, recent research has suggested that single people make a larger contribution to social good than married people.) But the women benefit as well: Women often exhibit superior resilience to men in stressful situations, such as divorce, in part because they more often have healthier social support networks. Research has shown that social connections are the most robust predictor of health and happiness.
On the other hand, it is important to note that, psychologically, a person's aversion to appearing or feeling selfish can be exploited by others for their own (selfish) ends. A genuinely caring and unselfish person can more easily be manipulated and controlled by a needy lover, parent, or child with the simple admonishment, "Not meeting my needs means you are being selfish." (Ironically, a truly selfish person doesn't care enough to be responsive to that kind of threat.) Thus the average woman, perhaps more than the average man, may need a reminder that when making complicated calculations involving the needs of others, she should give sufficient weight to what she needs and wants for herself. Taking your own needs and wants into consideration is not the same as selfishness.
The imperative to avoid being seen as selfish can--and often does, it seems to me--morph into a neglect of self-care. For many of my clients, any act of self-care is experienced as selfishness, and therefore superfluous or worse--morally bad or forbidden. The problem here is two-fold. First, the two concepts should not be confused. Self-care is not selfishness, just like assertion is not aggression. When I'm being assertive, I am insisting on my right to protect my sovereign borders. I say, ‘You cannot step on me.' When I'm being aggressive, I am looking to take over your territory; I am stepping on you.
The second, related problem is that a lack of self-care will lead ultimately to a failure of altruistic caring. Care for the caregiver is increasingly seen as necessary and important (see, for example, http://caringforthecaregiver.org/.) Years ago I used to work at a nursing home with dementia patients. I would often see patients with dementia who were cared for by a family member, usually their adult daughter. One of my first questions to the caregiver would be, "When did you last take a vacation?" The devoted caregivers often looked aghast, as if I was being cruel in suggesting that they could even contemplate taking a vacation when their parent so clearly needed so much help. But the question was not cruel; it was essential. "If you don't take steps to care for yourself," I would tell the caregiver, "you will soon burn out, and we'll have two people in need of care instead of one. What good will that do?"
My old mentor in Israel, the psychoanalyst Dov Peled, used to say, "You can't light a candle with an unlit candle." For all of us, but perhaps particularly for women, the caring and selflessness imperative should be balanced by an equally important habit of self-care.
Protecting and nurturing your own light isn't selfish, but rather it is necessary, particularly if you wish to share it.