The limits of selflessness

I’ve been going through some stuff lately (not much I can share on this public, though little-read, blog). One thing my therapist reminded me is that I am not in charge of other peoples’ happiness. That’s their job. My happiness is the only happiness I’m responsible for, and I need to let go of any and all pressure I put on myself to ensure the happiness of others.

That was a very freeing, challenging, good, and difficult thing to hear. I’m still mulling it over. I have complicated beliefs about my responsibility for others’ happiness. (PS – the following just applies to other adults — the responsibility of parents for the happiness of their children is a different topic entirely that I am NOT qualified to weigh in on.)

We are not rugged, isolated, independent individuals making decisions on the basis of our isolated will alone. We are shaped and guided and changed by our situation(s), in ways we may never recognize. Since I am part of the situation many people find themselves in, I do think I have a responsibility to do what I can to be a good force in their lives. To be someone who loves them as they are, fights for and advances their well-being, speaks and acts kindly and lovingly towards them, and takes care not to hurt them unnecessarily. These things contribute to the overall happiness of others in a very real way, so I strongly believe that I do have some kind of responsibility for the happiness of others.

But my therapist is right (she so rarely isn’t, god bless her!). I am only truly and deeply responsible for my own happiness, my well-being, and my goals. Only I can earn my masters degree, only I can get my brain to meditate, only I can take the melatonin my body needs to sleep, only I can read the books that stimulate my mind and gladden my soul, only I can choose for my body to go on a run that makes me feel alive in that deliciously tired way, only I can communicate what’s going on in my brain to those I love to shape the course and future of our relationship in ways that are healthy for me and them. I am my own best advocate and champion.

Just like I am the only one who can do that for me, others are the only ones who can do that for themselves. It’s not just that I shouldn’t take on that responsibility, it’s that doing that is a job that is not even in my ability to do. As my therapist says, “If making other people happy was something you could do, you would have crushed it by now. You get shit done.” What can I say? Hyper-productivity is my super-power.

While I completely agree with her on these points, it honestly feels weird to focus primarily on my own happiness, because it feels so selfish. It goes against a lot of the beliefs I have about what I should do, and the messages I received growing up about the worth of my happiness and my duty to others.

At the same time, it also feels deeply exciting and freeing. I get to really pour myself into what I can do, the things I love and the things I find ethically important. No one else will do that for me, so if I want anyone to do that, it’s me. Yet even writing it out, the guilt creeps in. I feel kind of ashamed and self-centered. In other ways, it feels isolating. It feels a bit like striking out on my own, in a weird way. But it is good to be bold for my own happiness, and in doing so to give others a chance to support and help me.

“I bet you always say ‘that’s ok, I don’t need anything’ when people offer, huh?” (RUDE BUT YES.)

I really am not a super selfish person, so I should remember the ways I have poured into others so that I can feel less guilty about any particular focus on myself. I think it will actually improve my relationships overall, and will contribute to the happiness of those I love. It will help me forswear resentment and foster REAL intimacy with others. The kind that will help them be happier in general. That sounds pretty good. It’s weird to think about focusing on myself as a way of improving the well-being of others. But that could very well be the case here.

She’s pretty happy when she’s in water. Let’s have more of this.

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