I recently moved to Paris.
It was a very quick transition so I hadn’t had much time for goodbye-s or mental preparation. I left my friends, family and previous job behind within one week.
Getting a fresh start is bittersweet. It is painful, exciting, frightening, fun, and a great opportunity for reflection and self-evaluation. Once we got over the initial chaos of apartment searching and settling in, I often found myself thinking about my friends. What is important to me in a friendship? What qualities am I looking for in a friend? And now that I have the opportunity to meet new people, what traits should I work on that will help me become a better friend for others?
This is how I came to think about society’s infatuation with selflessness. We view it as a noble quality; a quality we should all aspire for. When someone is selfless, it means that they are concerned for the well-being of others. They give time, energy, love or wisdom, for the sake of giving and not because they expect anything in return.
But what happens when someone blends together selflessness and self-sacrifice?
This person, more often than not a ‘she’, will give you water sip by sip in the bathroom when you drank too much at the party, even though she wanted to go home hours before.
She will cancel her plans that she’s been looking forward to for days, just to be with you when you’re feeling lonely.
She will give you a ride to the dentist on the other side of town, even though she has an important exam to study for.
She will listen to you babble on about how your date went, even though she had a terrible day at work.
Of course, we have all been this person from time to time. We’ve all said yes when we really wanted to say no, we’ve all cancelled plans, we’ve all put other people’s needs before our own. I think a certain level of give and take is part of all relationships, let that be a friendly, romantic, or familial relationship. However, in today’s world of supermoms and constant social comparison, a lot of people have a compulsion to conform to society’s expectations, so they feel that prioritizing themselves in any situation would be selfish. They feel that demonstrating love and caring for others happens by making sacrifices.
But I wonder if it is possible to give without giving up? Am I selfish if I put myself first?
These questions reminded me of the well-known phrase we all hear whenever we fly (except if you’re like me and deliberately put in your earphones the second you see the stewardess standing awkwardly in the middle of the aisle with a lifejacket over their chest):
“If there is a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling above you. Put on your own mask first, before helping others.”
I think there is an important life lesson there, applicable to situations other than a crashing plane: You can only help others survive if you ensure your own survival first. And while everyday situations are most often not a matter of life and death, I think it is still important to make a distinction between selflessness and self-sacrifice.
I think selflessness is stopping to help someone with a flat tire. I think it’s sharing the last piece of cake when you could have eaten it alone. It’s giving your loved one a massage because you know it would make them happy, not because you want something in return.
However, if these selfless acts are constantly paired with sacrifices, they will quite literally lead to self-less-ness: a lost self.
If I continuously suppress my needs for other people’s happiness, I will feel depleted. If I put other people’s needs before my own need to be well-rested, to be cared for, to be listened to, to maintain a balanced diet, to relax, to have fun, to socialize, I will feel empty and used. It will drift me further and further away from my best self, and by the end, I sure as hell won’t have the energy to help anyone put on their oxygen mask and we’ll crash together.
Another danger of confusing selflessness with self-sacrifice is that if I constantly ignore my needs and cross my boundaries, I will soon begin to hold other people to the same standard. I will begin to expect, even if not consciously, that they also put themselves second. This will result in constant disappointment when people do not make the same sacrifices and I will feel resentful towards those who are able to keep to their boundaries.
So, no, I do not think putting yourself first is selfish. Quite the opposite. The more you are able to voice your needs, respect yourself, accept your limits and make space for your own wellbeing, the more space you’ll have to help others achieve the same.
Written by Lilla Varga.
Lilla is a counsellor and educational assistant based in Paris. She holds an MA in Psychological Counseling from Teachers College, Columbia University in New York. She is mainly interested in social relationships, challenging social norms, and societal expectations. In her free time, Lilla enjoys cooking, running, and going to experimental music festivals.
Illustrated by By Ugnė Petreikytė.