January 25, 2016 by Jean

Is this classic image from the psychology of perception an urn or two faces in profile? Both/and.
Twice in recent months, readers of this blog have left comments saying they felt guilty about choosing activities they enjoyed rather than those that would help others. This brought to mind the contrast between selfishness and selflessness that I learned as a child. Selfishness was sinful, looking out only for yourself and refusing to take others’ needs into consideration. Selflessness, putting others first, was the ultimate virtue – at least for girls.

In adulthood, I came to question this contrast. At some point, it occurred to me that another meaning of “selfless” was “having no self” or “lacking a sense of self,” which sounded more like a serious psychopathology than a virtue. I was in my mid-thirties when I had this thought and influenced, I think, by Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice (Harvard University Press, 1982), in which she argues that the most difficult moral lesson for women to learn is that in order to take care of others, you must take care of yourself. (You know, like the airline safety instruction to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs.)

This lesson was reinforced during the decades to come, when I taught Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. One of the fundamental principles taught in the introductory courses was to always ask if categories presented as either/or dichotomies could actually be both/and. Instead of seeing my choices as either looking out for my own enjoyment and happiness or doing things for others, is it possible that I can both make myself happy and help others?

As I try to figure out how I want to use my time in retirement, this is one of the principles I have been applying. I gave up my first volunteer activity (at the local food bank) when I realized that I was more often assigned a task that made me feel inept and bad about myself than the job that I originally volunteered for and enjoyed (see Kissing Volunteer Frogs). When I realized that I could contribute to the success of the local Senior College by volunteering to teach, it was a win-win. I could strengthen the Senior College program and enrich the lives of the adult learners who took my class while thoroughly enjoying myself. Not only did I get to use my well-honed teaching skills; I also grew as a teacher and improved those skills. When I asked my recently widowed neighbor to join me for dinner once a week, was I doing something for her or doing something for myself? Both/and. She gets a once-a-week dinner she doesn’t have to prepare at the end of a busy day, I get insurance against social isolation, and we both get an enjoyable evening and a deepening friendship. I’ve just been accepted to the Master Gardener volunteer training, which will both improve my gardening skills and lead to volunteer activities that I enjoy. My recent decision to join the Maine Music Society chorale (more about this in a later post) is something I’m doing strictly for my own enjoyment, but the existence of the chorale also enriches the cultural life of the community.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should never do something just for ourselves (I love pampering myself) or sacrifice to do something for others. Most of us sometimes do things we don’t want to do to meet the needs of friends and family. But these acts also include a measure of taking care of ourselves because they nourish relationships that enrich our lives. I expect that I will get called on by some groups I am part of to take on administrative tasks, which I don’t particularly enjoy. My organizational skills and take-charge tendencies mean that I have “committee chair” written all over me. I will probably say yes to some of these requests, as a way of supporting programs and organizations that are important to me. But I like to think I will draw the line at saying yes to taking on tasks that I struggle to get done or that leave me feeling stressed out.

My sense of self depends on making some contribution to a larger group, community, or society; but I think there are many ways to do so while also enjoying myself. At this stage of my life, my ongoing commitments and activities need to meet that both/and criterion.

15 thoughts on “Selfishness/Selflessness

  1. Carole says:

    Thanks Jean. This is a great post. You have helped me to put all of this into a slightly different perspective. I certainly have struggled a bit over the years, between meeting my own needs versus meeting other’s needs. I think it takes a conscious effort, at least on my part, to not feel guilty about meeting our own needs, as well as others. I like the concept of it can be and/both.

    I think I would have really enjoyed taking your class Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

    Society certainly has contributed to this notion of women being selfless, especially in years past. In teaching, did you find a generational difference?

    Love your blog! Today’s post really touched me, and I think will help me as a work to balance between family/community obligations and meeting my own needs.

    • Jean says:

      Carole, Thanks for your kind words. I think it takes quite a bit of work to overcome that message that taking care of yourself and taking care of others are diametrically opposed categories. The question of whether young women are less likely to have gotten this message is an interesting one.

  2. sfrussell49 says:

    Just started reading your blog today (because of a shout-out by Charlie Emmons!), and I’m looking forward to catching up. I have often thought of the “put on your own mask first” as a metaphor–even thought of writing a book for parents with that title! (Didn’t get past the great title, though!!) We miss you! Take care!!

    • Jean says:

      Susan, It’s great to hear from you. Charlie is my #1 blog fan 🙂 and I can thank him for having steered many readers in this direction. Maybe after you retire, you’ll have time to write that book for parents!

