Redefining The “Virtue” Of Selflessness

Sturm Enrich
Apr 4, 2018 · 3 min read

Before you ask: yes, I used to be a “Living Saint” and a doormat. Totally selfless. Putting everybody’s needs ahead of my own. Paying attention to life’s niceties. Based on a first hand experience: it DOESN’T work!

I learned that well-intentioned selflessness comes with a host of unpleasant “side effects”. No one looks up to you when you’re helpful. They might like you, but won’t respect you. No one takes your schedule, your privacy or your priorities into consideration. Your rights go down the drain. You lose authority. Being generous and polite may lead people to treat you like a child: for a while everyone in my circle referred to me as “sweetheart”! Gratitude on the other hand is fickle and fleeting. You can safely assume that your greatest sacrifices will be forgotten. Try being selfless and you’ll quickly learn that generosity is readily accepted but not valued; that those who put others ahead of themselves are considered dumb and disposable.

My sacrifice of time, work and effort earned me a reputation for being “nice”. It didn’t change the course of anyone’s life. It changed the course of mine. I had no time or energy left to pursue the things that mattered to me.

Being accommodating ultimately means devaluing yourself and choosing to be a third banana in someone else’s story as opposed to the lead character in your own.

The lesson here is: even though we’ve been taught that selflessness is a virtue, in my experience it isn’t. If you want to have a life of your own, begin by building a fence that protects your time and energy. Learn and use “no, can’t do”. “Good fences make good neighbors”: people who value themselves are respected by others.

(I’m not speaking against empathy or compassion, they are what makes us human. But just as it is the case with food, while we have to eat to live, overeating isn’t beneficial. When it comes to empathy, we need to care while keeping our priorities intact. Do not care more than you can afford!)

Perhaps it isn’t selflessness but selfishness that needs redefining. I’m not talking about extremes here! Selflessness — long celebrated as the ability to give of yourself — is in fact the act of giving yourself away. Selfishness — demonized as a form of greed — is taking care of your needs and investing in your future. Put side by side, selflessness is self-destructive while selfishness represents self-preservation.

Long story short: if you want to be everybody’s hero, BE SELFISH!

Putting yourself first is the only way to create and have a rewarding life.
When your needs are met you can be a success in your own endeavors and of benefit to others. When you’re exhausted from running other people’s errands, you have nothing of substance accruing for yourself or to share.

When all is said and done, each of us is a battery-powered watch and the battery has an expiration date. The time between now and then is yours. Don’t run out of time because you were busy pleasing others. In a larger scheme of things achievement, contribution and relationships matter. These are goals worth investing in. They produce dividends, errands don’t.

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Sturm Enrich

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