Advice from self-help gurus and pop psychologists can be confusing.
On the one hand they tell us that when we are blind to our own needs and consistently have our eyes on what others need or want, that we are self-abandoning, that we are causing ourselves harm. They also convey that when we are excessively concerned about our own needs and wants, we are being self-centered or even narcissistic, which is harmful to ourselves and to others.
So where should our focus be?
My view is this. There are hazards both options — being overly self-focussed or excessively other-focussed. So I’ll briefly describe both conditions and their effects.
Self-Focus as Self-Absorption
“From where I’m sitting, I AM the centre of the Universe!” Sebastyne Young
Focussing on our own needs is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it can go to the extreme. Let’s refer to it as self-absorption, which is a mindset in which someone is only concerned with their own needs and desires to the exclusion of others. Such people may act as though they are superior, but in their deepest selves they are likely defensive and insecure.
As you would suspect, self-absorption is not a great foundation for relationships of any nature. In its most severe form, it can be a symptom of a personality disorder, requiring proper care and treatment.
Other-Focus as Self-Abandonment
“An over-indulgence of anything, even something as pure as water, can intoxicate.” Criss Jami
Of course, we need to consider the needs of important others in our lives, but when we self-abandon, we are foregoing our own essential needs in order to please someone else, avoid criticism or to preserve a relationship.
Often the self-abandoning person often no longer knows their own needs and feelings as they have buried those a long time ago.
And, as the Jami’s quote suggests, an extreme other focus can be intoxicating, meaning that it can become a need in and of itself. But it does serve a hidden purpose and part of recovery is to expose what that purpose is. Twelve step programs like Al-Anon can assist healing from this condition and sit easily alongside therapeutic intervention.
The False Dichotomy — It’s Either You or Me
“As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.” Audrey Hepburn
At this point, you might begin to believe that a hard choice is required, meaning it’s either me or you and ‘neither the twain shall meet’. But that’s not the case.
We can prioritize needs, ours and others, and then direct our attention, according to prevailing circumstances, using the guiding principles of balance and boundaries.
When you say ‘Yes’ to others make sure you are not saying ‘No’ to yourself.” Paulo Cohelo
In healthy relationships, generally speaking, one person’s needs do not consistently override the needs of the other person or persons involved. There is a balance of ‘give and take’. For example, at times I might give a bit more and at other times you might have to extend your caring to a higher degree. But, in general, the relationship is marked by mutual caring, mutual giving and mutual support.
That’s not to say that there aren’t times when we must place others’ needs above our own, for example, in an emergency or other urgent situation. And so, quite appropriately in those circumstances, we focus on the other person or persons until the crisis has passed and a more normal pattern of reciprocity is able to be restored.
“Boundaries help us to [mutually] distinguish our property so that we can take care of it… We need to keep things that will nurture us inside our fences and keep things that will harm us outside.” Henry Cloud
Boundaries are about distinguishing between what is mine to deal with and what is in your domain of responsibility. It is knowing where I end and the you begin. It is taking my hands off what is in your area of accountability. Importantly, it is a sign of respect and trust in your ability to look after your business. Such responsibilities can range from everyday tasks all the way to personal and interpersonal issues, for example, how to do your job, deal with your family or address your addiction.
Of course, it cuts both ways. When you overstep your boundaries, I can politely yet firmly decline your intrusion however kindly meant. It could even be said that unwanted advice is a violation of boundaries.
Similarly, I will have no expectation that you will fix me or solve my problems for me.
We each have a responsibility to protect ourselves from the “things that harm us” – whether they are intrusive or violent behavior or hurtful words. Our first responsibility is to ourselves and that means looking after our own safety, both physical and psychological.
And that, introduces the concept of integrity.
Balance and Boundaries Protect Our Personal integrity
“Individuality is only possible if it unfolds from wholeness.” David Bohm
Integrity isn’t just about honesty and truthfulness in our dealings with others — conducting ourselves honorably. It also denotes individual wholeness and completeness.
While we are social animals who rely on our connection with others, we are, at same time, whole and complete unto ourselves. Personal integrity thus speaks to our individuality and our uniqueness. While we share similarities to other humans, we are each one-off models. There will never be anyone exactly like us again.
In summary, establishing balance and boundaries in our relationships upholds and honors the sanctity of our personal integrity in the second sense of the term.
Of course, balance and boundaries may vary from relationship to relationship. And what it looks like for one person may be different than for another. Professional assistance can therefore be useful, especially in relationships marked by a high degree of dysfunction.