Letters like these make my day: ‘Dear Dr. Hurd: I was always taught in school and in church to be selfless when it comes to others’ needs and what they are thinking. But as I enter my mid-70s, I have to admit that I spend more time paying attention to my own comfort and happiness, and less time worrying about others. So far, everybody has survived, and they’re taking care of themselves just fine. Truth be told, I really don’t feel guilty about this, and I probably should have done it a lot sooner. Is there anything I’m missing that might make feeling this way the wrong thing to do?’
One of the nice things about getting older is that you can drop the pretense of concern over other people’s opinions. Your life experience has taught you that it really doesn’t matter. There’s a big difference between worrying about ‘other people’ in general, and a few significant others whose opinions may actually mean something to you.
Years ago, I counseled a woman who was chronically depressed. In our sessions it emerged that she was deeply preoccupied with what other people thought. This caused her to be resentful, unhappy and withdrawn. When I asked her why she felt such a need to please others, she replied, ‘I want to be normal. I want to be part of the group!’
Her thinking had a tragic flaw: Human beings are not pack animals. We survive through the use of our individual minds. Of course we are social creatures, and we do well when we interact, but it is individuals who tend to accomplish things. Thomas Edison, not a committee, pioneered the practical use of the electric light. Bill Gates was creating revolutionary computer code long before there was a Microsoft.
Individuals who accomplish heroic things almost always offend the conventional wisdom of their time. Galileo stubbornly insisted that the sun did NOT revolve around the earth and was severely punished by religious authorities. If you take a look at the timeline of history, you’ll see that the human race tends to move forward in spite of the pack, not because of it.
It’s impossible to please everyone. If everybody loves you, you’re most probably being inconsistent or phony. Nobody and no thing can be everything to everybody.
A lot of the problem starts in childhood. Along with ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ children should also be taught that good manners include the skills required to say ‘no.’ By saying ‘No, thank you,’ or ‘I’m not able to do that for you,’ you’re being honest with others and, at the same time, polite to yourself. If young people were more consistently exposed to this concept, there would be less resentment, guilt and unhappiness later in life. When kids are taught to be selfless and giving in all situations, they’re being set up to be taken advantage of by those who are all too happy to cash in on their ‘obligation’ to sacrifice.
How liberating, in your mid-’70s, to finally realize that you never had to be so concerned with pleasing everyone else. Maybe your experience can be an example to people of all ages. The key statement in your note, ‘So far, everybody has survived, and they’re taking care of themselves just fine’ is enlightening, isn’t it? Besides, don’t you think it’s kind of arrogant to assume that people require your constant approval in order to cope? A healthy society is one in which people think for themselves, follow their own ideas and notions, and, most importantly, respect the right of others to do the same.
Don’t rush to assume that everyone wants or needs your help. It’s emotionally draining, and others will often resent it because they (quite appropriately) see it as intrusive. We’re all solely responsible for what we do or don’t do with our talents. It can be a profound relief to finally allow yourself to make your life what you want it to be.
We all applaud the notion of ‘serenity,’ where we focus on what we can control, and leave the rest alone. It’s not a matter of being mean, indifferent or uncaring — it’s simply learning to let go of what we can’t control.
If you want to make the world a better place, first make yourself a better person. If each of us were to do that first and foremost, everybody would benefit.