Why Putting Your Parter Before Yourself Is Not Selfless

When you think of selflessness, what comes to mind? Probably the idea of putting others’ needs above your own, doing things for people seemingly without expectations of any return investment. Being selfless often comes from a place of really good intentions, wanting our friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives to be happy and their happiness means our happiness. Yet UrbanDictionary also coins the word “selfless” as: “Having little or no concern for oneself.”

Secretly, or not so secretly, deep down all of us have needs and opinions about things. The selfless often have a very difficult time sharing theirs because they’re not deemed (by themselves or even people around them from childhood) to be as important as other people’s needs and wants. In fact, there’s a small, but mighty voice inside that tells them their needs, wants and emotions are not only not as important as others, but that expressing those would be selfish. It’s a tough voice to contend with because most of the time it’s unpredictable, unreliable and a quiet murmur in the background reminding them of the worthlessness they feel obligated to.

On the outside they appear happy and eager to give, and give, and even give more. Yet on the inside two completely different things are actually happening unbeknownst to them. The first is that with every give there’s a bitter pill of unrecognized resentment that’s taken but not talked about because it feeds their assumption that again their needs weren’t as important. This assumption is on auto-pilot by the way and the bitter pill that’s taken is often small, nearly unnoticeable until the build-up is too much to bear. Second, constantly meeting others’ needs can score them a security ticket to being in a relationship. If it happens often enough, a dependency builds that requires their friend, lover, whomever to need them or at the very least, build their want for them in their life. Unfortunately, there is no amount of appreciation or gratitude that can serve as satisfactory for the void they feel inside. Those selfless acts? Those aren’t about you, they’re about them.

The struggle for authenticity is so real, especially when it comes to the selfless because it can be so difficult to convince themselves that on one hand, they’re authentic self will still be accepted and wanted by others, two, that they’re not being selfish but healthy and three, that they’re vulnerability in doing so won’t be rejected. The hard part is that there are no guarantees that they won’t rejected.

There’s a movie, The Runaway Bride, that stars Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. Julia’s character is so out of touch with who she is that she says yes to every proposal she gets and then runs from the altar on every wedding day. The audience learns that she can’t even decide what kind of eggs she likes because she’s been so accustomed to ordering “whatever he’s having.” Not being needy or expressing herself, she thinks she’s doing everyone a favor, when in fact, the only thing she’s doing is building her reasons to run. At the end of the movie, she finally figures it out as she’s realizing who she is and the relationship she actually wants.

“I love eggs benedict. I hate every other kind.” Learning how to love what you love and stand in your authenticity can be a lifelong lesson and it is for most of us. The key is to start small, practicing small acts of genuine likes and interests. Any and every decision we make can represent and express our authenticity, even a breakfast decision. If we’re not really there, or we’re misrepresenting ourselves, our selfless acts end up benefiting no one but us and will leave a trail of hurt and betrayal along the way.

“…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”
- Pema Chödrön