  3. Jean R. says:

    I struggle with thoughts of selfishness. I did a year of volunteering at a small town local museum, hoping to make some friends but that didn’t work out as everyone there was in a close circle of people who’d known each other since grade school. I felt like such an outsider. I read the “volunteers wanted” in the paper from time to time but nothing grabs me.

    When my husband was alive I spent a lot of hours and a lot of years volunteering on a large support site for stroke survivors, even worked my way up to a seat on the board of directors and being in charge of training and overseeing other volunteers. I could go back to that as a mentor but the more I gave the more they wanted from me and I seriously burned out. But I’m proud of the fact that I did some seriously good work there.

    Now, at the senior hall I say yes whenever I’m asked to help on projects and committees during the spring, summer and fall but I turn down requests during the winter. I tell myself it’s because I don’t want to let them down should I have to cancel if the roads are bad but we all drive those same roads and others do show up to serve the coffee, set the tables, decorate, etc., etc. I had my fill of having no choice about driving bad roads when I plowed snow and I don’t want to do it anymore even though I’m very skilled at driving in bad weather.

    I honestly don’t know very many women who don’t struggle with this issue of doing for others vs. doing for ourselves. Women just accept that being over scheduled is the norm and we can always find time to do one more task for someone else. It feels sometimes like I’ve had myself on hold for a very long time and now it’s time for me to be number one. I just have to learn to do it without the guilt. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, How about expanding your definition of doing things for others beyond volunteer work? Take your blog as an example. I know it’s something you write primarily for yourself, but how many widows do you think you have helped in making that difficult transition? (I know I have recommended your blog to several recently widowed women.).

      • Jean R. says:

        Funny you should mention this! This same line of thought fleeted through my mind just a few days ago and I think it’s worth deeper thought on my part. Thanks for the validation.

  4. Charlie Emmons says:

    Jean, I think this is a great piece. It reminds me of the literature on altruism (is there any such thing) and of the social psychological and neurological literature on how humans are dependent upon other people. In my case, although I didn’t have the socialization to being a “nurturing female”, I am very empathic about others (including nonhuman animals). I have felt guilty about not volunteering and supporting others enough financially (although what I do might be more than most people do). I have settled on the idea of helping in cases I really identify with (which is how most people operate of course). Last summer I gave a record (for me) seven talks at churches and other spiritual organizations, usually waiving the fee to help them out, but I also had fun doing it (fits your principle). However, I have helped some individuals and organizations I don’t really like much but think they really need the help. My latest example is feeding the starlings (not my favorite bird) along with the rest. I’m sure that your take on this will help me in the future.

    • Jean says:

      Charlie, Thanks for comments that help me push my thinking further. I think the difference between the empathy and guilt about not doing enough that you experience and the guilt that many (most?) women experience is that women have been taught to feel guilty for doing anything for themselves because that is, by definition, taking time and energy away from doing for others. I’m convinced it’s mothers that those airline safety instructions about the oxygen masks were designed for; otherwise, it would never occur to them to put on their own masks until everyone else in the plane was wearing one!

  5. puppy1952 says:

    This made so much sense to me. Thank you.

  6. pagedogs says:

    I have been thinking a lot about volunteering in retirement. It’s something I’m excited about, but want to choose carefully. I’ve been struggling with whether to do something in my work field, where I have specialized knowledge that will be useful, or doing something entirely different. In any case, I decided to wait some before I start volunteering so that I can sort out my time priorities and start to catch up on all of the pent up projects that I didn’t have time for when working.

    Also, I feel that the last part of life should be a time to do for yourself–whatever you want to do. We spend our middle years doing for others–working, volunteering, and taking care of family. The next phase should be more like childhood again–a time to play and get reacquainted with ourselves, to savor time with others, and to pursue new interests. Doing for others is important too, of course, but no one should feel guilty about being a little selfish with time and energy.

    • Jean says:

      Brenda, I made a couple of false starts at volunteering in my first year of retirement and then decided to wait for the opportunity that felt right for me. In my case, that was teaching at the Senior College, which was about using my work skills. I’m about to add a second volunteer commitment, becoming a Master Gardener volunteer, which will involve developing new specialized knowledge (the training program is 3 months long).
      I agree with you that we shouldn’t feel guilty about lavishing time and energy on ourselves, but it’s clear that many do feel guilty about that. When I had cancer in my early fifties, it helped me to rethink the whole selfishness/selflessness divide (with strong support from my doctor to do so).

  7. I have been making it a point to take care of me and put me first for once…it has been so good for me…

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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