Rescue you, and take you in your arms.
Rescue you, you want your tender charms.
Because you’re lonely and you’re blue,
you need you, and your love, too
Come on, rescue you.
See what I did there? Oh what a different world it would be. I challenge you to take every love song you hear (so, every song ever), change it from other-centered to self-centered, and see what happens. Does it make you smile or squirm? Feel something along the lines of, I could never love myself like that. Maybe you still believe, like I once did, that we are only meant to love others that much, not ourselves, because that would be selfish. Whatever your reaction, there’s something fascinating about how much our culture reveres other-love but tends to slink away from actually having a nurturing and committed relationship with oneself. (I’m not talking about narcissistic personality disorder here.) It’s really too bad, because a truly satisfying, happy, and purposeful life stems directly from self-love and self-esteem and letting go of this idea that we are meant to sacrifice ourselves for others. In a nutshell, if you rescue you first, you might actually be able to authentically help someone else – to rescue themselves of course.
I am all too familiar with the thinking that some magical man (or friend, job, trip, item) is going to come along, see me, rescue me, fix everything that is broken and make my life better and complete. I believed this for years. Who wouldn’t? Have you ever watched a Disney princess film? A romantic comedy? Read great works of literature? We are a codependent culture. We believe that our salvation lies in someone taking notice of us and meeting our needs. And of course we would trust this, considering we are taught it is almost evil to take care of ourselves first – so someone’s gotta do it! If all those Disney princesses had been told to find and rescue themselves, maybe things would be different. (The Wizard of Oz came close with the idea that it was always inside Dorothy and the gang: a brain, a heart, courage, home. With a little support from each other, they found that what they were looking for from the Wizard was already, and only, within.)
Yes, we are all connected. We are all human beings on this earth who deserve rights, respect, and dignity. But we have to give that to ourselves, first and mostly. To imply that it is to be gotten only from the kindness and service of others is to set yourself up into a mighty trap and a lifetime of disappointment. It is essential to have healthy, supportive connections with others, whether through family, friendship, or partnership, but if these relationships are what you rely on to feel loved and connected, you will likely find yourself feeling unfulfilled and maybe, like me, really confused and lost. It can start to feel like tail-chasing when you are seeking esteem and validation through the different people in your life.
This idea of other vs. self centeredness doesn’t just pop up in the movies. It is everywhere in society and therefore obviously reflected in social and public matters. There is an interesting dichotomy between liberal and conservative philosophies. If only the two could merge and share a bit from each side. Both have valid points. Both, at their essence, mean well. Both, when taken to the extreme are misguided and harmful. My father has always been a staunch libertarian, and although I disagree with some of his political beliefs, especially in terms of social issues, I understand where he is coming from at the core, and I believe that the essence of much of his philosophy is true. It is nice to help other people, but altruism, this idea that we are solely on this earth only to serve and save others without regard for ourselves is a dangerous concept. It is a concept that robs us of our birthright to take care of ourselves, esteem ourselves, and to continuously grow and develop our spirits. It is a codependent concept, because it says that our self-worth, our purposefulness and significance lies in what we do for and how we relate to others, rather than how we learn to help ourselves and become the very best people we can be. It keeps people in a suspended state of immaturity and irrationality.
Buddhism is another philosophy that I think can be misunderstood. I have taken to it quite a bit throughout my recovery, and there are facets of it that are brilliant. The talks and writings of Pema Chodron and Jack Kornfield are invaluable to me, and I agree with much of what they say. Presence, mindfulness, and the power of watching our thinking and not buying in to everything our minds tell us is profound. The idea of the middle way is profound. But this idea of becoming “nothing,” rejecting that we have a sense of self as the way to fulfillment, actually becomes a rejection of being a human, at least when taken to the extreme. When done lightly, it can be wholesome and helpful; the less obsessively attached I am to the roles I play in my life, to my belongings, to my external environment, to people, the more I can accept what is, practice gratitude, and not take myself too seriously. It is very much the path of honoring the self. But when it gets taken so far as to reject all connection to my personality, it becomes a slippery slope to self-abnegation and even self-hate.
