On selfishness and self-love

Part of my “treatment plan” for healing whiteness, as I mentioned in my last post, is to work with Tada Hozumi, who is writing a book called The Selfish Activist’s Guide to Allyship. Part of me rails against the idea of reclaiming “selfishness.” How could selfishness ever be a good thing? Especially in today’s times, when our country is run by a raving narcissist? My block against this is so severe I can’t even spell the word.  As I was jotting notes for this blog post; I realized that I’d scribbled “Shelfish Activist” at the top of the outline!! Perhaps there’s a Greenpeace boat dedicated to shellfish activism…  AND, when I went back to read this paragraph after writing it, I realized that I’d written “Part of me still rails against claiming ‘selfhisness.’”!!!  (Maybe “self-his-ness” is part of our President’s problem….!)

In the introductory webinar of Tada’s group, though, I had a major “aha moment” when he explained shame as an emotional process by which we repress aspects of ourselves, interfering with both self-awareness and self-regulation. I felt a surge of physical sensations, almost as if some child-like parts of myself hidden in there were clamoring for long-withheld attention: “me, me, look at me!” And I realized viscerally for the first time something I’ve known intellectually for years: that healing racism has as much to do with the liberation of white people as the liberation of people of color. “Oh,” I thought, “I want this for myself.” For my own healing and wholeness. Not just to be a “good” ally, to “do the right thing.”

My work with Wendy Elisheva Somerson, the somatics coach I’ve contracted with for a series of sessions on “healing shame,” began with a crafting a new “declaration,” which is part of the somatics methodology. We use the weird grammatical construction “I am a commitment to…” to emphasize our embodiment of the commitment, and complete the sentence with what it is that we want declare, and to practice until we can more fully embody it. After listening to me for a while, Wendy encouraged me to think of a declaration that focused on loving myself. My initial reaction was aversive – that’s not me, I don’t need that, my self-esteem is fine, (that’s too selfish)…. But, encouraged by the work with Tada, and wanting to trust her judgment, I decided to try to be open to the possibility.

So, I came up with “I am a commitment to deeply loving my whole self, regardless.” I had to look up who it was whose words “loves herself, regardless” have reverberated in my head for the many years since I heard them. I find it was from Alice Walker’s definition of a “womanist.”

But I still am not sure I want to claim “selfishness” as a positive concept. In addition to learning to view being selfish as anti-social, immoral, and just all-around bad, extreme selfishness is also a form of mental illness. About 10 or 11 years ago, in a desperate attempt to understand difficulties I was having with a colleague, I read the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) definition of narcissistic personality disorder. What I learned was very useful in understanding that person and a few others I’ve encountered. In addition to helping me understand certain kinds of behavior, it also clarified why certain types of personality disorder are hard to heal from. If nothing else, it helps me have more empathy for some people’s lack of empathy! And while there’s no excuse for some behaviors, like President Trump’s racist and catastrophic disregard of Puerto Rico, we can at least waste less time in anger and incredulity if we regard him as incapable of the usual kind of empathy.

The DSM-V came out a few years ago with major revisions, and as I perused it again as background research for this blog post, I found reading it again quite useful. I’m not trying to actually diagnose myself or others, but I appreciate the clarity of language describing the many ways we can (all, at times) function poorly. For instance, looking at it today I learned that there’s something called “Avoidant Personality Disorder,” which can include impairments in empathy such as “preoccupation with, and sensitivity to, criticism or rejection, associated with distorted inference of others’ perspectives as negative,” and difficulties with intimacy such as “reluctance to get involved with people unless being certain of being liked; diminished mutuality within intimate relationships because of fear of being shamed or ridiculed.” While I don’t think I fit all of the criteria for avoidant personality disorder, I certainly resonate at times with these traits.

