Am I Really Selfish? Reversing a Negative Story from Childhood

Have you ever tripped over knowledge you hadn’t thought about in years, information that can help uncover the stories that make up your life narrative? Sometimes threads of our stories are “hiding in plain sight,” waiting for us to open our eyes and say, “Oohhh, I see it now…”

personal narrative, growing stories

Threads of personal narrative

My brother and I talked recently about our childhood. Specifically, we discussed “messages” given us by others that we carried into adulthood. We realized that one specific message that had weighed heavily in both our life-worlds was the deadly “sin” of selfishness. My mother could throw no worse epithet at me than, “You’re selfish, just like____.” The blank would contain the name of the latest person she condemned for that failing. I knew even then that her perception stemmed from an event when she was 10: A young relative had snatched something from her that she treasured. It was irretrievable and the loss stayed with her until she died.

Even knowing that it was my mother’s own history that triggered her response, I somehow thought her assessment of me must be right. I could not get past the sting of that word: selfish. The message grew deep roots in me. To counter it, I would go to great lengths to anticipate others’ needs and put them ahead of my own. Even today, I resist doing anything just for myself – a day of pampering, a special purchase – for fear of being perceived as… well, you know… that word.

Lately, I realized that if I were going to reverse the message internalized so young, I would need to come up with a different perspective. I struggled to find a definition I could accept as a positive slant on the word “selfish.” But all definitions pretty much said the same condemnatory thing: “Concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others” (Merriam-Webster, 2015). Long dead, my mom seemed to stand beside me, arms crossed, challenging me to find a positive reframe.

I sought a word that was positive, that acknowledged valuing the needs and desires of self. I didn’t want a word that merely reversed selfish into “self-denying” or some such martyred word. Nor did I choose to use “positively” selfish or another adjective to soften it. For now, I have settled on “self-empowered” as a way to acknowledge value of self without the narcissistic undertones of selfish. It seems I cannot yet embrace “that word” in any form. Obviously, I have more work to do. Stay tuned!

I’ll bet you have your own version of a message that weaves into your stories. With any luck, it might even be a positive one! (See neuropsychologist Dr. Diane Engelman’s post, Uncovering My Dyslexia: A Growing Story, for personal puzzle pieces that she retrieved. They showed her the positive steps she had taken to deal with undiagnosed dyslexia.)

  • What message – word or phrase or behavior – comes up for you that you can see in your stories?
  • How did your response to it begin?
  • Is it someone else’s history that gave the message impact or is it your own?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary – online – 2015

Note: In this post, the author, JB Allyn, is not directly or indirectly giving psychological or medical advice. Nor is she prescribing the use of any technique to treat medical, physical, or emotional problems. The author intends only to offer information of a general nature that may assist you in seeking personal growth. If you choose to use any of the information the author presents, she assumes no responsibility for your choices or actions.

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