When I consider the words that we as a culture use to describe the relationships we have with ourselves, it strikes me that the language of selfhood is divisive and polarizing.
Some of the words of selfhood are damning, often used as highly charged criticisms that serve to diminish.
This especially occurs in families where getting one’s needs met is not valued.
For many adults who were raised in narcissistic households, “you’re so selfish” was a frequently heard criticism. When a child’s need conflicts with a narcissistic parent getting their own needs met, sparks can fly.
This is often how children begin to lose contact with their clarity about what they need, or their intuition about something feeling “off.” This is where co-dependency begins.
As adults, we need to take our autonomy back. To reclaim our power and to make choices based on our internal guidance system, not out of fear of someone else’s lashing out or punishing us through guilt or obligation.
“But, is it ok to be self-ish?”
This is a trick question. It all depends on how you define “selfish.” Here’s how Webster does it:
Selfish 1 : concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others. 2 : arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others
What I propose is a redefining and rebranding of “selfish,” one that puts the value of having a self and, yes, even putting the needs of that self at the forefront in a positive light.
The aim is not to think of oneself exclusively, at the expense of others, but to view the value of having a self, and practice of tending to that self, as an acceptable and shared value. I’d like this to be a community-endorsed trait. We all are looking after ourselves and that doesn’t make any of us bad people.
Self-exploration is an individual process with universal themes. We all must find our own way home to the center of our individual selves; to learn what we love, what inspires us, and what keeps us rooted as we move through the world. If we were all engaged in that process of self-inquiry and self-care I think we’d have a much more peaceful world to coexist in.
As a therapist and as someone who has had my own experiences with anxiety and depression, I’d say that Gulman nails it with his descriptions of both. He deftly brings humor and levity to the most serious of topics: that depression in extreme cases ultimately leads to suicide.
Gulman ends up back at his childhood home with his mother after a particularly pernicious episode with depression that zapped his ability to seek out a new apartment in NYC after his lease came to an end. He talks about how his depression started in childhood and explores his young life as the only child of a single mother growing up in Massachusetts.
The disparity between his own experience and his mother’s recollections are stark and, by today’s standards, of concern. His mother refutes any suffering on Gary’s part, emphasizing how his annual school photos portray “such a happy boy.”
One illustration he used highlighted the difference in the internal thought process between not being depressed and being in the thoes of depression. While a depression-less state allows us to smile at a beautiful sunset, depression can cause us to project our own misery onto the sun with thoughts like “yeah, you’re giving up too, I don’t blame you.”
Gulman talks about his long journey with medications and his rationale for taking them is compelling: any side effect is better than the crippling effects of major depression.
Braving the murky territory of psych-wards and electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), Gulman speaks to his own experience and skillfully normalizes and de-stigmatizes both.
He also confesses to attending years of therapy and how he feels it has benefitted him. He articulates his struggles sharing with friends and colleagues his own mental health challenges for fear that it would make them uncomfortable. This is both relatable and unfortunate.
What I love most about this piece of work and admire about Gulman is his vulnerability in pushing this conversation about mental health further forward. So many creative people in the arts deal with mental health challenges and often we find out about it too late.
Let’s keep talking about it. Mental health awareness matters.
So often in life we find ourselves in periods of reflection. Looking back, we contemplate our successes and failures in various aspects of our lives. When we do this, we open the door to the feeling that we’re coming up short; we’re not measuring up to our own standards.
Holiday time can often be a time of such reflection. As the year draws to a close, we often reflect on what we’ve accomplished in the past year, and what we haven’t. Birthdays are another time of year (particularly big, round numbered birthdays) when we may look back with a critical eye, tending to emphasize what hasn’t been done yet, instead of what has. We begin to measure our selves and our lives to discern: am I living up to my own standards?
Standards are so important. They weave their way through our lives in so many ways. We have standards of care and love in our intimate relationships, standards of professional conduct in the workplace and standards we set for ourselves in terms of life goals. When these standards aren’t achieved, evaluating what need has gone unmet and working toward resolution through effective communication, sharing expectations, and reevaluation of what may be possible are all ways to restore balance.
One question I love to ask when discussing the idea of personal standards is “What’s Your Metric?” What exactly are your expectations of yourself? In response, most people’s eyes widen and they smile a bit before they say “Hmmm, goooood question….”
What typically follows is a dialogue in which people realize that they’ve never really thought about this imaginary ruler they regularly use to “whip themselves into shape.” When we tease out the actual values that underlie their desires, we often find that they aren’t really so far off track, after all.
Once there is clarity about actual expectations, we can talk about the likelihood of accomplishing the task or living up to the ideal, and prioritize from there.
So, if you find yourself feeling deflated, berating yourself, or generally getting down about what hasn’t been done this year, I invite you to really consider what’s your metric? Are you regularly expecting to execute Herculean feats or reach perfection? If so, perhaps it’s time to reassess.
In my psychotherapy practice, I often hear clients express their deepest longings and fears:
“I’m afraid that I am incapable of creating meaningful connections in my life. I don’t want to have to say what I really feel.”
“I’m afraid if I try to express my true needs and hurts to my partner, I will lose her, and the grass will not be greener on the other side.”
“What if I ask for what I want in my relationship and he laughs at me or gets mad about my requests? Isn’t having needs selfish?”
