Does “Selfless” Mean Having No Self?   7 comments

After writing about my “Aha” moment, I found it was not such a new discovery after all, because I journaled about it months ago.  It was something I had started to learn and then forgot.  In the past I would have judged myself for this “neglect of the truth,” but I’ve discovered that this is how I learn… with fits and starts, do-overs and false leads.  Here is my entry, a more insightful “Aha” about forced compliance (slightly edited to make sense to others):

I realize why I have been feeling increasingly depressed, and it is a long term, pervasive problem.  Although it involves performance, it is not tied to “should” or “well done” (big issues for me).  It is rather anchored by a sheer “must,” tasks about which I feel I have no choice.  Although obligation may also be part of the driving force, it is not uppermost—failure to do what should be done results in guilt and shame, but failure to do what must be done results in anxiety.  It is a direct appeal to the will rather than the conscience.

In childhood when my parents told me to do something “Now!” in sharp anger, I reacted out of sheer compulsion.  I responded quickly in fear—well, not in conscious fear, since the idea of disobedience was too remote to have the consequences of that even occur to me.  It was a stronger and quicker motivator to compliance than an appeal to obligation or shame.  It completely bypassed my ability to think regarding the matter and was reflexive, like jerking the steering wheel to avoid a collision.  There is no consciousness of fear in such a situation—it is first react, and then feel—and if the danger and escape are both over in a flash, there may not even be an aftershock of fear, perhaps not even of relief.

Whenever authority figures take charge with an obvious and absolute expectation of compliance, I feel I have no choice.  The thing must be done without a single additional consideration.  Only in the case where the demand was to break a clear moral standard did I stop to consider and refuse, but this was simply because there was a higher authority still, namely God, the one of whom I was most afraid.  “Because I said so” was a common enough reason offered by mom to insist on obedience regardless of how we felt, what we wanted, or what opposing reasons we offered.

When an absolute is imposed on the will, the damage to self worth does not come through a sense of shame, but through a sense that someone else’s will and wish has priority over mine, that I am more or less a cog in the wheel of the accomplishment of their objectives.  It is the worth-denying position of a slave.  It is very depersonalizing to know that one’s feelings do not matter, and that is the real crux of the situation.  If something really must be done and I must do it out of personal necessity (in other words, I don’t want to suffer the consequences of it not being done) and I am acting out of that motivation, it does not feel as though my feelings are being scorned.

But naturally the same action can spring from different motivations, so I can perform the act out of a sense of powerlessness and disrespect leveraged against me, or out of my sense of what is best for my own needs.  Even if the pressure is there from an authority figure, or from someone whose opinion or valuation of me I feel a need, I can still learn to respond out of a different motivation, a motivation that validates my own feelings and chooses based on what is best for myself.  Of course, keeping that person’s good will or affection may seem paramount to me, but then the two different motivations appear to coalesce, and I am not free.  In such a situation I need to ponder the next lower level in my psyche—the co-dependence I am feeling—and work through that issue until I am free enough to respond without undermining my self worth.

The key for me is to bring these dynamics to consciousness and then try to support and affirm my desires and fears.  I think there are many ways I can do this.  I can adjust the time frame, the means to the goal, the goal itself, and in other ways try to accommodate my distresses and desires, but I especially need to work on understanding and redirecting the motivation out of which I choose and act.  I must always stop to understand what I am feeling and why, to validate and affirm those feelings, to allow myself the human right of choice, and to choose and act from this affirmation of myself.  It does not mean I will refuse to act in the best interest of others.  My soul needs its true feelings affirmed, not necessarily fulfilled in that moment.  I believe affirming my own longings is a cornerstone of self-care, not selfishness.


Posted July 9, 2011 by janathangrace in thoughts

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7 responses to “Does “Selfless” Mean Having No Self?

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  1. Depravity has always shown it’s ugly face in the midst of a love most magnificent.

    Forced compliance is not always for the good of those involved, but can directly, indirectly be the choices leading to consequences, and evidence of one’s selfish, sinful nature. Authority figures can be a label for anyone who shows they have more power than the weaker one not only involving the parents, but siblings, their friends. When one’s feelings do not matter in another’s selfish, immoral actions, one’s freedom and dignity are attacked, scarred and this leads to knowledge of personal sense of powerlessness, and disrespect leveraged against them.

    The forced compliance is not always for the good of those involved though the reciprocal responses of those impacted can and must include choices of what is best for the self in order to maintain one’s self-dignity and freedom within. However, as a child exists and because innocence plays the role in their development to adulthood, consequence of choices are often not realized until it’s too late. A child acting too soon without knowledge, strength, or ability lends to more fear of what ultimate consequences of their choices. Not having the ability to stand on the higher moral ground because of a fear it could cost one their life will prevent a child from moving forward and hence the child remains compliant until they are given the courage, ability to stand on their own.

    Understanding depression, it’s existence has taken a lifetime to understand and is an enormous sadness, huge obstacle to overcome and through reliance on God and one of his promises, Romans 8: 28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose, lends to self-care and greater hope in fulfillment of salvation and love..

  2. PS….just working through it all!

  3. Whenever authority figures take charge with an obvious and absolute expectation of compliance, I feel I have no choice. This really touched a couple chords in me… As a parent, there is a place for obedience from a child such as when I tell him to get out of the street – he is not mature enough or aware enough to have the freedom of choice in such a situation… On the other hand, as an adult when I still feel like a child inside and respond to authority figures in the same way then something is awry…

    • Elisabeth, I agree with you that there are legitimate authority structures that can make final decisions and enforce them. My ponderings are more along the lines of how those decisions are made and enforced (with or without care for the subordinate’s experience and expressing this care) and how those decisions are received by the subordinate (with regard or disregard to the self). I have little control over how my boss treats me, but as an adult, I have more control over how I respond to this, especially regarding my internal dialogue and motivation–with self respect or self neglect–which seem more important to me than what I actually choose to do (follow or not follow orders). What do you think?

  4. Well, the pecking order always exists…be it man or animal.

    Unless it is a question of morality, where my response should be clear, would I be happy to revolt against an authority-figure and suffer the consequences? Which would make me feel better? Listening to myself and having my own way, or otherwise. As adults, we have the FREEDOM to make a choice – whether to toe the line and be approved, or to disregard and suffer the consequences. In the end, whatever decision I take is for my own sake, wherein I try to accomplish a trade-off that is in my favour.

    Everybody has to make these choices, which often brings us into direct conflict with the ones we love, relate to as friends, colleagues,…etc.

    On a slightly different note – Do get off the guilt trip and be nice to yourself. Nobody is perfect. I feel your trying too hard to get it all right. Unless you equally pamper yourself, you may never find it in you to be (equally) good to others.


    • BK, I appreciate your sharing thoughts with us. I really want this site to be a place of mutual stimulation and encouragement. Some folks who come here have tender souls, and I want to be sure they feel safe to share. We all may need to remember this and be especially gentle. Given this context, it might be best to avoid giving advice or evaluating others (i.e. your last paragraph) and simply share what has or has not worked for you.

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