I lived the better part of my late teen and adult years in NYC, specifically the East Village (Alphabet City at the time), back before it became the polished, cultural showcase that it is today. This was the East Village of junkies passed out in doorways, skinheads bragging about their gay bashing jaunts in the West Village, roaches turning up in your $2.50 diner omelet, an entire park (then called Tent City) that served as the ‘home’ for hundreds of homeless people, many of whom had been precipitously released from mental institutions. This New York looked like what the inside of my head felt like, a matching mess that I found that oddly reassuring.
However (and this is a big however), it was a mess that I desperately wanted to fix. I was pained by all the pain around me, and felt forever compelled to address it in some way. This compulsion manifested in activism of varying sorts: volunteering for myriad social and environmental organizations, all manner of protest (HIV patient rights, preserving old growth forest, toxic waste dumping in low income areas), my own charity benefit parties, and I could never resist a good animal rights rally. And then of course, there was my own mobile soapbox, which I mounted whenever the opportunity arose to relate compelling facts and figures to those who dared to use paper bags or eat meat in my presence.
Please Care More
My own relative obsession with all things unjust made it hard for me to accept those who did not share my indignation. I was genuinely outraged by people who prioritized their own happiness (and as it happened, this was most people I knew). I mean how could a person with any semblance of feeling, look ugliness in the face and simply walk away? No upset, no voice raised in protest. And still sleep soundly at night? How did they do it!?
And let’s not forget the guilt
As is probably obvious at this point, I’ve managed to acquire over the years a nasty guilt habit. Though I have spent my share of years struggling mightily on many fronts, I cannot seem to reconcile the advantages I’ve been given, and have brought into my life, with all the suffering I see, hear, read, and learn about from countless sources on a daily basis—much of it quite close to home. Every nice meal I eat is accompanied by a slight (and sometimes not so slight) discomfort at my awareness of others’ hunger; time enjoying the company of my delightful son, comes with an acute awareness of all the parents who have lost children, and as I sit in meditation (well, as I do my darndest to both sit and meditate), there is a nasty little voice calling up from the bowels of my consciousness, accusing me of frivolity. Surprisingly though, according to neuroscientist Alex Korb, both guilt and shame activate the brain’s reward center, so at least I’m getting something out of it!
At last, a little ‘aha!’
It wasn’t until my 40’s (yes, I’m a slow life-lesson learner), that I began to realize that my own preoccupation with the suffering in the world was unproductive at best, self-destructive at worst. However fierce my initial commitment, my various activist activities would inevitably leave me feeling some combination of helpless and hopeless. Usually sooner than later. I simply couldn’t sustain my focus on a single source of misfortune for more than a few months, a year at most, before I started to descend into a state of despair.
Me first? What a Concept!
The awareness came slowly and bumpily, but it eventually became clear that while we have an obligation to contribute to the betterment of society, our first obligation is to our own well being. Old news I know! But for me, really getting this, fully accepting this as a self-sustaining vs. selfish way of being, was huge. Huge! And liberating to boot. Where I would once feel guilty and emotionally indulgent bypassing a disturbing news story or choosing not to open an email from one of the many charities I support, I now recognize my right to do so. The necessity of doing so.
I see now that I can turn away and still be a caring person. I can choose not to watch, not to read, without being callous. This is the preservation of my emotional health. And my activism can be fun. It can (and does now) involve wine and song (my own included) and socializing (of the mellow variety I prefer).
I can help myself while helping others, sans guilt.
And of course this is the only truly sustainable way of being helpful to the world. On her Insanely Serene blog, coach and author Linda Wolf offered a succinct and eloquent explanation as to why (and how) we need to put ourselves first in order to be of greater and more genuine help to others:
1. When we have enough, it’s easier to give – Giving from a negative place – neediness, guilt, lack – does not serve us or the other person. Visiting with a sick friend or older relative out of obligation not only damages our spirit but can hurt the person we’re with. If we have low energy or a poor attitude, the other person can usually feel it at some level. Giving when we feel good, happy, and fulfilled is a much more beneficial experience for all involved.
2. Knowing ourselves lets others off the hook – Many of us focus on helping others as a way to avoid ourselves. Do we even know what we need for our emotional, physical, and spiritual health? By putting yourself first, you’ll begin to gain clarity on these questions. Are you looking for others to make you feel better, or do you know how to self-soothe? The more we know ourselves, the less pressure we put on others to fill needs we have not even articulated.
3. Clear motivations support healthy relationships – Putting self first can provide us the opportunity to examine our motives. Are we helping that friend move because we have the time and energy, or because we are afraid they won’t like us if we don’t? Asking ourselves why we are helping and answering honestly leads us to give from a healthy rather than a needy place.
4. We take the pressure off others – One of the convoluted reasons we put others first is because we think that by taking care of them, they’ll reciprocate. We’re looking outside ourselves for a way to take care of ourselves. When we stop pushing our needs on others, we take back the power to care for ourselves, and also free up others to be more authentic with us.
5. What you give yourself, you have for others – This is true for compassion, gentleness, kindness, consideration, sensitivity – when you can give these to yourself, you are much more able to offer them to others without strings attached.
6. Being less needy allows others to be themselves – When you know how to identify your needs and have a range of options for fulfilling them, you do not have to rely on others to do it for you. You can see others more clearly, be with them without wanting something, and open yourself to real exchange.
7. You become a role model for others – Especially when we have children in our lives, we can demonstrate that self-care is actually a way to care for others. When we are in a good place mentally and emotionally, we are much more equipped to deal with the demands and emotional upsets of others, less reactive, and more compassionate. All of these are key to healthy interactions with others.
This all just makes me want to clap!