“You’re so selfish!” I hear this phrase too frequently when working with people who have trouble with separation and individuation. When children hear from their parents that they are selfish, it is typically understood as, “You are thinking about yourself when you should be thinking about me.”
In my psychotherapy practice, I meet many adults who grew up having internalized the experience that they are selfish if they choose their own needs and desires over those of their loved ones. Many continue to deny their own wants in favor of what they believe is best for their parents. Some have transferred their worries to include other relationships and, in the extreme, may avoid feelings of selfishness by providing for everyone else’s needs rather than their own. In most cases, people who believe they are selfish believe they are bad people. This guilt interferes with the ability to develop into separate individuals who know what they want and are comfortable getting it.
The power of guilty feelings about selfishness makes it very difficult to consider that selfishness is not by definition a bad thing. Selfish implies exclusive or excessive interest in oneself. It is unfortunate that parents who use “selfish” in an accusing way tend to use the term if the child’s focus on self in any way (not exclusively or excessively) conflicts with the parent’s needs.
I am going to briefly describe two people with whom I have worked who were severely limited by their inability to individuate because of their guilt over perceived selfishness. In our work, an important goal has been to understand selfishness as exclusive or excessive and to feel emotionally entitled to prioritize one’s own needs some of the time.
“Kate” felt trapped. She came into our session looking very agitated. “I can’t take it anymore,” she said. “I told Alan and the kids I had to visit my dad on Thursday night to help him make decisions about selling his apartment. I promised I’d come for dinner. My daughter Kim has a soccer game, and Alan is mad that I’m choosing my dad. He says I neglect our family. No matter what I do, I feel so selfish. They don’t get how painful it is for me to choose my dad over them. But when my dad needs me, if I say no, I feel the most selfish. He’s so helpless and upset when I’m not there for him. I know my mom will have some ideas, but he really relies on what I think. He’ll get anxious if I don’t come and advise him about this. I tried to tell him that I needed to come on another night, but he said, ‘It has to be Thursday. I’m your father, Kate, how can you be so selfish?’ ”
I reminded Kate that she was responding to that word again: “selfish.” I asked Kate what happens to her when she thinks she is being selfish with her father. I asked, “What buttons get pushed? What is the experience of thinking that you are selfish that makes you feel so trapped and unable to say no?”
Kate responded: “I feel like such a bad person. There is so much guilt. How could I upset my father? He gets so disappointed in me. I can’t stand that I could be such a bad person. You know, when I was a kid and this kind of thing happened, he would get a little teary and walk away from me and leave the room. I felt like I hurt him so much. In those moments I thought he would never come back. It felt like a punishment. I guess I still become that scared little kid every time he asks me for something. I have no choice but to give in to his wishes. I’m not sure I even know what my own wishes are.”
Kate had come to therapy because she was having problems in her marriage. She frequently got caught up in trying so hard to please everybody that she never seemed to express or know herself. Her husband complained that he felt like there was no one there. In our work, Kate came to realize that in early relationships with her parents, she had been so attuned to their needs and wishes that she had not developed her sense of an individual self. She was beginning to recognize that in order to protect herself from feeling like a bad person, she had unconsciously neglected the development of her own desires and feelings. This was now creating a problem in her relationship with her husband.
When childhood years do not provide the conditions for separation and individuation, the repercussions for adult relationships can be serious. In particular, anxieties about selfishness toward parents can generate intolerable feelings of shame and badness that can exert a powerful influence in adult life.
“Tess” came to therapy feeling depressed and anxious. She was 25 years old, working as a clerk in a bookstore. She felt isolated and lonely. Her main social contact was her parents. Tess looks back on her childhood with mixed feelings. On the one hand, she has fond memories of enjoying school, being close to and having fun with her friend Isabel, loving her piano lessons and practicing. At the same time, she said, “Maybe I didn’t have enough friends or should have gone to extracurricular activities in school. But I didn’t really mind. I liked being by myself, and kids were nice to me. I just didn’t talk a lot or do a lot of stuff with them.”
I asked Tess, “So what makes you seem so uncertain about whether you had a positive experience growing up?”
Tess was silent and thoughtful and then said, “I guess I thought things were pretty much OK, but my parents, especially my mom, always seemed to think I should be doing different things.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, she was always telling me I should call other kids or join a club or invite kids over. She compared me to herself and how many friends she had. She said she was worried about me since I seemed so socially awkward. Actually, I felt OK, but I had the feeling she thought there was something wrong with me. I was right. When I was about 12, I overheard her talking to my dad. Really, she was crying, not talking. She was very worried. She called me antisocial and said I was going to have real problems. The worst part of that memory is her crying something like, ‘I feel so hurt, she’s so different from me. She doesn’t seem to care about how this makes me feel.’ I was shocked! I ran up to my room and started to cry. I felt really scared. I didn’t know I could make my mom feel so terrible. I think that was the beginning of feeling it’s not OK to be me and that I was selfish not to be the daughter she wanted. But I also felt like if I was me, they would think these terrible things about me. After that, I just tried to please them, especially my mom. But I spent so much time trying to please them, I never thought about what I wanted.”
As Tess and I continued to talk, we became aware of how she was extremely reliant on her parents for feeling good about herself and for guidance. Tess was struggling with what to do with her future. She was considering graduate school in speech therapy or education. She also talked to me about her love for poetry and how maybe she would like go back to school for writing. “My parents think I’m better off with something more practical, so they suggested speech therapy or education,” she said. “I got some information about programs, but I can’t seem to get myself organized to apply. Speech therapy is my mom’s field, and it makes her so happy to think that I would be a speech therapist. I feel so good when she is happy because she approves of what I’m doing. When I think of pursuing poetry, I feel so selfish and so guilty. I know it brings up feelings in my mother of me being so introverted and awkward and makes her so miserable. I know I rely on her too much, but I hate to give up how good it makes me feel when I make her happy. It feels less scary when I go to them, maybe because then I don’t have to feel so bad and selfish if I consider what I want. … Maybe I don’t even want to be a poet.”
Both Kate and Tess were stuck in the dynamics of their early relationships with their parents. For both, the impact of their parents’ anxieties, aggression, and judgments had made it emotionally necessary to comply with demands regarding who and how they should be. Both had parents who were narcissistic and needed their child to be attuned to and accede to their wishes and desires. Not to do so was experienced as the child’s selfishness and wounding to the parents.
Hurting a parent can feel like inflicting a wound. This can make a child feel that the parent is impaired and unable to take care of the child and/or that there will be some retaliation. Terrible shame for being so “bad” and “selfish” is experienced. Kate and Tess, in order to protect themselves from these intolerable feelings and sustain a relationship of positive regard from parents, gave up knowing what they wanted and needed. In the safety of not knowing, they never fully developed their sense of self. They are unable to be clear about what they want for themselves, and rely heavily on parents for recognition and self-esteem.
But change is possible. Through their struggles, they can succeed in letting go of seeing themselves as selfish when they have a need or desire which differs from someone they love. This will allow for the emotional freedom to know what they want, think, and need. They can become their own, unique, individual selves.
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