The most important thing is that I feel good
If I could summarise my most common criticism about the people who are no longer in my life it would probably be their selfishness. Entitlement is a word I used to only use in a negative sense to describe someone who I believed was too stuck up their own ass and not sensitive to the needs around them. Nowadays, I find I’m more likely to call someone out if they’re too ‘selfless’ and I want to dig into where this shift in perception has come from.
Growing up ‘selfish’ was a dirty word reserved for bouts of road rage or a sibling who refused to share their toys. I quickly began to learn that in my family the opposite of ‘selflessness’ was the best way to get praise. From offering to help my brothers with their homework or letting someone else get a chance to score the winning goal to bottling my emotions in public places.
You see, my family ran on the principle that everyone must sacrifice their own desires in order to contribute to the collective good – I believe this is the premise of most ‘teams’. Phrases like ‘stop sitting on your bum’ or ‘stop pressing those pleasure buttons’ (this one’s important to clarify: my dad used this one when we were playing on electronics or what he called ‘metalies’). Put simply, we were mocked as kids for taking time for ourselves despite my parents expert ability at carving out time for themselves. For example, both of parents developed rituals to make sure they had at least an hour a day without kids. My dad would escape to his room to play guitar or read his book and my mom had yoga.
Now, don’t get me wrong I love giving: Christmas and birthdays are my favourite time of year to show love; on a daily basis I aim to let one person know how much I appreciate them; and, I’ve always been more comfortable giving than receiving advice. But, there’s a difference between giving from a place of self love and acceptance versus giving to earn love and acceptance. Throughout my teenage years, I had a very transactional nature to giving and by that I mean I would do something for someone else with high expectations about what I would receive. Be that lending friends money, offering my free time to partners or even doing the dishes.
Even if I didn’t consciously know it at the time, I was subconsciously keeping track of all the selflessness I was offering and making a note if I believe it was reciprocated. The best part: I would harbour any ‘unreciprocated’ giving passive aggressively and become embittered/twisted in the process. Without communicating how I was feeling I started to erode the foundations of relationships by making myself a victim. In reality, I was desperately seeking love and approval external to myself and nobody could live up to the expectations I was setting.
Recently, I was speaking to a good friend of mine (let’s call her Jasmine) who is incredibly generous and loves with her heart on her sleeve. She was going over the details of her break-up again. When I’m in a good frame of mind to listen without judgment I love to help friends work through their issues. I’ve learnt first-hand how lonely it can feel months after the relationship has ended when friends start to become dismissive. However, Jasmine added a new dynamic to her discussion of the break-up. She started listing all the things she’d done for him over the course of their relationship from lending him her laptop when his broke to inviting him to dinner with her family. I’m sure Jasmine hadn’t done any of these things at the time because of a transactional mentality, but now as she listed all of these acts of love she was trying to tally up why he shouldn’t have ended things with her. If this story sounds familiar, I know I’ve done this at least in my head at one time or another. In a way it’s an attempt to justify the injustice of the relationship ending when in reality none of these acts of kindness were done to ensure the relationship didn’t end – or were they?
Women, in my experience, are more likely to give ‘too’ much in their relationships and I don’t mean solely in romantic ones. Of course we do. We’ve been taught from a young age that our value lies in our service to others. Have you ever been to your grandparents for lunch and found yourself being asked to prepare and/or do all the tidying up? We can’t be so quick to forget hundreds of years of being expected to serve those around us. I get it, it feels good to be praised for what we do. I justify my generosity by the expectation of a gold star from an older family member or even my boss at work. It’s hard to break the cycle where women are supposed to bend over backwards to make sure everyone’s happy. You only need to think about the sick history around smiling to know that – oh yes, there were special treatments in psych wards for women who refused to bear their teeth.
