You know, when I was younger, hearing people talk about how to be a “good person” in any way would have me get defensive and down on myself. Like if I didn’t meet all the criteria (the criteria, sometimes given by a stranger speaking their perspective), that automatically meant I was a bad person. So I either had to 1) prove to myself (or to them) that I wasn’t, through rationale, excuses, and defense mechanisms, or 2) beat myself up over it, and feel terrible about myself as punishment.
Now some of that was a skewed perception of who I was. For instance, if someone said, “if you want to be a good person, you must be really giving”, I tended towards hugely discounting all the ways that I DO give, and still making myself feel bad for it. (Ridiculous I know - but check yourself, you might do it too). Some of it, though, was based on something a little bit heavier, deeper, more engrained. It was based on my conditional love of myself. Basically, I had an idea of what it meant to be a good person, (obviously hugely based on what other people thought a good person was!), and if anything I did didn’t line up with it, I felt ashamed. (Not just guilty, as guilt is the willingness to acknowledge you could have done better, and then learning and aiming to do better. But deeply ashamed.) So ashamed that I could hardly admit to myself that I didn’t fit this perfect mold of what it meant to be a good person in my head.
I’ll give an example. At the end of my yoga classes I say the phrase “to be understanding, loving, and giving, rather than be understood, be loved, or receive” (a section of my family prayer!). There were days where I would say that, or say the prayer to myself, and think, oh goodness, I’m only focused on being understood, I’m such a terrible person. As if “I’m only focused on being understood” = “I’m such a terrible person.” I would immediately love myself less. I would doubt myself, and put myself down for being so selfish. Which of course, in turn, led me to be more selfish in my conquest to cover up how selfish I was being! I needed to make it seem “ok” so I could still qualify as a good person, and pretend to be “ok” with myself, even though I wasn’t. Instead of, simply admitting to myself that I was really focused on being understood, instead of being understanding and compassionate with others, and then DECIDING to change that. It’s like it’s so simple, we don’t even know how to do it. And I think it’s really tied to this (among other perspectives and terminology): our conditional love for ourselves. If I no longer love myself because I was a little selfish in a conversation with a friend, or because I got mad at a student for being late, I’m in big trouble! Because you guys - I’m human, and sometimes, those things are gonna happen. And that has to be ok. I have to be allowed to do that without being punished, or loved less. AND, I must be able to see it, learn from it, and choose how to move forward, knowing that I want to be better for myself and for others at all times.
Phew. That was kinda heavy. Why am I sharing this? Well, this week I started reading a book called, “This is How We Rise” by Claudia Chan (thanks for the rec Haley, if you’re reading this!). She talks about making the shift in mentality from “me over we” to “me for we”, essentially meaning, serve others before serving yourself. As I was reading, I felt remnants of that defensive Jessie going - “but what about self-care!” “I DO serve others! Don’t I?” And “oh no, am I a terrible person? Am I not doing enough for others?” She even touched on it, she said,
“Now if you’ve done the work of personal growth, therapy, or coaching, the idea of serving others before serving yourself may sound ludicrous. We’ve been taught that we need to put ourselves and our self-care first in order to bring our best selves to our careers, families, and causes. I believe and preach this message too. But there is a difference between self-love and being self-centric. Self-love is keeping your bucket replenished and full so you can bring your most fit self to the external realms of your life like family, workplace, community, and neighbors. It is optimizing the health of your physical, mental, and financial state so you can best serve your life’s purpose. Conversely, being self-centric is investing in all of these areas but for the sole purpose of serving yourself. Self-centric people mainly put themselves front and center on their own stage and spend their lives consumed in establishing their image, as defined by societal clichés of making more money, being more popular, having more social media likes, wearing the right brands, living in the fancier house, and so on. In reality, the more we chase these superficial things, the further away we get from having sufficiency and peace. The satisfaction that comes from gaining the material is always temporary.”
Now real quick, let’s debunk this: WE ARE ALL SELF-CENTRIC. Some of us more than others, some of us rarely, some of us all the time, but we all are. And if you’re not with me yet, keep reading. It’s not necessarily about the fancier house, although that is a more dramatic manifestation of this feeling. It’s about the need to BE something in order to feel good about yourself. So if it’s that you need the expensive car to feel cool, there ya go. If it’s as subtle as you need your boss to like you to feel good about yourself, boom. It’s the same thing. And it’s self-centric even in the moments of self-doubt, as you are still worrying about how you’re performing negatively, you’re still consumed but your own lack of self-worth, you’re still trying to prove to yourself that you are lovable, instead of being present for others.
Ok now real quick, if you are anywhere near where I was (and still sometimes find myself), let’s clear something up: NONE OF THIS IS BAD OR WRONG OR ANYTHING TO FEEL BAD ABOUT. It’s simply life. We are humans, we have egos. We are going to need to be seen, to feel important. It’s our nature. And it’s ok.
But the beauty of this discovery, is that we can use this information to develop ourselves. No, it’s not bad that you had a moment of being self-centric; but you can look at it when you catch it, and decide to learn from it. Decide to look at your values, rather than your ego driven reactions, in order to make a better choice next time.
One more example. My friend was talking about sharing an experience with her father. She did this coaching program, and her coach told her she’s lazy. Hah. What he meant was something very specific, in that she is not putting all the effort she could to making her life work. He was not simply insulting her, and she knew that. She actually really heard him, and is now making steps to not cut corners, and really be in integrity in her life. However, when she shared this with her dad, he could hardly let her finish the sentence before he got upset about her coach calling her lazy. He went into defense mode, don’t talk smack about my daughter! Which of course, is lovely, thanks dad. But if she had done that with her coach, if she had heard her coach’s word and immediately shut him down because of the perceived insult, she wouldn’t have heard that she has room to make her life stronger. She wouldn’t have seen this pattern in herself, that her coach so keenly spotted for her. Now I’m not saying that type of intense coaching is for everybody, but I am saying - when we put up our defenses, we BLOCK ourselves from growing. Same in my past when I would immediately get worried I wasn’t good enough, and would spend all my energy defending myself to myself. Because of that, I couldn’t even begin to see how I was slacking, and how to be better. I couldn’t even let myself be with it, because it was too scary that it meant I wasn’t lovable.
This just doesn't work.
When do you get defensive? Start to look at it. Ask it what it’s doing, and why it’s doing it. Look at your ego, challenge it to unconditional love. Let it know that even if you did something bad or weren’t being your best, that it doesn’t mean that you are bad. It just means you did something bad. See it. Learn from it. And watch yourself level up. ;)