Selfishness or Self-preservation

I’ve had a lot of clients who struggle to take care of their own needs, instead sacrificing for another. When queried about this tendency they usually use the “selfish defense.” By the selfish defense I mean that they claim that they do not want to be selfish. When did taking care of oneself become “selfish,” instead of self-preservation? Self-preservation is actually a good thing. We all have fundament needs. Normally when we think of fundamental needs, we think of food water, shelter, and perhaps protection or safety. I think that fundamental needs also include the need to be respected, to have fun, to be treated fairly, even the need to be appreciated occasionally.

In Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. He separates human needs into B-needs and D-needs. The D-needs are defined as needs without which our lives are deficient and we will fail to thrive. The D-needs are further separated into four levels, physiological (food, water), safety (protection from the environment and from others), belongingness (being accepted by others), and then esteem (feeling good about oneself), with the lowest level being the most essential. He argued that we must get the lowest level of needs met (at least partially) before we pursue the higher level needs. The B-needs are essential to being human, they are the need for justice, beauty, harmony, truth, etc. These needs define the human experience as different from other animals. Maslow argued that we could thrive without our B-needs being met, but implied that we could not have a full human existence without some of our B-needs being met.

I think that the needs of respect, fun, fair treatment, and being appreciated are D-needs. Without their satiation, our needs for belongingness and esteem are not met. When we sacrifice these we are depriving ourselves of our own ability to thrive. Making sure that we are attended to is not selfish, it is self-preservation. Even in D/s (Dominance-submission) relationships the sub’s needs for are to be met. The service of the sub is given in exchange for having those needs met in other ways, usually through a healthy negotiation. When these fundamental needs are not met—in a D/s or vanilla relationship—then there is exploitation.

Exploitation is the hallmark of being selfish. Selfishness occurs when one is getting their needs (or desires) met at the sake of another, unnecessarily. When someone asks another to make sacrifices he or she is not willing to make himself or herself or that cause undue harm on another, then that person has crossed the line from self-preservation into selfishness. It is important to be cognizant of when one is engaging in self-preservation, selfishness, and self-detriment. The need for “love” (belongingness) will often lead us to sacrificing other aspects of belongingness and we end up with a false sense of belongingness—not acceptance for who we are, but rather what we can offer. You can know that you are truly being appreciated when people try to accommodate you, not when you busy accommodating another.

Esteem is grounded on having a sense of belongingness. A colleague once shared with me that his concept of self-esteem was “being known for who you are.” I would elaborate that self-esteem is being known for who are and recognizing that you are still loved. When we see that others appreciate us it makes it easier for us to appreciate ourselves. When we fail to take care of our fundamental needs, not just the two lowest levels of our needs (food, water, shelter and safety), we will fail to thrive. We are not doing good with this behavior; we are hurting the ones that do truly love us. We deprive them of our fullness, which (unlike self-preservation) is not a good thing.

Plywood, OSB, MDF, and Masonite

I don’t do construction. In fact, the physical world sometimes baffles me (electricity is magic to me). But I know the difference between plywood, oriented strand board (OSB), medium density fiberboard (MDF), and masonite. I know that this is the order in which these types of boards are the densest and I have a working idea of how that affects the ways in which they need to be handled and can best be used in construction. This is information that in my daily life would be normally fairly useless to me. However, my having this information is actually vitally important to my relationship.

My boyfriend is in construction and these are the basic types of boards he regularly uses. He also likes to tell me about his day and the work that he does. When he tells me that he had to move 6 sheets of MDF that day, I know that he did some heavy lifting. I know what kind of dust he dealt with when he cut the wood. I know that most likely he worked in a space that is going to remain fairly dry (MDF is one of the wood products least noble to water). I know that he will probably be working with paint, instead of stain, soon (there is no wood grain in MDF, so stain really wouldn’t look good). As a consequence of all of this, I also know what type of questions to ask that will allow him to expand upon his day and how what he did today was important.

I often get clients who work in very different occupations than their partners. Many of them cannot explain the facets of their partner’s occupational life, or they have partners that cannot explain the facets of my clients’ occupational lives. They tend not to understand what the likely challenges are and what would qualify as a success in their partner’s field. They end up shut out of an important aspect of each other’s lives. They miss opportunities to understand the struggles that their partner might be experiencing at work and fail to be in a position to offer quality support or counsel.

