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Is Self-Determination Selfish?

Be who you want to be rather than who your family wants you to be.

“The more we plug in to what turns us on, the more of our light we can shine on those we love.” –Regena Thomashauer

Source: Selfish by Damian Gadal, C.C. by 2.0/Flickr
Source: Selfish by Damian Gadal, C.C. by 2.0/Flickr

Recently I gave a promotional talk at a local bookstore about my self-help book for adult children with problematic parents. Its subject is how to get invalidating, demanding, and/or critical parents to stop that behavior, which in turn feeds into the adult child's own problematic behavior. I discussed how getting their parents to stop the negative interactions allows people to then feel freer to follow their own muse, so to speak. The therapy-speak word for such self-determination is self-actualization.

Self-actualized people can focus on what they enjoy doing, choosing their own way in love, work and recreating, and having well thought out opinions about everything. They tend to be much more likely to realize their own potential, without sacrificing themselves completely in order to fulfill the desires of their families.

During the Q&A, someone from the audience asked me if self-actualizing in this way isn’t a selfish thing to do. Having heard a lot of objections to my views, and having written about how altruism can backfire and cause harm not only to the persons making certain types of sacrifices but also to the people they are trying to help (pathological altruism), I was still a bit taken aback by the question. Living life the way you want to might be considered selfish by some people?

Well, I suppose it is, but what’s wrong with that? The word selfish has a negative connotation. For every quality that human beings can possess, there is a word for that quality with a positive connotation and one with a negative connotation. Are you loyal or are you a bootlicker? In this case: Are you selfish, or are you free-spirited?

Self-actualizing hardly means that you won’t ever be willing to make some sacrifices to help or please other people, or compromise with others. What’s wrong with achieving some sort of balance between your own needs and those of others you care about? Surely, when someone gets married for instance, they can’t just do whatever the heck they want to whenever they want to. They have to take into consideration the needs and desires of their spouse. The paradox is that, if you are self-actualized, you do that because making your spouse happy is something that makes you happy. You aren’t doing it out of guilt or because you are intimidated, but out of love.

Having said that, making sacrifices for loved ones by trying to be something you are not is actually bad for relationships, not good. If a potential mate desperately needs something from you that does not under any circumstances feel right to you ever, that is a big red flag. It is a strong signal that you may need to find another relationship; it should in many cases be a deal-breaker. Otherwise, should you proceed and tie the knot, both of you will be utterly miserable in the long run.

Further complicating matters is that in most cases when your parents and the rest of your family seem to want you to be someone you are not, the messages they give you to do so are not at all clear-cut. Often the other family member needs you to do this in order to temporarily solve a conflict or ambivalent feeling towards some issue they have within themselves. This causes them to give out not a consistent or coherent message, but a double message. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Not only that, but your acting out in this situation will usually prevent constructive conversations which might actually solve a chronic problem. This is pathological altruism at its worst.