As part of working to fulfill on my declaration to love myself, I have been practicing Buddhist lovingkindness meditation every day, using a method outlined by John Makransky and first taught to me by Rabbi Sheila Weinberg. The process is to bring to mind a moment from the past when we felt fully loved by someone (a person in our lives, or a pet, or a deity or mythic figure). Not someone who loved us unconditionally all the time – this is not really possible – but just a particular moment, or series of moments. Imagining that person before us, calling to mind that moment, focusing on it, and feeling the love filling us up. Then joining with that love, and relaxing into it. We can stop there, or go on to send the love to others as well.

Fortunately I have been able to think of many people and many loving moments to call to mind for this practice. Many of them are moments when I felt listened to very deeply and non-judgmentally. I am finding this practice very powerful, because it helps me notice the many ways I tend to live in fear of others’ judgment of me. For instance, as I was meditating on self-love the other day my mind quickly jumped to a mistake I’d made the day before. It was with someone I’ve known for a while but am just recently getting to be closer with, and we had a conversation about her mother in which I’d forgotten that her mother had died in the last couple of years. While this kind of memory lapse is not that uncommon for me these days, because of the particular context and situation, it was very embarrassing to me and I felt quite ashamed. I wanted to apologize profusely. I held back, though, trying to be mindful of my own reactions.

As I sat with the emotion, I realized that, while I was worried about having hurt her, I was also worried, a lot, about her negative judgment of me that might result. And my urge to apologize quickly and profusely, to “fix” the mistake, was motivated at least as much by wanting her to think well of me, as it was by wanting to repair any hurt I may have caused. Clearly, this degree of concern for my reputation is a kind of self-centeredness that can get in the way of caring for others, including caring about unintentional impacts I may have due to race and class privilege.

I am also noticing that, in a funny way, I live in fear of my own self-judgment. I’ve often had difficulty making decisions, and as I practice with this declaration, I see that I hesitate to make a decision out of fear of making a bad move – partly because others may judge me for it, but partly because I may berate myself for it. If I can catch myself in these states of worry, and remind myself that I’ve made a commitment to love myself regardless, then the decisions don’t seem quite so fraught, and the need to apologize doesn’t seem quite so desperate.

This week at the Groundwork anti-racism training, we learned about the “ladder of empowerment” for white people in their journey around anti-racism. On the non-linear journey from ignorance and prejudice to collective action and a community of love and resistance, we may cycle many times through defensiveness and denial, guilt and shame, and other inevitable but ultimately unhelpful emotions. As I work with the deeply transformational modalities being offered by somatics and Tada Hozumi, I will get to heal from my own wounds. And, eventually I hope, I will be better equipped to face into the true impacts of inequality and be more effective in building collective solutions, rather than getting stuck in shame and trying to prove I’m a “good” white person.


7 thoughts on “On selfishness and self-love”

  1. And then there’s always the great opportunity to establish a kinder, more useful meaning of the word… which you are doing right here! Thank you. 😉

  2. In reading Becca’s wonderful blog, a well-known statement from the Teachings of the Fathers (Pirke Avot in Hebrew) came to mind: If I am not for myself who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I?

  3. Thank you once again, Becca. Lots of layers!

    I was in a meeting recently and noticed that one person, someone of color was having no eye contact with me. I kept puzzling. It wasn’t till I got here me that I realized I called her by another person of color’s name. Then I thought back and o recent retreats where i’ve Done the same thing with some Vietnamese people. I think I have somewhat of a block, even though I also can confuse names of white people. But every time I do this I think of the saying, “I know, we all look alike.” And like you, i’m attempting to figure out— do I apologize? If so, how? But even more so is the issue of addressing that block…..

    1. I’ve done that wrong-name thing a number of times with people of color…. ugh!!! Or, as my 16-year-old nibling says, it’s so “cringeworthy.” And probably very basic to in-group/out-group psychology… without more familiarity with a group, the differences between “us” and “them” are more noticeable than the differences among them as individuals… I don’t think it’s possible to avoid this, but maybe we can learn to be more aware of our tendencies and correct for them…. ?

  4. Pingback: Leaning in to shame – towardanakedheart

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