The dangers of selflessness


Years ago, in the middle of an expat crisis (having gone in a short time from classic expat to embedded-foreign wife), I hired a coach. I had never been a fan of the coaching concept but, after all, I didn’t have enough time, will or money for therapy nor did I have enough friends determined to listen to my monologues for an entire hour a week AND give me valuable advices at the same time. So I hired. A coach.

We would talk on Skype in the early afternoon, while she was having breakfast in her Washington flat and I was already at my 5th coffee in my Brussels bureau. It lasted a few months before I realized I had started to regularly postpone sessions, making up excuses not to talk to her and cutting short our weekly 60 minutes. I don’t remember the details but at some point I figured out she kept dishing out nice-sounding phrases like those I receive on my Facebook newsfeed from Arianna Huffington. Stuff like “Live, Love, Laugh” or “Resentment is your first enemy in life”. First I stopped taking notes and then I stopped talking to her altogether.

There’s one thing I still remember, though. She talked me about famous people who had to disappoint their circle of friends and family in order to become who they were and to leave their mark. She cited Gandhi and, while reading his biography, I felt confused to learn that he practically obliged his wife and children to live in extreme poverty in order to conform to his own ideals. 

What about selflessness?, I thought.  Didn’t everybody tell me all the time that one should put others first, doing everything to procure happiness at every cost, even one’s own sorrow?

I have practiced selflessness as a mantra since I can remember. I was born with broad shoulders and a sense of humour, plus the intimate belief that anything in the world will look brighter after a brisk walk and a favourite drink. I am lucky for this. So lucky I always thought it was my mission to alleviate other people’s burdens. Boyfriend break-up? I am there. Monstrous boss? Come to see me tonight. Baby blues? There in 10 minutes with ice-cream. A row with your husband? You can stay the night, I’ll make you breakfast tomorrow.

In my twisted logic, other people’s issues and circumstances are definitely, always, more important than my everyday routine. At the age of 35, I start to ask myself when I will be able to put limits to this.

I was looking at my agenda the other day and I was scared. Beside my mother-and-wife usual duties my days are punctuated by meetings with people I don’t even like that much (let’s say, I like 50% of them), to talk and go over issues that don’t even have the slightest impact on my own life. 

I can’t resist the opportunity to give out a hand, some of my time and a listening ear to people in distress. Unfortunately  – and quite predictably – it seems to work only one way. 

How one becomes selfish? Is there a way to learn to do that? Or to say NO? A clear, loud and unmistakable NO?

I am taking lessons here. Teach me how to get rid of selflessness and regain control of my time without the guilt. Please.




  1. Just say no! Didn’t we talk about this already? It’s great that you are there for everybody but maybe you should weed out the ones who ask for your time and ears out of self- centeredness (is this a word? not sure). It’s so hard for me to say no but my limit is one heavy chat/coffee a day. It feels like my social life has ground to a halt but I am a lot more productive – and happy.

  2. Here is a simple way to start gaining control of your time – and ditch the guilt.

    Scenario: You are about to respond to an email from a friend who is upset about her “monstrous boss.” You are not that close and your whole body is saying “Yuk, I don´t want to do this right now.” Will you go over and listen to her the rest of the night? Before you decide, answer these two questions:
    1) If I agree to go over there tonight, what am I saying “yes” to? (On your “yes” list might be a long night of listening, a hectic drive across town and further entanglement in the story).
    2) By agreeing to come over, what am I saying “no” to? (At the top of your “no” list might be a bedtime story with your children, a hot bath and a sense of accomplishment from setting boundaries that feel right to you.)

    If the items on the “yes” side feel terrible and the experiences on the “no” side seems to be delicious – then say no!

  3. I really don’t mind helping out in a crisis, but once it becomes a pattern, and the person is having essentially the same crisis over and over again without doing anything about the root cause, I tend to put a stop to it. There’s nothing worse than having to listen to endless on-and-off-boyfriend problems… I just don’t do it.

  4. I gotta admit, there was a point about four years ago where I shifted gears completely – tackled my own issues and situation. The upshot was to rebuild completely and every relationship / interaction became a conscious and deliberate choice.

    It is amazing how many people you have ‘been there’ for years melt away… and you become lighter, happier and better able to embrace and enjoy what becomes blindingly clear without the clutter ACTUALLY matters!

    Good luck making deliberate choices and don’t colour them with labels such as “selfish” and chuck out useless “guilt.” (and apologies in advance if any of that sounded like more useless ‘coaching’ crap!)

  5. I sympathise. I think that women in particular have a problem with this as we’re conditioned to help people.

    A friend recently had a text from another friend asking her to babysit. She thought it was a cheek that she’d done it by text instead of over the phone. I said, ‘are you kidding?? I love getting asked to do things by text or email. I can say ‘no’ without a problem then, but ask me in person or on the phone and I say ‘yes’ to all sorts of favours I don’t want to do.’ This has actually backfired on me as this particular friend now knows I can’t say ‘no’ if she asks me in person!

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