Caring for ourselves and caring for other people is very much not a zero sum game.
But some people seem to think it is….which is a bummer.
I’m a psychologist, and I got into psychology because of my interest in self-help. And both clinical psychology and self-help tend to emphasize the health and welfare of individuals.
That is, they tend to be about making the life of the person who is in therapy, or reading, better.
I strongly believe in making individuals’ lives better. It’s kind of my mission statement.
(You think I’m kidding? My personal mission statement— which, by the way, is a thing everybody should have, i.e., a personal mission statement— is “to contribute to making as many peoples’ lives as possible, as awesome as possible.)
But improving an individuals’ life does not have to come at the expense of improving the lives of other people, or working toward change in cultural norms and values.
I’m not sure where we got this idea that it has to be a zero sum game, between improving our own lives and improving the lives of the people around us.
In my view, those projects— working on ourselves, and helping other people— are inextricably entwined.
One of the reasons I got into self-help when I was a teenager was because I was suffering.
I’d been depressed for as long as I could remember— which was both a cause and an effect of the difficulties I experienced fitting in with the kids around me.
On top of that, I was struggling with undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder— which meant that I was getting a lot of feedback that I was “lazy” and obviously “not trying hard enough” at school. Which confused me, in that it was my experience that I was exerting a GREAT DEAL of energy to function at school, and deepened my depression and anxiety.
For years, I suffered with feeling pretty horrible, on a day to day basis.
And while I was feeling horrible, I can tell you that my world pretty much centered on my own suffering. I just had no bandwidth or energy to really get invested in anyone else’s suffering— not that, at the time, I would have necessarily had anything to offer someone who was suffering, anyway.
We can’t give away what we don’t have.
It was only after getting into pop psychology, and FINALLY identifying some tools and skills to climb out of that emotional trench, that something interesting happened: I very suddenly became not just aware of the fact that there were a LOT of people out there who suffered like me…but I became passionate about helping them out of THEIR emotional trenches.
I’m not sure I can adequately express how immediate and emphatic the connection was between feeling better, and strongly desiring to give other people the helping hand that self-help gave to me.
Why am I telling you all this? Because it forms the basis of my strong belief that if we are to help other people, we truly need to help ourselves.
And when we do find effective tools and skills to help ourselves, not only are we better positioned to help other people…but we are strongly, intrinsically motivated to do so.
Lots of people reading this know exactly what I’m talking about.
Many of the people who follow my work do so because they know what it’s like to hurt.
Many of the people who are my friends, colleagues, and fans are in helping professions— and their passion for helping comes out of the pain they’ve experienced.
Helping ourselves is not the opposite of helping others.
It is a vital prerequisite.
Is it the case that there are some people out there who are ONLY interested in helping themselves, and who couldn’t care less if anybody else’s life improved? Sure.
But that doesn’t mean helping ourselves and helping others are in conflict.
It just means they are in conflict for those specific people.
I want as many people to be as emotionally and behaviorally healthy as possible.
That means I have to walk my talk of staying emotionally and behaviorally healthy myself.
And so do you, if you also want as many people to be as emotionally and behaviorally healthy as possible.
Don’t buy into the falsehood that there is a necessary dichotomy going on here.
Focus on making those goals complementary.
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