Sometimes, I hear confessions about the heart of the matter:
“I’m afraid to be vulnerable. It’s scary.”
From my vantage point, my perch on my comfy blue therapist’s chair, I can easily see the beauty and possibility in what the world and these challenging relationships are offering my clients: an opportunity to be courageous, to transcend their fear and grow into a larger, more expanded version of themselves, to connect more intimately to the people they care about. The therapist in me occasionally even gets excited at the prospect. “Awesome! Let’s go! Let’s have that hard conversation! You got this!” Part of that optimistic perspective comes from the inspiration of great teachers, such as Brené Brown, and the author Anaïs Nin, one of my favorites, who said:
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
Another piece of that mindset comes from having taken some of those risks myself in the past and finding myself supported, held and heard by generous, open-hearted souls who were willing to put their egos, assumptions, and self-righteousness aside to bear witness to my expressed needs, fears, or grief. Other life situations have found me with thoughtful, kind and understanding people who have taken my sensitivity into consideration and used diplomacy when offering important feedback about a possible blind-spot. These experiences have been some of the most profoundly healing and heartfelt experiences of my life. It is because of the tremendous gift of connection I received from them that I have become an advocate and defender of vulnerability. I champion its cause whenever I can.
But from my seat, I sometimes forget how different the subjective experience of vulnerability, especially vulnerability ‘gone wrong’ can be. I forget the fact that not every experience of vulnerability is of the Brené Brown variety: an expression of strength and courage in the service of connection and growth. I forget the more common definition of vulnerability:
Exposure to an attack. That’s the actual definition.
An emotional attack can be absolutely brutal, the wounds often lasting much longer than those received in a physical attack. Especially for individuals who have a history of emotional abuse or neglect, a criticism received in an emotional state of exposure can trigger a succession of negative memories and core beliefs and can very easily lead to feelings of worthlessness, self-blame and self-doubt. It can spiral into a loss of confidence, debilitating self-criticism and depression. In extreme cases, it may lead to self-harm or acts of aggression toward others.
Being vulnerable can be really painful.
As an adult, I have been able to create the best possible conditions in my life. I choose carefully the people and places that feel safe enough to express my vulnerability. But just like everyone, I am occasionally caught off guard. When I have an experience in my life now of feeling caught unprotected, subjected to someone else’s judgment, lack of care or outright personal attack, I am jolted into that pain of feeling deeply hurt. It can be a harsh reminder that those experiences do exist, and can happen quite often depending on how powerless, sensitive, or open an individual is. Being vulnerable can be scary, and therefore it’s not something that we always choose nor should we.
So how do we walk that line… wanting connection but fearing reproach…? Living in a way that is hyper-vigilant, always being on-guard for potential dangers and staying away from relationships altogether for fear that we may become re-wounded hardly makes for a life of joy, spontaneity or connection. Unfortunately, we can not plan for blind spots. Being caught-off guard by someone we thought would be safe will happen to us all.
So what’s a human who recognizes both the pain and power of vulnerability to do? Here are a few ideas:
When getting to know someone new: Use the Share/Check method in conversation.
Share some information, perhaps a more superficial bit of information about yourself or your experiences, and then pause, and check in with the other person: what did they hear of what you said? How closely were they listening? Do they seem considerate? Sensitive to your needs? Deepen the level of emotional intimacy and sharing only when you’ve come to trust that what you share will be held with kindness and respect.
Reduce your exposure to insensitive, offensive or otherwise unsafe people.
This sounds simple, but it isn’t always easy. Especially when the people who are closest to us, our family members, are those most guilty of these betrayals of the heart. If you are struggling with how to maintain a connection that feels toxic, unhealthy, or hurtful, reach out to a professional for help and explore for yourself where you can safely draw some boundary lines to prevent further hurts.
When you’re caught off guard by a real or perceived attack: Practice Self Compassion
When someone responds to your opening your doors to them, your sharing your world, with condemnation or judgment, remember your own inherent goodness. Repeating the mantra ‘I’m doing the best that I can” in a kind, gentle voice as you breathe can provide some soothing, some recollection that you are indeed worthwhile, your intentions are good, and that even through this tough experience, you are growing in kindness and compassion.
In my private psychotherapy practice I often hear from clients about their fears of being alone. From my vantage point, I can see how those fears keep them stuck in unfulfilling relationships, prevent them from speaking the truth of what they need or want, and can ultimately lead to the feelings of impotence, powerlessness, or depression that often accompany not being seen or honored in relationship.
Being alone has it’s own challenges, just like being stuck in unsatisfying relationships does. In this video I discovered several years back, the brave poet/singer/songwriter Tanya Davis addresses some of the realities of living alone and offers insight on how to navigate singelehood.
I saw this great 2 minute video of a talk by Ira Glass, host and producer of the NPR show This American Life, about doing creative work recently. It really hit home with me, and living in Asheville, where there is such an abundance of creative people, I thought I would share his words of wisdom with this community!
Personally, I feel that any work that you do that you feel passionately about is creative work. We can approach any craft with vigor and ambition, whether it is producing purely for artistic expression, or working on building skill at our chosen profession.
His normalizing of the ups, downs, and curves in the road on the journey of improvement is refreshing and reassuring, my favorite aspect of this talk is his promotion of self compassion along the way!