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  • Writer's pictureSamantha Wallace, re-mom Founder

Are You Selfish? (I hope so).

The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is something for myself. I meditate, or work out, or start creating content for my business. I've put myself first for a very long time now (thank you, therapy!), that it has become second nature to me to fulfill my needs first and foremost.

Until recently, for my birthday, when I received a beautifully well thought out and carefully selected piece of jewelry that just....wasn't me. And so I wanted to exchange it. After sharing this, someone asked, "Will 'Gift Giver's' feelings be hurt?" to which I responded, "Maybe, but it would mean more to me if I could wear something everyday and think about them, instead of once in a blue moon out of obligation". It took me a few days to get over the foreign sensation of selfishness before I mustered up the courage to exchange the gift - which I eventually did. But the story doesn't end there. The few days it took me to get to that point of making the exchange for something more meaningful to me involved a thought process that I hadn't gone through in quite some time, and it sparked a few really interesting conversations over the days that followed. Mostly, because I needed help processing why all of a sudden I felt so guilty for doing something for no other reason than because it's what I wanted.

I needed help processing why all of a sudden I felt so guilty for doing something for no other reason than because it's what I wanted.

Selfishness is a topic that comes up with almost every mother I work with. It is typically not in our nature to put ourselves first. Whether it's cultural, societal or familial expectations, or gender-based norms, women traditionally have been relegated to duties of service. Service to our spouses, to our homes, to our children, at work (think of the receptionists and Executive Assistants you know. How many are men?) - service to everyone but ourselves. No wonder we feel selfish and suffer from "mom guilt"when we put ourselves first. Sometimes, we're labelled as "narcissists", "greedy", or "bad moms" because we are operating against the expected proverbial grain. In exploring why just recently I was thrown back into old patterns of said guilt and shame, I did some reflecting.

Considering the big picture, Dr. Ramani Durvasula explains it beautifully in a podcast episode with Andre Dugum when discussing narcissism. I paraphrase here, but how she explains feelings of selfishness is that it is attributed to collective expectation (think: family history and structures, cultural expectations, societal expectations). Because a collective that you are raised in or are operating in has a set belief system, it reduces individuation or the development of an individual identity. Essentially, your surroundings (the collective) dictate who you are, and how you are to be. So, when you do build your own identity and begin doing things your way, you feel selfish. Cue the lightbulb: when you think of this definition of selfishness through the lens of motherhood, it is crystal clear why putting ourselves first not only feels like we're betraying the culture of motherhood (hello martyrdom, "doing it all for the kids", default parenting, sacrifice), but we are riddled with guilt because it's not what we're supposed to do. Inherently though, all you are doing is expressing yourself as you...and not as others expect you to be.

...your surroundings (the collective) dictate who you are, and how you are to be. So, when you do build your own identity and begin doing things your way, you feel selfish.

If we keep going down this vein, we can also start to see that the very term "selfish" itself is a judgement on how we position ourselves against an expectation. Merriam Webster defines selfish as, "Concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others". Isolating the definition from judgement, what exactly is the problem here? Is there something inherently wrong with putting oneself first without regard for others? Must we always regard others?

Some may argue that yes, we must. I agree that there are situations where we should take into consideration the well-being of others when making decisions for oneself. But... "regard"doesn't imply well-being. So if we're mincing words here, I'd happily argue for the stance that I don't have to regard others when doing what I long as I'm not hurting anyone. In a nutshell, I don't see how others' expectations are any more important than that of my own.

Below are some points to consider when those hideous feelings of guilt pop up as a result of the "martyr mother" persona whispering in your ear:

  1. We've all heard that saying that we need to fill our cups, as we can't pour from an empty cup. It's a great metaphor, and it makes sense...but what I would encourage you to consider is the cup itself. Is your cup shaped the way others expect it to be? Is it as deep (or shallow!) as you've been conditioned to think is acceptable? How do you know what to fill it with? What's your minimum content threshold before you fill it back up again? Do you know these things about yourself, to be able to truly put yourself first and foremost?

  2. If you feel selfish for doing something, explore the feeling. What's triggering the selfish thoughts? And in answering this question, do the words "should/shouldn't" pop up? If so - that's a flag to explore further around where your ideas of what's acceptable for you are rooted in.

  3. If you feel "mom guilt" for doing something, ask yourself, "would a dad/non-mother feel bad about doing this?". Whether the answer is yes or no, the point is to consider whether you are buying into the "martyr mother/default parent" trope or not and make a decision on how to proceed based on that - and not based on the guilt.

  4. Give yourself permission to challenge whatever answers you come up with for the above questions.

A few years ago, I would have felt incredibly icky for uttering these words "out loud". I would have thought to myself, "Doesn't it make me seem rude, careless, narcissistic to just do what I want?". If that's what you're thinking, then I would suggest one of two things:

  1. Be more selfish and try it for yourself before you judge. You just might like it. ("it" = empowerment, individuality, integrity to your values, living life on your terms...the list goes on)

  2. If you don't do what you want, who will?

When I exchanged the gift, I went through the rollercoaster of emotions as a result of asking myself some of these questions. I even went as far as considering not exchanging the gift because "what would the sales person think?" - HA! How silly to have someone else's judgement of me trump what I want. This, my friends, is what this is all about. We cannot make ourselves small for the comfort of others' expectations of us. Including our Gift Givers.

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