Selflessness and the need for Balance

“I promise to do good and to always think of others before myself.”

Brownie Promise – as I remember it!

When I looked up the Brownie promise, I couldn’t find these words but I have distinct memories of reciting them, particularly the part about always think of others before myself. I don’t remember much else about the promise. As an only child, “selfish” was often my assigned branding and I desperately wanted to do better at living up to that promise. 

I think the sentiment of the promise is inherent in many of the lessons we learn as kids and, although I haven’t used these words when teaching my own kids, I certainly teach them that selfishness is an unwelcome trait. 

Thinking back, I remember attending playgroups with my son where, if he had a toy another child wanted, I’d suggest he have just 1 more minute and then give the toy to the other child. Same at the park – get off the swings. Someone else wants to have a go. But what did I do when he wanted the toy or the swings? I told him to wait his turn. What led me to teach him that other people’s needs and wants matter more than his? 

This question requires more thought, particularly because the lessons I share with adoptive parents about what it takes to develop the mental resilience necessary for therapeutic parenting are the opposite of the lessons I am teaching my children in social settings. I realise things are more binary in the playground than they are when we’re talking about parenting but since the lessons we learn in childhood lay the foundation for our beliefs about what makes us ‘good’ or ‘bad’ , teaching these ‘selfless’ behaviours in binary ways can cost our children their empowerment and later, if they’re not careful, their mental health.

As Edith Eger, holocaust survivor, psychologist and author says in The Gift, “selflessness doesn’t serve anyone – it leaves everyone deprived.”

In my first months as a parent, I was 100% selfless. In the first weeks after the children arrived there were days when I didn’t even have a shower. There wasn’t time. I can’t quite work out why there wasn’t time but I remember not managing to fit it in. The early days after adoptive placement are very tense – probably because everyone is trying to pretend everything is great when it’s completely alien. Another act of selflessness?

That was a little a-ha moment for me right there, writing that. Selflessness can be an act of protection – a means of keeping ourselves safe. We’re safer if we’re liked and to be liked, we have to put others before ourselves. There it is. The link between our playground teaching and the decision not to take 5 minutes for a shower four decades later. Maybe not the link but certainly a link. 

I’m a better parent now than I was then. Experience plays a large role in that but selfishness plays a bigger role. I know where my boundaries are and I enforce them. I take time for self-care, exercise and work because these things matter to me and leave me feeling good – and when I feel good, I parent well. I used to think I didn’t have time for those things and I’d drag myself through the days, giving my children loads of time but with little energy or focus. Now my children get less time with me but more energy from me and I can tell you the quality of the attention they get from me is exponentially greater than it used to be when I was being selfless.

Then I was tired, distracted and, I’m ashamed to say, often wishing the time away after hours of playing games that bored me senseless. Now I have boundaries around those things. Admittedly, if I could turn back the clock, I don’t think I’d change much. The settling in part of the adoption process is different from everyday parenting and I feel it was right to play with my children and be with them every waking minute. We had to bond and get past the strangeness of our new labels – ‘mummy’, ‘daddy’, ‘daughter’, ‘son’ whilst simultaneously being strangers to each other.

What I would change if I could go back is that I would remind myself that my reserves needed topping up and that if I chose to be selfless all day, I would need to top up those reserves at night, after the children went to bed – and that wine, chocolate and Netflix weren’t going to get the job done! 

Most of us have had it drummed into us that selfishness drives people away from us and although I believe that’s true, it’s more nuanced than that.  Giving of oneself is marvelous. It is fulfilling and rewarding and it’s one of life’s great joys but only if it’s balanced with selfishness. If you don’t have both, you eventually have nothing to give and then everybody loses. 

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