I don’t think my mom stopped calling me selfish until the Alzheimer’s set in and by then I was in my late 40’s. As a young girl, I was selfish when I wanted something we didn’t have, like a new toy or candy.
As a teenager, I was selfish when I wanted to spend all of my time at the stables instead of babysitting my little sister. As a young adult, I was selfish if I didn’t go home for Christmas – instead of wanting to start my own traditions. And as my career grew and I made more money and acquired more things, I was selfish for simply having those things. I was selfish for trying to live independently.
Selfish was my mom’s go-to criticism.
She threw out the word in fits of anger.
“Don’t be selfish.”
“You selfish little brat.”
The ghost of selfish was a voice inside of me that would speak-up whenever I did something for myself.
Sometimes the voice was clear and sharp, like when I traveled for vacations. Sometimes it showed up as buyers remorse when I purchased something my parents would think was extravagant.
It also showed up in my career…when I didn’t advocate for promotions and pay when they were warranted. I have the ghost of selfish to thank for staying way too long in a job that was sucking the life out of me.
Shit, the ghost of selfish even spoke up about the little things. When I left work early for a yoga class. Or when I slept past 7 in the morning. Forget about reading a book in the middle of the day—or God forbid, a nap.
Most of the women I know live with the ghost of selfish.
In almost every client program, somewhere along the way, this statement shows up: “I really want to…travel, have a baby, quit my job, take a class, go on retreat…but, I feel like that’s selfish.”
We think we don’t deserve those ‘extra’ luxuries.
I call it the ghost of selfish because it seems to always be there, hanging out in the background of our decisions.
The ghost of selfish whispers rules into our ears that hold us from our desires and it tells us there’s a finite amount of energy and money and we best use all that for others.
Research shows that women who “act selfishly” are punished for their behavior while men are not.
Another body of research shows that women’s striatum, the brain’s reward center, activate when women act generously. When men act selfishly their striatum flickers with action. This means men and women receive an internal reward for behaving a certain way.
This body of research shows that these behaviors are learned, not biological.*
Women have a deep drive to not be seen as selfish. This drive often shapes our lives.
It certainly shaped mine.
Because the message I carried for many years was, “not meeting other’s needs means I’m being selfish.”
It also meant, “meeting my needs means I’m selfish.”
But this is what I had to grapple with – the more I did for others because I feared being called selfish and the more I back-burnered my needs, the worse I felt about myself.
I felt empty.
I felt like my life wasn’t mine.
I felt like I was living on the surface of things.
I felt angry all the time.
The just-before-bed rumination about what I did or didn’t do was out of control, keeping me awake half the night.
My life slipped away because it was owned by the ghost of selfish.
Here’s the definition of selfish:
self·ishnˈ(of a person, action, or motive) lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure. “synonyms: egocentric, egotistic, egotistical, egomaniacal, self-centered, self-absorbed, self-obsessed, self-seeking, self-serving, wrapped up in oneself
Reading the definition kind of stopped me in my tracks.
As I look back on my life with the ghost, I can honestly say that of all the things I did that I deemed selfish (but did them anyway), none were done out of lacking consideration for others.
I don’t say this because I’m great or perfect, it’s a natural state that already exists in most of us.
Bottom-line, “selfish” does not apply.
Taking care of your needs is not selfish. Living a life you love is not selfish.
It is your birthright.
As my good friend Amy Ferris says, “let’s not be stingy with our own lives, let’s not hoard our own lives, let’s not withhold goodness & generosity from our lives, LET’S NOT LEASE OUR LIVES, LET’S OWN THEM OUT FUCKING RIGHT! and you know what happens, when we invest in our own lives, it comes back a million-fold.”
As women, we’ve taken too much ownership of selfish.
We’ve helicopter-parented the ghost too long. It’s time to let it go and get back to self.
No more ‘ish.’
There’s a simple way to quiet the ghost of selfish.
It’s a daily practice and it works.
Every morning, before you roll out of bed, breathe into your chest – your heart center.
As you do this, ask, “what do I want today?”
Stay in bed, in the warmth of your blankets until you get an answer.
Love, Amy, Founder, Wisdom Ridge Ranch
*Meghan Holohan, Today, October 10, 2017