Self-Compassionate vs. Selfish

Many of my clients struggle when I encourage them to care for themselves.  Often people are concerned that taking time for themselves away from there family is selfish.  Other’s worry how setting boundaries to protect their own needs may hurt someone else.  We all get stuck trying to figure out how to balance our needs with those of others.  Isn’t it always right to put the needs of others before our own?

Recently I re-read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.  This little book begins by describing the love between a little boy and a tree.  It starts out as mutual relationship where there is an equal exchange of loving, playful interaction.  Then the boy grows up and leaves, and the tree is sad.  When he comes back the tree is happy and continues to love through giving his apples, his branches, and then his truck.  At the end the tree is left only a stump and when the boy finally comes back as an old man and uses the stump as a chair, “the tree is happy but not really.”

What is the message of this short story.  Is the tree an example for all us of how to love with generosity and self-sacrificing compassion?  It seems so at first glance.  But if you look closer perhaps you might see that the tree is an example of what not to do.  He loves the boy, but not himself and in the end neither he nor the boy seem very happy.  The boy is alone with no one and nothing to show for his life, and the tree is now only a stump.

When we love our spouse, a child, or a friend, it is of great importance to love ourselves in equal measure.  An act of selfishness only benefits the one that takes it usually only by providing immediate pleasure or relief.  An act of self-sacrifice only benefits the other person usually only by proving the same immediate pleasure or relief.  However, an act of compassion values one’s self and others together by taking the needs of both into account and finding ways to serve both together.   When we care for others while also caring for ourselves in equal measure, our care tends to be of a higher quality allowing us to support the other for their long term benefit.

For example, a working parent feels guilty for being away from their children so they neglect time for themselves and for their relationship with their spouse.  They spend every second out of work trying to care for and experience positive quality time with their special child.  This is good, important work.  In the short term the child may prefer another trip to the park then two hours with a babysitter or grandparent.  However, what if those two hours to recharge allows that Mom the energy to provide disciple instead of just giving the kid what they want to keep them from whining.  Or it may keep that child’s parents relationship fed just enough so the child has the benefit of growing up with parents who love one another.  Caring for yourself and your marriage is an act of self-compassion because it benefits all involved.

The tree could have loved the boy and still keep his apples, branches, and trunk.  It might take a little creativity, but we can compassionately care for ourselves and those we love.

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