In the course of seeking self-growth, I’ve learned some surprising truths – wisdom opposite to what I’d been culturally trained to believe. Sometimes, like the koans of Zen Buddhism, reflecting on a paradox or impossible problem can bring enlightenment. Or, if enlightenment is too ambitious a goal, at least shift our thinking from habitual pathways to push our growth.
1. Powerlessness is Powerful
I grew up thinking I had to make my life what I wanted it to be. Self-will ruled! The attitude was a natural outgrowth of a family with immigrant roots – one has to work hard to advance in the world; no one else will hand you success.
Unfortunately, this led to believing that not only should I control my destiny, but those of everyone around me and all of my life circumstances. I thought I was all powerful, and expended a lot of energy trying to force things and people to go my way. As you might expect, this led to much misery and disappointment.
What I’ve come to realize is that recognizing where we’re powerless actually makes us powerful. Giving up the illusion that we control others’ decisions or the wider circumstances of our lives helps us focus on the things we really can influence – our thoughts, feelings, and actions. An example: We can’t make someone give us the job we want, but we can present well at the interview and maintain a positive attitude in all interactions, whether we ultimately get the job or not.
2. Putting Myself First Makes Me a Better Friend to Others
This seems counterintuitive – isn’t it selfish to focus on myself? How can I be there for others if I’m thinking of myself first? In truth, unless we do think of ourselves first, and take care of our own needs, we will not have what it takes to be a good friend to someone else.
For example, people with low self-esteem may use their friendships to boost their ego. Such a person might give to his friends, do for his friends, be there for his friends, but with an expectation that they will appreciate him, stroke his ego, and return the favors. If they don’t reciprocate, he’ll be angry with them, never realizing that even if they gave him their approval, it would not make him feel better. He must generate his own self-esteem. Then he will be more able to truly see the other, and what they need from him as a friend, rather than projecting his needs on them.
It is only in knowing and liking oneself that one can believe in one’s value without needing others to reflect it back. This makes generous, selfless friendship possible.
3. Self-Care is Not Selfish
Another common cultural teaching: take care of others before oneself because the latter is selfish. Unfortunately, the down side is that we end up draining our own energy to be there for others, giving too much when we may not have it to give. This approach also leads to looking outside ourselves for approval and self-esteem, which again is an impossible order. We will seek forever unless we turn inward.
The only way out of this conundrum then is to focus on building our own self-respect and worth, and the best way to do this is to practice self-care. Every human being has needs – from the basics of physical survival up to spiritual fulfillment. We cannot expect others to meet those needs for us – just as we cannot meet them for others. When we make sure we have what we need first, we are much more available and energetic in our support of others.
4. Give Up and Get What You Want
Ironically, the best way to get what you want is to give up striving desperately for it. I’ve experienced this in many areas – buying a house, finding a life partner, shifting my life path.
Here are tips for giving up having to have something but not letting go of hoping for it (from a previous post, To Get What You Want, Give Up):
- Recognize what you’re holding on to – what is it you feel you have to have in order to be happy, healthy, or whole?
- Go to the worst place – what would happen if you never got it? Acknowledge and accept your fears.
- Go within – if you don’t get what you think you want, can you still feel good about yourself?
- Turn to trust – can you trust the universe to take care of you if you don’t get the outcome you desperately want? What has been your experience to date?
- Look at the past – when something hasn’t worked out the way you wanted, were you still ok? Did something better happen instead?
- Work for what you want, but detach from the results – you may find your dream comes true in a way you would never expect.
5. Helping Can Hurt
There is a difference between helping someone and enabling them to continue self-destructive behavior. True help is best offered to someone who is taking personal responsibility, who understands that all consequences are their own, and who will use the help in healthy ways. Enabling actually hurts the person, because it takes away their ability to be responsible for their own choices and face their own consequences.
For example, say a friend just lost a job and can’t pay their rent. It might be help to offer to pay their rent for a month. But it might just be enabling. It all depends on whether the person you’re helping is working hard to find a way to pay their rent or sitting back on their laurels, sure others will help them through the rough spot.
How do you know if it’s helping or hurting?
- Look at the other person’s level of responsibility – are they working hard to meet their own needs or do they depend on others to carry them?
- Examine your motives – are you helping with good intentions and belief that they are also working to take care of themselves, or are you playing savior, thinking the other will fall apart without you?
Have you run into any other personal development paradoxes? I’d love to hear about them.