learning the words: selfish


Today’s guest post is from Cassidy, who dissects different ideas embedded in Christian fundamentalist culture at Roll to Disbelieve. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

I grew up Catholic, and there’s not a word more hated and feared in Catholicism as much as these two syllables: “selfish.” Every story I ever heard as a child drilled down on “selflessness” and “sacrifice,” especially for women. Every family value centered on sacrificing my own needs to advance the whole. I didn’t even question this virtue.

I converted to Protestantism in my teens, working my way through denominations till I reached fundamentalism, and in fundamentalism I learned entirely new reasons to hate and fear selfishness. The rigid gender roles and bizarre hierarchical system I was taught depended upon ignoring my own needs to meet the needs of those around me– especially my husband. This image of “selflessness” dominated what women in my church were taught– always, always, we were to give way to others. This was how we were told we could serve our god, and how we would build happy homes and marriages. That it felt so distinctly abusive and did not seem to be working in our home lives the way we’d been promised it would? That was our fault too. We just needed to be less selfish.

Even after leaving my husband and Christianity, “selfish” was still a word I feared. I couldn’t just want something for myself, I had to be able to justify it. I couldn’t even say “no” unless I had a really good excuse. I couldn’t just not want to have kids. I had to have some very good excuse for not wanting kids–to “purchase” my right to not have children with how much I was contributing to society and how much I really loved children deep down. I couldn’t even just not be a Christian–most Christians seem to think that ex-Christians left because of “selfishness,” and I’ve certainly been accused of it more times than I can count.

You can probably guess that even after leaving the religion, my relationships were in shambles. I lacked any concept of boundaries. As a Christian I’d been taught that couples were “one flesh,” so boundaries were considered quite selfish. That’s some hard indoctrination to lose! My next partner, who wasn’t even a Christian, quickly discovered that accusations of selfishness worked marvelously well to keep me in line.

One day I realized that these accusations of “selfishness” he was always lobbing at me were over perfectly reasonable needs. I was “selfish” to refuse to give him more drug and booze money, or to refuse to do all the housework and work full-time besides, or to demand respect and courtesy. I was so very, very selfish.

I began to look back at all the other times I’d been accused of selfishness. Without hardly any exceptions, these accusations were hurled over similar concerns. It wasn’t “selfish” to not want kids. It was what I needed to do with my life to be an authentic and happy person. It wasn’t “selfish” to want to study what I studied in school, or to get a divorce from my overbearing, stalking, abusive preacher ex-husband, or to demand my partner share equally in the housework if we were both working full-time, or to leave a religion that had proven downright toxic to my mental and emotional health.

I began to see these accusations of selfishness in a much larger context–in the context of “what makes accusers really uncomfortable with what my refusal means.” I began to realize that it was the people who lobbed these accusations that stood to gain by my acquiescence. I began to notice that these accusations often got flung in absence of what was good for me as a person, but that they were often the things that would allow the accusers to maintain their dominance. It seemed a little odd that these accusations seemed to be used in a way that strong-armed me–that once someone had said the magic S-word, all discussion stopped. But wouldn’t it seem like the folks who are getting their way are really the selfish ones in these situations? Who’s really selfish, the person being cowed and forced into line, or the person who gets to declare by fiat who is and isn’t selfish, who gets to make another person’s most private decisions?

I began to realize that the decisions they labeled “selfish” were decisions that challenged my accusers on a number of levels. Thus, I had to be silenced.

I still remember the day I realized I didn’t have to “purchase” my personal decisions or convince anybody of their validity. I didn’t have to talk someone into accepting my personal decisions. That day, I learned to separate out my needs from those of my group. I remember realizing that it was hugely suspicious that what my accusers thought was “selfish” was really just me doing or saying something that made their privilege look too obvious or too negative.

The journey began with a single step: the first “no.” The first refusal. The first insistence on boundaries… and it got easier every time. Now, it’s second nature.

I know now that “selfishness”—as defined by fundamentalists– is actually a healthy trait. I do not fear it or the accusation of it. I know that each one of us must balance our own needs with that of society and decide what we need for ourselves to be healthy and happy–and that it’s not “selfish” at all to make those sorts of decisions. I’ve learned how to separate out “stuff that impacts others and thus deserves consideration” and “stuff that doesn’t impact anybody but me and therefore it doesn’t matter what others think of my decision either way.”

I know that it’s okay to do things for myself. I know it’s fine to say “no” if acquiescing would make me feel overextended. I know that boundaries are a very healthy thing in relationships and that over-enmeshment (and the contempt that it breeds) is the real enemy. I know that sometimes we have to limit what we give of ourselves so we can maintain our sanity. If group unity depends upon me being abused or feeling over-extended or harmed, then maybe the group is the problem–not me.

