The Concept of Healthy Selfishness in Therapy

Have you ever wondered why you keep finding the same type of person to play an important role in your life? Why you keep having the same problems and the same crisis evolves in the patterns of your life? I have had a lot of clients who come in and talk about repeated cycles in their lives. Even though they seem to make changes and try new things, the same old problems crop up. They are quite frustrated and unhappy, and they don’t understand why this keeps happening to them.

When I spend enough time listening to them to think that I understand the patterns in their lives, what I often see is someone who was raised with a very controlling individual. If in childhood they had a domineering mother and the only way for them to be safe was to learn how to please her, then they would have developed the skills of early warning radars. These radars were intended to read the signals that she was sending regarding what she liked or disliked about how they behaved and who they were. They would have learned to suppress their own level of desire or interest because it might not be safe. The dominant mother would signal which things or behaviors were acceptable. Then child would have learned that he or she “liked” certain kinds of food, clothes, activities, even music or TV shows because those would be the things that Mom liked and those things were safe. Safety is a primary need and goal for the young infant. Without it, they develop massive anxieties and often become depressed and/or full of rage.

When it is time for them to leave home and get out from under the thumb of the oppressive mom, then they often find a girlfriend who will replace her. (For consistency, I will use the masculine example, but this happens to both sexes and this could be either.) The girlfriend may not look like Mom, but she has the same attitude and she controls the situation by nuance and the offering or removal of approval. This representation of the “dominant other” is like a powerful magnet, which draws the individual like an iron filing. They just get pulled into the orbit of the new magnet and their life becomes a quest for safety within the new relationship. Often I describe these patterns for clients as being like a silhouette that is offered to them. If they go and stand in the confines of the silhouette, then they are safe and tolerated, perhaps they even receive approval by the strong person in their lives. This makes them feel safe, but it does not make them happy. Happiness is not an unconscious goal, safety is. They may not be aware that they are unhappy, but they will strive to make themselves safe and assume that if they are safe then they will be happy. If this relationship ends, they will find another iteration of the same individual and repeat the same process over and over in their life.

This is the point at which they often come to therapy. If we are talking about men, as we are in this example, then they seek women who will seem to be different on the exterior, but they are actually looking for an opportunity to repeat the same cycle hoping that this time they will get it right and then be safe, and ultimately happy. Part of the problem they deal with is that they have never had the independence, nor taken the time to figure out what they really want or like. They do not know what they want or what will make them happy. The challenge in their life therapeutically is to learn to recognize the pattern under which they operate, and then to deliberately risk small incremental changes that allow them to explore new behaviors.

One of the primary sources of anxiety will be not having a mask to wear, or a silhouette to stand within, so that they know they are “safe.” They are dedicated to doing what is “right,” what they “should” do, and NOT to asking what they want to do. I repeatedly ask my clients to ask themselves, “What do I want?” My clients find this to be a very difficult question to ask themselves. They have never considered their desires to be an option in their lives. They were led to believe that it was an act of selfishness if they put themselves first. Selfishness, they were told, is always bad. As a therapist, it is my job to challenge these beliefs.

I believe in the concept of what I call “Healthy Selfish.” I think it unhealthy to not know the things you like and the things you want. I think if you do not allow yourself to know them and to exercise adequate levels of self-care by satisfying those wants and needs in ways that make you feel good (i.e. happy) you will find unhealthy and unsatisfying behaviors that you do in order to be safe. The relationship will become toxic and cycle through predictable patterns of acting out, failure and disappointment. Selfish behaviors that take advantage of or hurt someone else are NOT what I am describing. Behaviors that are done in service of the health of the self are self-ish. I am referring to a psychological concept, not a sociological one.

When a client comes to me for help in breaking the pattern, I ask the client when there is a break in their repetitive cycle of dysfunctional relationships, and they find themselves alone, to stay alone. I ask them to not rush into a replacement connection with a new mask or silhouette that they can wear to make them safe again. Although this will reduce their immediate short-term anxiety and sense of disconnectedness, it would not make them happy or break the repetitive cycle in their lives and relationships. So, if they are brave enough and strong enough to take a period of aloneness, they can learn that there is a huge difference between being alone and being lonely. When they are able to be alone, I ask them to repeat at least three times a day, “If I were free to do anything in the world, what would I want to do?” I warn them that initially they will feel stupid and that no ideas may come. They will sit with the silence for a few seconds that feel like an eternity, and then they will distract themselves and “remember” that they need to change the laundry, or go to the store, or pay the bills, etcetera. But, if they are able to do this, they will eventually discover that something happens. They will discover something that they want or like. Initially, it may be something silly such as “I want ice cream!” or “I want to go to the movies.” I encourage them to act on whatever it is when it pops into their head, if they can. But even if they do these things, they need to keep asking themselves, “Is this what I want?” This is productive, even if nothing comes but silence. Eventually, I believe, they will begin to get glimpses of what they really desire or really want to do. When this begins to happen, we make a plan. I help them figure out how make their desires real. We discuss the steps or behaviors that are necessary in order to make that option a reality. This begins the quest for happiness, instead of safety. If they take this journey for healthy selfishness, they will get off of the path of cyclic dysfunction in their relationships and no longer seek the silhouette of the domineering (m)other to tell them what to do so that they can be safe.

I believe in a healthy selfishness. I think part of doing good therapy is to help the client discover their own autonomy and to consider that they have a right and a responsibility to behave in ways that will make them happy. These are not short term hedonistic self-serving behaviors, but major life decisions that develop their freedom, their integrity and help them to live a healthy, self-satisfying life, not an empty life of service to someone else’s life or desires. You can break the pattern of just looking for safety and be happy. If you are ready, and if you have a good therapist, you can make these changes and become free of the cyclical repetitive dysfunctional pattern of always choosing the same domineering individual to be your partner (guide). Good Luck.

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One Response to The Concept of Healthy Selfishness in Therapy

  1. Deana Bacon says:

    I could not agree with you more! Your clients and patients are lucky to have you..

    Thanks for posting such a
    vital article.

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