By Jeffrey B. Rubin, Joel Kramer, Diana Alstad
“In the course of several campaigns,” notes former presidential candidate John Edwards, explaining his extramarital affair, “I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic.” He is not alone. From popular songs like Lil’ Jackie’s “I believe the world should revolve around me,” to people in power and celebrities who act as if it does, our overly individualistic culture has spawned narcissism, or excessive—and often callous—egocentrism.
Eliminating selfish behaviors is an important part of most religious ethics. Many religions assume that when human beings are left to their own devices, they will be destructively egotistical—even evil. In the face of this spiritual and religious teachings often recommend and promote selflessness. In Ethics for a New Millennium, for example, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, recommends that we put the other first as an antidote to the narcissism that haunts our world. In a similar vein, “we are accustomed in the Judeo-Christian tradition to believe that we should renounce the ego, sacrifice it, forsake it,” psychoanalyst Ann Ulanov writes in The Wisdom of the Psyche. “Anything less is thought to be selfish, if not downright evil.” Many people believe that to be self-centered is sinful and to be self-less is virtuous.
However, while self-centeredness is implicated in many of the world’s problems—including monumental greed and corruption and heart-breaking cruelty—trying to eliminate it completely is not only unrealistic, but destructive. A timely example of broader and current destructiveness: The selfless ideal can cause reactiveness of a “me-first” Ayn Rand variety in individuals and be polarizing culturally and politically.
Self-centeredness is actually necessary and healthy for a person’s development. While self-centeredness is one source of humanity’s greatest problems, concern with the self is also indispensable for intimacy and creative living, and central to artistic achievements and scientific discoveries, as I (JR) suggest in "The Art of Flourishing". And there are unacknowledged costs to religious/spiritual attempts to eradicate or renounce self-centeredness because it is an irreducible part of being human, as Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad illuminate in depth in "The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power".
In spiritual matters, as in real estate, hardly anyone trades down. The attempt among many spiritual practitioners to be selfless appears to be a wonderful cure for narcissism, but that very striving to do away with self-centeredness is actually self-interested—we do it partly because we think we’ll derive some personal benefit from it in the form of spiritual advancement or feeling better. Moreover, striving to be selfless is actually unhealthy for those people who all too easily put themselves last as a matter of course, or have trouble considering their own needs—a phenomenon I (JR) witness on a daily basis in my psychotherapy practice.
Trying to completely eliminate self-centered behavior often leads to greater self-deprivation and self-preoccupation. Just like concern for others, self-concern, self-protection, and self-esteem are indispensable for survival. They can’t—and shouldn’t—be purged. Rather, they must be balanced with care, altruism, and the needs of those who are dependent on us. We call this simultaneous attention to and respect for ourselves, and that which is outside us, doing self better.
We do self better when we embrace, instead of attempting to renounce, eliminate, or even minimize, our essential humanness, which includes the evolutionary need for self-protection and valuing and investing in ourselves. Then we can respond to our self-concern with awareness and wisdom—taking care of ourselves while remaining responsive to the world beyond us. From this perspective, altruism and self-care when done awarely, complement each other, enabling us to be open to others without forsaking ourselves.
Doing self better means being able to expand beyond—and periodically escape from—the suffocating grip of a conditioned, congealed, and cramped sense of self and connect with a fuller range of life. Many of us are trapped in a narrow identity. We search for our True Self—as if we have a singular essence—and deny our multidimensionality. We are also weighed down by our comparisons with others and our attempts to heal our injured pride and justify our ultimate worth. But we are more than who we think we are, or try to be. And it is possible to slip through the cracks of our habitual self and be less defensive and more receptive to the richness of existence. We can be open to the moment without a sense of time; un-self-conscious yet acutely aware; passionately engaged in living. Then we greet life with fewer preconceptions and agendas, avoidances and compulsive fixations.
When we do self better—cherish and nurture ourselves, empathize with and care for others (including those outside of our circle of family and friends), and relate to life more fluidly and less self-consciously—the experience of self is a home, not a battleground. Not only do we flourish, but we contribute to the enrichment of the world.