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  • Gary Eddy

    This what I was taught (I thought) when I was a Catholic. I thought I was selfish, that God must have made me flawed. What I learned later after I left the church was it was partly me hearing things wrong and partly parental upbringing being overbearing. The church I go to now talks and teaches having boundaries and learning to selfless in a healthily way. As for husbands & men taking advantage of their “supposed” headmaster role. These preachers and men haven’t read their bibles very well and are taking one verse in Ephesians without reading the whole chapter. But what else is new. People have been using what they “know” God wants to get their way for centuries. I think the selfish ones were not you but the men in your life.

  • I landed in a discussion with someone the other day that ended with them telling me that “I don’t want to” isn’t a valid enough reason to not want children — it’s just a selfish one. Sometimes “I don’t want to” is the MOST valid reason to do something, because doing big something like that despite not wanting to does NOT lead to positive, happy results. It’s not good for you OR for the people you’re “sacrificing” for.

    • SunnySide

      The definition of selfish is a lack of consideration toward others. Yes, so selfish to…not want to care for an imaginary person? An imaginary person whose existence is at the whim of sperm, egg, when and if they meet, implantation, carrying to term, etc? You know, a totally non-existent person who could maybe happen if you decide to make them happen and the process actually happens and completes. That totally abstract potential person must be considered!

      The non-parents-are-selfish thing makes absolutely zero sense to me. It’s pretty crappy to have a kid and not care for it; that could be called selfish (but not really, it’s more accurately called neglectful, abusive).

      Not having a child is a decision I make for myself, apparently that can be called selfish (but who else would I make it for when I’m the only one who exists? I sincerely want to know). Considering reality and the definition of the word, that’s not any more selfish than picking a major or deciding to move/not move for a job.

      • sunnyside

        Lol, a nerve was hit. When I’m less PO’ed, I say that it’s quite selfless of me to not have a child according to whim or external pressure and instead consider our lack of time, financial stability, and desire to procreate at this point. The abstract potential person is best served not being raised by stressed out, somewhat-apathetic-in-regard to children parents.

  • “Selfish” is definitely used as a conversation stopper, just the way “godly” and “Biblical” are. Learning to set unpopular boundaries in relationships was an uncomfortable process for me too, but worth the trouble.

    • Gram Pol

      And “bitter!” Don’t forget “bitter!”

  • I was just listening to a webinar at work today on stress and adrenal fatigue. A study was done on several men with HIV. These men had identical blood test results, taking identical medications, yet half of the mens’ health was failing terribly despite treatments and the others’ were thriving and doing well. They wondered why and gave them a survey. All the answers on the survey were identical except one: “Are you able to say no to favors.” The men who said no, were the ones who weren’t thriving. Their stress levels and responses were poor. The others who were able to say yes had the ability to say no, set boundaries and take time to care and nurture themselves FIRST. Here’s the deal…the human species was not made for absolute selflessness. It is unnatural and very unhealthy for us. We have to have the ability (we need to teach our children this too) to say no, to take time for “me time” and self nurturing. This idea of Godly selflessness is a disease promoting ideology that is making us sick. I can’t help but think that IF there is a “loving” god out there, then he/she would want us to take care of the “vessel” he/she bestowed upon us.

  • I think this is related to “self esteem,” which also gets a bad rap in conservative circles.

  • Zoe

    Thanks for writing this. I’m on this exact same journey, not as far along the road as you. It’s not second nature for me and it may never be, but I’m working on it every day.

  • Everyone must find what’s comfortable for them between empathy and apathy, selflessness and selfishness, saint and sociopath. This is the soul, where each person resides between spirit and flesh. Freud used Greek words for this: Super Ego, Ego and Id. All of life is a balance in this matter. I’m impressed with the struggle the commenters are having sociopaths don’t trouble themselves with thoughts like these.

  • Carol

    Thanks for this post! It is sort of insidious how “selfish” becomes “making ANY decision in your own interest” instead of a decision that hurts or harms someone else.

    A lack of boundaries and guilt about being “selfish” are probably two of the most lingering effects of my former fundamentalism. It was harder to realize how unhealthy that is compared to some of the more obvious things. I have such a hard time saying “no” and feel like I always have to justify or “buy” my decisions, like you said. (Ugh, just recently I showed this by getting talked into a store credit card that I have absolutely no interest in, because the salesperson kept countering my justifications for not wanting it!) Anyway, this post gave me some good insight and something to continue working on.

  • Pebbs

    Samantha, thank you so much for hosting this “Learning the Words” series. I’ve read through several and I never know what to comment, but each one is an insightful gem. I appreciate the articles and all the writers who are contributing to this.