Frequently, in these relationships I hear of larger communication problems, feelings of not being connected to one’s partner, or feelings of not being appreciated or validated. I also work with a lot of clients who are dealing with infidelity and affairs in their relationships. I do not think this is just a coincidence. I have found that becoming interested in the occupational life of your partner is actually likely to improve your relationship.

By not just listening to your partner when he or she talks about work, but actually learning about your partner’s world of work, you become more connected and you validate as meaningful the work that your partner does. Go beyond “how was your day?” When you receive the answer to that ask a follow up question. You can start by asking simple questions, along the lines of “what is that?” Allow your partner to educate you about what he or she does, who and what he or she does it with, and why what he or she does is important or how it fits into a larger mission. Ideally, your level of interest would become one in which you could ask meaningful questions and interpretations of what specific events mean when your partner shares them with you. What are the plywood, OSB, MDF, and masonite of your partner’s occupational life?

New Year’s Resolutions

This is the time of year when many people decide to make changes in their lives. We frequently resolve to do something differently, whether it is eating better or giving up a habit in which we would prefer not to engage. However, this is also a time of year in which people become frustrated with failing to make the changes in their lives that they want to make. In fact, sustaining the change is so difficult that how quickly a New Year’s resolution is broken has become a source of jokes.

Many people do not know how to make real changes in their behavior. This is not something that we are ever taught. I have frequently had clients tell me that it takes 28 days to form a habit, but none of them have been able to explain the science or reasoning behind that claim. In fact, I have never found that there is good science or reasoning behind the claim. But it suggests a belief that if one can simply change a behavior effortfully for 28 days, then he or she can develop a new habit. Ask an ex-smoker if after 28 days of not smoking they experience a behavioral inclination to smoke when they go to a bar (beyond the actual chemical craving), and see if 28 days is adequate for developing new habits. The truth is that there is no standard for when a behavioral change becomes permanent.

What does exist are well accepted theories of change that can be helpful in planning for and following through in changing behavior. Within in psychology, James Prochaska’s Transtheoretical Model for Change is the most widely used model for behavioral change. His model consists of stages: pre-contemplation, contemplation, planning, action, maintenance, and relapse. People in the pre-contemplation stage are not yet thinking about making a change. The people around them may think they should, but they do not feel that way themselves. People in the contemplation stage are thinking about making a change, but are still undecided if they want to follow through with it. Once someone decides he or she wants to make a behavioral change he or she moves into the planning stage. During this stage the person considers what actions will most likely facilitate a successful change. Once a plan is in place, a person begins making the behavioral change and therefore moves into the action stage.

People often choose the symbolic date of New Year’s Day to transition from the planning stage to the action stage. Unfortunately, many of them fail to actually complete the planning stage before moving into the action stage, and consequently move directly into the relapse stage, rather than move into the stage of maintenance. The maintenance stage is the marked by going through the deliberate actions that will form the new behavior as a habit. Relapse is when one engages in the old behavior after having entered the action stage. The maintenance stage is frequently punctuated by intermittent relapse stages. If a relapse stage lasts long enough, the whole cycle may need to be repeated.

Forming a new habit (which includes shedding an old habit) involves a change in brain anatomy and physiology. Biologically, habits can be thought of as well-established patterns of brain activity. The more one engages in a habit, the more easily the pattern is triggered. The establishment of an alternative habit is the process of establishing and strengthening a competitive pattern of brain activity. In Prochaskan terms, the maintenance stage is the deliberate effort of establishing the competitive pattern and relapse is reverting to the old pattern. The more deliberate practice in which someone engages, the stronger the new pattern gets and the weaker the old pattern becomes.

Both planning and patience are important in forming a new habit. To extinguish an old habit or acquire a new habit more successfully, think about specifically what you want the new habit to be. If trying to get rid of an old habit, think it terms of “instead of X, I will do Y” (not just “I do not want to do X”). Setting step-wise, specific, and measurable goals can help one feel a sense of accomplishment and therefore encouraged and reinforced. Addiction recovery is often thought of in terms of “one day at a time.” Adopting the perspective that your goal is to have the new habit today, instead of “from here on out,” can make the change feel less daunting. And appreciate the number of instances in which you are able to engage in the new habit. Recognize that relapse is a natural part of any behavioral change and allow yourself that. Do not give up when the old neurological pattern wins, instead just keep building the new pattern with deliberate effort.