It is unfortunate that so many miss out on this very rich work because they buy into the misguided belief that it is selfish and somehow wrong or that they are letting others down. This doesn’t mean we have no regard for others or trample through life with blustery ego and disrespect; in fact, the more we take care of ourselves the better we will get to know ourselves and the importance of healthy boundaries, and will thus be mindful of our impact on others. But when did self-reliance become a dirty word? When did it become considered so wrong to look after yourself? I have found that nothing has granted me more freedom, self-esteem, and joy than taking complete responsibility for my life, especially my thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the world. Have I been supported over the years by others? Of course I have. By parents, friends, fellows in recovery, therapists, teachers. We are an interconnected society, after all, and none of us are deserted islands. In a way, however, we are islands, and we sometimes welcome visitors and we sometimes leave and go elsewhere. But no one can crawl inside of me and change my heart, my mind, my point of view, my level of awareness and self-esteem. No one can value me the way I can value myself. It is my personal work, and I have a right to it. As do you. I strongly believe that if more people took care of themselves we would have a much healthier society.
It is a rational and powerful declaration to not make other people responsible for your life, especially in terms of your inner well-being. External needs vary, and we certainly rely on others to help us with various facets of living. That is part of society. But it is no one’s job to take care of your inner world and overall happiness. To perpetually paint certain people as victims whose only chance of survival is to be saved by those who aren’t “selfish” and self-serving is to steal from those very people their chance at cultivating their own self-esteem and self-worth. Support is one thing – rescuing, fixing, completing, and saving is quite another. There are, tragically, people who find themselves in real victim roles, violently persecuted by another person, group, or government, and they deserve help. Just as we have firefighters to save us from burning buildings and heart surgeons to prevent fatal heart attacks, those who are truly helpless deserve intervention. I guarantee, though, when all is said and done, that the truest way out for them is to feel empowered from the inside out, not forever reliant on some other person or group to perpetually save them. And fortunately, most of us are not helpless or broken beyond repair. We might feel helpless at times, but if we are not in chains, there is always a solution. Never underestimate the power of the human spirit to triumph, especially when ignited with freedom. This is not about tough love or plucking at those proverbial bootstraps – it is about inspiration and granting people the dignity to exist as individuals.
Helping others, especially the helpless, is kind, decent, and necessary, but the process should always have an end game – helping them to help themselves. Most people in their heart of hearts do not want to remain victims, because humans do not thrive when they are disempowered. This is a small example, but the best therapist I ever had did this very thing; our work was an integral piece of my recovery, but after nearly two years, we both knew I didn’t need the therapy anymore. We acknowledged this in a session, and off I went to practice living with my mended soul and psyche. I sometimes had moments of fear where I thought I needed to go back, but I found I was able to resolve the problems on my own. Talk about real help! If I had stayed with her for years and years, too timid to believe that I could navigate the big wide world on my own, it would have turned codependent, which always stifles life force, and frankly, breeds resentment.
I mentioned earlier, that I agree with much of what is said on Buddhism. That right there is a powerful idea – to agree with much of something. Some of something. Half of something. Maybe only a small fraction of something? Who gets to say what we believe, think, and feel? Part of personal freedom is the ability to think independently and decide for ourselves. It is also how we exercise our minds and practice critical thinking and problem solving. I don’t want to be told what to believe, and, when I get really honest, I don’t want my problems solved for me. I want to explore and decide for myself. I want the struggle. A great teacher leads students to discover their own philosophies and values – not give them already established ideas to memorize and emulate. (So please, reject what I am writing and think for yourself!) Even in twelve step programs, it states very clearly, “take what you like and leave the rest…. we realize we know only a little.” What a profound statement. Funny though, how when people dissent a bit in meetings or disagree with what is written in AA literature, there’s a strange energy in the room. It is scary and threatening to go against the grain. People want to conform. It feels safe to have one thought. This is the way. There is no other way. How limiting. But it makes sense to be drawn to that because to think, discover, and decide for yourself requires more work and more risk. And a lot of people might get mad at you, find you strange, or (gasp!) selfish. And yet, it is far more rewarding and enriching. The joy of living and growing dies when expression and thought are controlled, even if the intention is for some kind of peace.
