An opinion piece by Chloe Lawson about the toxicity that can come with the idea of ‘selflessness’ that children are taught from a young age, how it is a damaging concept for mental health, and how it can also be used to guilt-trip women who choose to live life outside of societal norms.
Image description: Created using Procreate in a style that mimics relief printing, the image depicts three blue puppets entangled in their red strings. The puppets bodies are contorted by strings of lies, control and deceit. Frustration is shown by the theatrical dot of red on their cheeks. The only way for them to untangle and be free is to cut those strings.
A universal aspect of childhood is learning to be part of a wider community and how to interact harmoniously with others. When joining nursery or school for the first time, or even just having siblings at home, children are taught to push back their selfish tendencies to share with others. Teaching the importance of kindness to get along and live alongside one another is a fairly standard practice among teachers and parents. I remember being taught at school and at home to put others first and that being selfish constituted bad behaviour. Being at a Church of England school, the image of Jesus was thrust into our faces as the ultimate example of a selfless person- dying for our sins and all that. In general, the overall picture was fairly black and white- selflessness is the shining, golden ideal and to be selfish was a cardinal sin along the lines of throwing your own grandmother into the fiery infernos of hell.
At 21, having gone through a few years of life, its ups and downs and periods of poor mental health, I have a bone to pick with this idea. Yes, of course, being selfish in the sense that you have a distinct lack of interest in the needs of others verges on the unnatural and is undoubtedly not a good thing, but I would argue that being utterly selfless to near Jesus-like levels shouldn’t be so glorified. For one, the word selflessness itself implies a lack of self. To me, this just generates images of someone so absorbed in the needs of others that they lose sight of themselves and end up being walked all over. This then leads to feelings of burn-out, exploitation and resentment both in relationships and in the workplace (Hopper, 2018). One blog I found when researching this topic declared, “Selflessness does not mean helping others, selflessness means helping others when you need help as bad as they do”, a perspective not taught in my formative years (Rault, 2018). You shouldn’t feel obligated to help people out of good manners if it’s going to put your mental health at risk.
This is certainly not to say that you should not help others. Helping others has been shown to improve mental health and make you happier in yourself and your relationships (Svoboda, 2013). Studies in Communal Motivation (essentially the level of concern about other people) have distinguished between General Communal Motivation, Partner-specific communal motivation and Unmitigated Communal Motivation. It is this third category that causes the problems. Studies have shown that participants high in Unmitigated Communal Motivation reported more satisfaction in their relationships but had lower well-being than participants in the other two categories (Hopper, 2018). Psychology Today has described this as “pathological giving”- when our reasons for helping others become damaging (Svoboda, 2013). In scenarios such as these, it is important to assess our motivations for helping others.
Forgive me if this is too cynical, but I’m sure many of us can visualise someone who we’d describe as “a martyr” because they just love to help people out and boy do they shout about it. While they no doubt make some people’s lives easier, their motivations are questionable in that they seem to enjoy the pat-on-the-back feeling they get from others and themselves. Their good deeds seem slightly disingenuous. The adage, “There’s no such thing as a selfless good deed” does ring true to an extent, partly as a result of the aforementioned improved mood that comes from helping others, but also because helping our friends and partners should be a two-way street- we are happy to help them and want to help them because we assume they would do the same for us (Svoboda, 2013). “Pathological giving” comes about when we are constantly helping others without seeing any reciprocation. This comes into being a ‘people pleaser’ and yearning to feel validated by others by doing things to help them out, without necessarily experiencing the same.
On a personal level, the heavy emphasis on the idealised selfless figure that I experienced as a child has had an arguably negative impact on how I have treated myself in the past. The largely unattainable goal of being completely selfless has contributed to my questioning of whether I am in fact a nice person. In past situations when I have put effort into ensuring others were happy and not seeing the effort reciprocated has meant that bouts of Imposter Syndrome have come out in force, making me doubt my own motivations for any good deeds and wonder whether I am actually just pure evil cleverly manipulating others into thinking I’m a good person. In hindsight, I can see that the lack of reciprocation was not to do with me and that I was determining my self-worth on the approval of others who simply weren’t willing to match my efforts. However, the entrenched belief that selflessness is the ideal made it hard to see it this way at the time. I have, with time, come to realise that being ‘positively selfish’ is a way to foster self-respect, instead of constantly putting the needs of others before my own.
Moving away from the mental impact of toxic selflessness and getting political, the idea of being selfless is markedly gendered. I was reminded of this when scrolling through Facebook, and I saw a thread about Disney’s 1937 Snow White film. Snow White is characterised by being faultless, kind, gentle and selfless, to the extreme. This particular thread was based around a still from the film in which Snow White says, “I’m so ashamed of the fuss I’ve made”, after having been chased into unchartered woods by her evil stepmother and showing minimal signs of distress which form a break in her mild and perfect front. God forbid this 14-year-old girl show any moments of fear and self-pity without shame! This, admittedly dated, children’s film indicates some of the values that I feel are projected onto girls more than they are boys when it comes to social cohesion and getting along with others. Throughout the centuries, women have been taught to be selfless when it came to their families and the ideal woman was seen as giving everything for her family (usually the men within it) (Rajasekaran, 2020). Girls should be oriented towards the needs of other people, not themselves. The idea of selflessness is in this instance used to guilt-trip us when we want to improve our own situation, and to shame us when we put ourselves first (Rajasekaran, 2020). Some have argued that the whole concept of ‘selflessness’ is a patriarchal mechanism to oppress women into accepting their lot (Rajasekaran, 2020).
Today, women are criticised for prioritising their careers over their families or even forgoing children full stop. Women who have decided to not have children are labelled selfish for not giving their own parents grandchildren, for choosing self-fulfilment over a life of looking after other people (Bond, 2014). Why, may I ask? It is, after all, their personal choice. Plus, having kids is expensive.
The conclusions of this article aren’t ground-breaking and it should certainly be obvious to anyone living in today’s society- when we are constantly expected to be available through social media- that saying no to people shouldn’t be considered shocking. Clichéd as it may be, the only person in your own life who will be with you until the end is yourself. Therefore, be selfish if you need to. Being entirely selfless is never going to be productive in the long run. As with many things, it is about balance. Be kind to others and look out for each other, but listen to yourself and know when to say no. Don’t consistently put your own needs last in the name of making others happy. The saying, “Treat others as you would wish to be treated'' needs to be flipped, to “Be as kind yourself as you would be to others''. Don’t guilt-trip yourself into silence if you feel exploited in the name of keeping the peace; have the tantrum Snow White couldn’t have.