The Me-Me-Me syndrome

During one of this weekend’s several Easter dinners, the popular topic of relationships came up. The truth is, we’re all trying to figure it out. Reconciling relationships is more complicated than excelling at one’s career. And few will argue that.

Then my friend made a comment that struck a chord, probably because I’ve been saying something like it for a long time: we’re so bloody self-absorbed! What he means, specifically, is that there’s this idea that we can’t love others unless we love ourselves first, and he thinks that’s hogwash.

I agree with him, at least in part. To be clear, I recognize the importance of loving ourselves, but is it necessary for loving others in a healthy way? Not really. Some people live their whole lives loving others more than they love themselves. And I’m not talking about Mother Teresa types. I mean those with low self-esteem or self-sacrificing, nurturing people. To say that these folks are not fit for romantic relationships is unfair, not to mention untrue. It really depends on the kind of person their partner is. When a mothering sort ends up with the sort that likes mothering, it’s usually a match made in heaven. It might not be my idea of heaven, but it’s not my relationship either. Besides, there really is no formula for this kind of thing. Just a bunch of silly ideals.

Minus the relationship angle, I’m very interested in this “self-absorbed” business. We see it a lot in daytime television formats. In fact, Dr. Phil is its prime champion, else he wouldn’t have a show. But I have to wonder, to what extent is it beneficial to zero in our problems, at length, in the name of self-improvement? The process of self-help often involves DIY psychology, focusing on the blueprint set by our childhood, and confrontational purges that add up to unnecessarily reliving painful incidents.

It wouldn’t mean a thing to me if I didn’t see so many people getting hooked on the improvement habit, while alienating us non-addicts. Some people so easily subscribe new “growth and awareness” strategies, and a surprising number of my friends lost their common sense to The Secret. The unfortunate thing about the Church of Self is that it can validate the worst behaviour in its practitioners. When faced with genuine conflicts that require sincere resolutions, the self-afflicted respond with empty catchphrases, like, “I have to work on myself right now, or I won’t be able to follow my personal path.”

I’m all for working on oneself, but not if it’s to the detriment of facing life. More often, I’ve seen it justify unapologetic behaviour (“I am who I am and it’s not my fault if you can’t accept that”), an utter lack of responsibility (“As long as I think positive, it’ll happen”), and blaming one’s parents to the bitter end (“I’m like this because my father once insulted me when I was 5”). What if, for a moment, we stopped trying to rationalize our flaws and just learned to say “sorry.” The fact is, we seldom mean to hurt someone else’s feelings, so where’s the harm in just saying so.

More importantly, the self-help path is arrogant. The fact that we can even entertain so many self-help strategies is a direct by-product of living in such a prosperous environment. If our lives were spent struggling to eat and live, would we spend any time pondering how our parents messed up our childhood? Of course we wouldn’t, because thinking about these things is a luxury, and many people on this planet can’t afford it. So when people in my family started going on about The Secret, and claimed that if we have problems, it’s because we’re not “thinking positive,” I asked them if that’s why women were getting raped and mutilated in the Congo. Was that unfair? Perhaps, but I would argue that The Secret is unfair to those women in the Congo.

Life is complex stuff. I can understand why anyone would want to escape it and convince themselves that they’re not the ones with the problem. But we have to live here with other people, whether we like it or not. Our lives have to accommodate our own core beliefs as well as the people who share our many spaces. It’s not an easy balance to maintain. Nevertheless, that harmony is everyone’s responsibility.


  1. The Secret?!!! Aiee!!! Here’s a lovely article on the Secret from Slate, in the event you haven’t read it already:

    I tend to approach the “can’t love others without loving yourself first” canard two ways. First, both the concept and the praxis of love are essentially relational and interpersonal. Love cannot exist in the absence of the other, as it requires an other for it’s very existence. From this perspective, self-love has always struck me as just a teensy weensy bit oxymoronic. You can have a strong sense of self, sure. You can be confident and self-aware. Those are good things, and worth seeking. But they aren’t love. Not really.

    Second, I tend think that saying inverts the truth of it. You cannot love yourself until you have learned to love others. You can be totally self absorbed, sure. You can moon over yourself in ways that would make Narcissus blush. But until you’ve learned to feel another’s pain or rejoice in another’s happiness in the same way you would your own, you don’t know what love is.

  2. we are all totally self-absorbed? huh? um… she says after going on for a whole bunch without letting anybody get a word in edgewise…

    1. Well, I’ll admit that it’s difficult turning a blog entry into a dialogue, but I’m always happy to discuss any issues I raise in the comments, and I’ve done so consistently. So actually, I do let people get a word in edgewise…right at the edge of the blog! 🙂

      When I say we’re self-absorbed, I’m talking about the self-help culture and this theory that we can’t love others unless we love ourselves first. While I do go on about it, it’s to make a point that’s supported by arguments, which require some construction. It’s fine if you don’t agree with what I have to say, and if that’s really the case, I’d love to know what you think about the issues that are raised. Blogs can be lengthy. But if I didn’t want to let people get a word in edgewise, I’d disable the comments.

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