I have decided instead, after years of being a victim, codependent, terrified of other people’s reactions, to learn and think for myself and not sequester myself into one group or entity, wherever I go. Especially politically – dear lord, I don’t want to belong to either side! (Can we safely say that both the extreme left and right are out of their minds and seem to have no tolerance for dissent? Yikes!) Even as a proud “member” of Alcoholics Anonymous (the only “requirement” for membership is a desire to stop drinking), I don’t agree with everything that the books say or that the people say. Same thing goes for Al-Anon. Much of my recovery from addiction (and fear) was learning that I could think for myself and take good care of myself. I see a lot of fellows suffering because they comply so rigidly with the program tenets and allow no space for other ideas. They have bought into this bizarre idea that their minds are too unwell to think for themselves or that anything outside of a twelve step program doesn’t support recovery. I see a lot of self-rejection. I have compassion, though, because I used to be like that, and also passion, because I changed! It took me a few years to be able to accept, without shame, that I was too governed by emotions and too reliant on the opinions of others. But I finally got it. Today, I try to keep it open and roomy. Best thing I have done to stay open and free thinking? Read and read and read. Read everything, from all sides. (And also know that the people writing might have profound insights or might be full of shit. Think for yourself.)
Today, my philosophy is two fold: firstly, to take care of yourself first, deeply and wholeheartedly, which will then allow you to make authentic connections to others and be useful and purposeful. The playing field will be level, because you won’t be trying to save anyone or expecting them to save you. You won’t be so offended by others or judgmental, because you won’t need others to agree with you or validate you. A nice paradox of detachment and connection comes into play. The second piece is having some kind of faith, which is defined as “complete trust or confidence in something.” It doesn’t have to be religious or philosophical or fancy. But it helps to have faith in some kind of Higher Power, some benevolent, loving force, to help along the journey. Personal growth can be deeply confronting and painful and obviously has its fair share of aloneness and sometimes loneliness. It was essential for me to build a loving Power, which I sometimes call God because that word doesn’t bother me, to be with me along the way. This was especially significant when I was first getting sober and confronting my very fragmented and miserable self, because I had no internal parent or Power within. Today, I do. And yet I also still have my Higher Power, because It has proven to be a loyal buddy who loves me like crazy. 🙂
The two together, my esteemed and worthy self that is free to think openly and doesn’t rely on others for her happiness, and my homie Higher Power, is a recipe for authentic and joyful living. (How to translate this into a Disney film?) I no longer have to look to others to decide who I am. When necessary, I can seek advice, support, and nurturing from trusted friends and give that in return if called upon, but I also know that the answers are mostly within. My heart is open and vulnerable, but I have boundaries. My brain is not stupid. It’s not sick and diseased, as is sometimes said to be the case in twelve step meetings. My brain is capable of healthy thought, especially when aligned with my spirit. Am I still capable of obsession? Of course. But that doesn’t mean I’m insane. It means I am human, and maybe slightly more obsessive than the average bear because I suffered for years with addiction. The difference today is that I can sit with that obsession until it passes, instead of acting on it in some destructive manner, because I learned how to take care of myself and not abandon myself.
An addendum to my philosophy of self-care and faith in a Higher Power would be cultivating acceptance (this does not mean becoming weak and defeated) and awareness. Acceptance means letting go of trying to force outcomes. It encourages being right-sized and grateful for our lot in our present lives, while awareness encourages being open to change and growth. Both invite pausing, a truly remarkable tool, perhaps one of the most important, that helps me respond with grace rather than react with harried instinct. It is far easier to practice acceptance and awareness when we practice really effective self-care. There are certain absolute truths of which I am aware and accept, but there is also a lot of room for expansion and change of thought. I know that no man or friend or teacher or whoever is going to come along and save me from having to take care of myself (and I wouldn’t want it). And I know that I have no power to really change or save someone; maybe at the best, I might inspire them or point them in a healthy direction (to themselves!) None of this makes my mind smaller or makes me selfish in the dirty word way – quite the opposite in fact. I like being responsible for my life today and being in charge of my well-being. It is richly satisfying and far less convoluted.
It is still considered cold-hearted and indulgent for people to worry less about others and take care of themselves first. I dare you to challenge it. It might set you free. Cue the love song.