The reason I mention this is because typically selfishness is applied to women more than men because we are expected to be selfless – where as a man gets praised for any acts of selflessness. Once again think back to the last time you were at a family gathering and one of your male cousins or brothers offered to share the work. ‘Wow, isn’t he such a good young man’, ‘what’s your secret in raising such a helpful young boy?’ versus expectant silence when the same tasks are completed by female family members.
Luckily, my immediate family was raised on the principles of equal workload gender wise and I’ve definitely heard the praise for my brothers when we’ve gone somewhere else for dinner. But, even so, my grandmother still expects me to do the vacuuming, ironing, laundry or cleaning rather than my equally capable siblings. It’s all well and good to look at the state of things with frustration and anger at how unfair everything is. I’ve been there and done that, but life’s too short to stay in that place. Instead, slowly but surely I’ve started reclaiming my entitlement.
You might’ve noticed a pattern in my writing whereby it has taken face-to-face contact with the opposite sex to trigger an awakening – fulfilling the stereotype here we go again. One of my boyfriends used to always joke that I was sixth on his priority list. Number one was sleep, number two was coffee, number three was food, number four was sports and number five was a shower. I laughed and silently became increasingly pissed off that I wasn’t his number one.
Given the benefit of hindsight I can now appreciate what he was talking about when he asserted these priorities above me – he was prioritising himself first. He had determined these were his basic human needs to function at an appropriate level and everything else would have to wait. What I used to begrudgingly refer to as his selfishness was actually the essentials of human functioning that I wasn’t prioritising myself. In fact, if I was to do a similar list of Sam at the time it would’ve looked something like this: number one was food, number two was him and after that was studying, exercise, sleep, looking after myself etc. Thankfully, I was always able to prioritise food because he was such an avid eater, but it worries me to think whether I would’ve compromised on that too. I’ve definitely seen friends of mine with verbally abusive partners who have developed disordered eating. The best part about this boyfriend putting himself first was that whenever I’d spend time with him I knew it was because he was in a good headspace and wanted to. By contrast, my moods varied so much because I wasn’t looking after myself first.
Nowadays, here are the prioritise I place above everybody else including friends, partners and family – I’d only compromise these for a new baby and/or puppy dog:
1) Mental Health ie that I feel good
9) Comfortable living space
14) Physical appearance stuff like haircuts etc
… you get the idea. Basically, at the age of 22 I’ve started taking ownership of myself as my top priority. Not only, has this meant I’m the healthiest I’ve been in a long time. But, so far I’ve found dating new people that I’m happier and more fulfilled because I don’t need them. They are just a happy bonus.
Nobody in my life benefits from me if I’m not feeling good. I truly believe that our sole purpose in life is to look after ourselves and it is from that place of putting yourself first and treating yourself like the precious being you are that everything else flows. I take this very seriously from turning up to work late if I need longer in meditation or more sleep to letting deadlines roll past if I’m not feeling mentally okay. I no longer feel guilty about taking up this space in my life.
Returning back to the examples of my previous self, in family settings I’m now more than happy to help out in the kitchen or pop over to Tescos but only after I’ve taken time for myself in the morning. All my friends and family know that in the afternoon I need time to ‘lay on my back’ or my version of recharging by watching tv, reading an article or napping. Sleep time is sacred and to all of my priorities money is no operative. Taking up Jasmine’s transactional relationship story again, I no longer feel ‘taken advantage of’ by anyone because I never give with an expectation of receiving.
I believe this is an attitude more of us could adopt and the reason why this currently isn’t the norm in the Western world is because too many people continue to offer the parts of themselves we shouldn’t. Although I used to find it re-assuring, now when someone I’m working on a project with acts me if I’m sure I can commit I find it insulting – I would never commit to something if I didn’t want to or couldn’t. What I’m finding by making sure I feel good above all is that everyone in my life benefits and the time taken looking after myself is well worth it for the good it brings. Don’t be a martyr. Stop giving to fill a whole of self unworthiness. Start loving yourself and treating yourself the best you can, so that everything else can fall into place.
All my love, Sam