Thursday, October 6, 2011

Defending Selfishness and Letting Go of Obligation

I once met a woman who called herself an advocate for selfishness. When I first heard this, I thought it sounded silly. But as she explained it, I began to understand how very relevant this idea is. Anyone who has dipped a toe into feminism 101 knows that from a very early age, girls and women are socialized to put the needs of others before themselves. Bonnie Marcus at explains this problem nicely.

As women, we have extra baggage around this issue because society has taught us that as women we should be nurturers. The assumption here is that we need to take care of everyone and make sure that they are happy and healthy and all their needs are met. According to traditional roles, the fact that everyone else is happy should be enough to make us happy because that is our responsibility. If everyone is happy, we are doing our jobs well. Of course, if there is some time after all this is done, it is acceptable to do something for ourselves. Otherwise, we are being SELFISH.

These limiting beliefs have so many implications for women in our society. As more and more women enter the workforce and try to keep their lives in balance, the stress builds. If we believe that we need to please everyone in our families, our relationships, our work place, what then happens to US? How can we do all of this and be successful at work too?

At work, how many times have you taken on other people’s needs or tasks before tending to your own?

How many times have you taken on the work of others with the attitude that “If I don’t do it, who will?”

How many times have you avoided necessary difficult conversations because you did not want to offend someone? You wanted to be well liked.

How many times have you not taken credit for your work well done because you want to be viewed as a team player? Perhaps you don’t even accept compliments graciously.

There's no way around it...this stuff is true and probably strikes a cord with most women.  When you think about it, it becomes pretty clear that to be selfish can actually be a bit of a revolutionary act. It can take guts, as women, to stand up and say, "My needs matter and I'm going to take care of myself first." I mean, what are we without ourselves? If we don't have our own backs, who will?

This time of year, these topics become extra relevant to me. I manage an event serving 1,200 people. While most reasonable individuals can easily see that this is no simple feat, I still have a lot of colleagues and business partners who want more personal attention for their involvement in this event than I can muster. The 2 hour meeting here and there to help each individual person figure out their piece of the pie can really eat up my time. Unchecked, it can easily force me to work 12 hour days, answering emails late into the evening even at home.

Last year, I tried to accommodate each person. I felt that I owed them something. This year, I have decided to opt for selfishness, if for no other reason than out of necessity. There is no way I could continue to cater to everyone else's requests and still remain successful in my own endeavors. I have become quite selfish with my time, and it feels great.

This doesn't mean I'm a jerk. I always try to find a solution or help those who genuinely need it. But it does mean that I am forcing everyone to be much more mindful about the requests they are making upon me. I'm asking them to prioritize. And I'm letting go of obligation.

Obligation is a really nasty feeling. (My best friend helped me to understand this, and God bless you, woman.) I mean, think about it--what good does obligation serve? To act out of obligation is very similar to acting out of pity. The result is that actions which come from a place of obligation are, for lack of a better term, half-assed. I think that, as people, our best bet is to do things fully or to not do them at all. If you are consistently operating from a place of obligation, then you're surely not putting out best work out there.You're not being the best employee/partner/friend/family member you can be. The only option is to choose what we can fully commit ourselves to.

This even goes for social interactions--it's a lot harder, but I'm trying to drop my tendency to accept invites simply because I feel obligated. I'm asking myself: 1) Do I really want to go, or do I feel I should go? 2) Is this something which I have the time to do; something which I won't regret later? 3) Will this situation cause any unnecessary stress?

If my answers aren't a resounding "yes, yes, no" then I try to minimize my time spent.

Of course, you can't avoid all obligation and you can't operate purely from selfishness. But if you have the tendencies I have (to constantly let the needs/wants of others overshadow your own) it can be a really liberating mindset shift to make. Even if for only a few weeks of the year.

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