Are there specific labels you deeply fear could be applied to you? Labels that are so aversive to you that you might spend a lot of time or energy engaging in your life in ways to avoid being perceived as those things? Maybe “lazy” or “incompetent” or “stuck up,” for examples? That label, for me, is “selfish.” I don’t know exactly where this came from but I have an incredibly strong aversion to being, or being perceived as selfish. Maybe it’s from the culture I grew up in. Maybe it’s from my family of origin. Maybe it was simply in the Kool-aid I drank. But I don’t think I’m alone in this experience. 

The  Retreat

I recently attended a retreat with Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife where she said there is a cultural attitude that “if you are a good person, you are kind of miserable.”

This resonated deeply for me. I internalized a lot of “shoulds” about what it meant to be a good woman. And I have always wanted to be good.

“Good women” serve others continually. “Good women” seek for ways to give of their time and talents. “Good women” put others’ needs above their own. “Good women” sacrifice. “Good women” aren’t allowed to have desires that interfere with this moral imperative of serving others. 

I never felt I measured up to these ideals. I never felt intrinsically THAT giving. I felt deep shame that I didn’t want to spend all my energy in service of others. Is it any wonder that in my youth I was bulimic? In public I tried to embody this nice, giving, other-oriented person, and in private I would overly indulge to try to fill this yearning that I could have wants and needs too. Then I would feel so ashamed and repulsed by those behaviors and I would immediately “repent” through literally purging my body of those selfish consumptions and desires.

I’ve come a long way since then. A LONG way. Beyond being recovered from my eating disorder, I also feel strongly that I am allowed to have wants and needs. However, this retreat made me realize that this concept hasn’t completely translated behaviorally and psychologically for me.

I am still so prone to feeling guilty for taking up space in my own life. I can have “me” time, if it’s really about helping others. For example, as a psychologist, it is literally my job title to HELP people so I feel totally fine going to work! I work part-time and have internalized an attitude that working is my “me” time and to want anything else or more in my life is “selfish.” I still judge myself for perceived “indulgences.” I can’t remember the last time I got a massage. I only get pedicures when it feels like it crosses the line from want to “need” and even then I wait another week. I can’t really go shopping for myself but it’s fine if it’s for my children or for others. These are painful attitudes to confront in myself but also necessary for my personal growth and development moving forward.

The Kool-Aid

I am writing this in a public space because I am hoping this discussion might be helpful for some of you as well. I don’t think I am alone in drinking that Kool-aid and internalizing some unhelpful attitudes about having desires for myself. For example, a huge light bulb moment came for me at this conference when I thought about the concept of self-care.

There is a lot of talk about how self-care is good for us and important to implement in our lives. But often the narrative around self-care is STILL oriented toward our roles and ability to take care of others! For example, “You can’t drive the car unless it has gas.” In other words, you better fill up your gas tank so you can take care of all the things you need to DO in your life…for others. Even the terminology self-care has an undertone of “replenish yourself”…but don’t over-indulge. Like self-care is a behavior that can bring you back to normal functioning…but heaven forbid you carve out more space and energy needed to help you move beyond functioning into thriving!

I don’t think I’m wrong in saying, we as women, are NOT overtly encouraged to have desires and wants in our lives. Indeed, we are covertly and overtly taught NOT to have them. To have desires and wants for ourselves, and to pursue them, is selfish. That damn word again.

This attitude is incredibly problematic. The way we are socialized to be “good” sets up a false dichotomy. That is, you can’t be good and serve others, while ALSO having your own wants and desires. We believe our own wants and desires will get in the way of serving others. Taken to the extreme, we may even believe that our desires and wants can even hurt others! Either through neglecting them or not care-taking them .

However, this attitude is completely wrong.

Our desires shape and express our sense of self. Having desires is critical for our self-development. Squelching them inhibits our growth and keeps us stunted in relationship to ourselves and to others. We cannot live up to our potential to create goodness for others unless we tap into, honor, and develop our own passions and desires!

Read that last paragraph again. It’s an important one.

I notice in that last paragraph, that I included the narrative that serving others is important. I did that on purpose. I think it’s easier for people to challenge a negative belief when they recognize how it interferes with relationships. We are, at our core, relational creatures. We value and thrive in relationships to others. So, if I can tell you that you will do better in your relationships and be better equipped to give to others by developing your own desires, this is a backdoor in to helping you take up space in your life for YOU.

However, I also think it’s also helpful to consider another belief system about ourselves that isn’t relational in context. The one I came to for myself, at this retreat, sounds something like this, “I am a whole, complete human who is worthy of goodness for myself, from myself! In order to live as a whole, embodied human, I need to step fully into my desires!” Our desires are innate within us for a reason. They are designed as callings for us toward growth, toward our potential, toward thriving, toward our embodied experience, toward JOY. I deserve goodness for ME.

Now go ahead and re-read this last paragraph. It’s super important.

This retreat with Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife was a total “indulgence.” I spent four days in beautiful Oregon, in a gorgeous cabin on an orchard, with one of my best friends and a community of amazing women. I ate delicious food that I didn’t have to make, or clean up. I took long walks, had deep soulful conversations and tear jerking laughs, all the while being deeply inspired by profound content from Dr. Finlayson-Fife.

The great irony is that I came home to my family more loving, engaged, mindful, intentional, and giving than I have been in a LONG time!  This reiterates for me that indeed, allowing myself to experience pleasure and joy for ME is valuable for the relationships in my life. If I can experience joy and growth, I am more able and willing to help others experience the same.

But the profound insight I needed most was to learn that I am worthy of having wants and desires. Not just worthy; I DESERVE them. For ME. This is not selfish! This is a call to help me grow and thrive. And you deserve to own and embody your desires too. Period.