Aging is an Attitude: Self-ish vs. Self-Interest

Quick – without getting snagged on the details, what’s your gut response when you’re told you can’t do something your heart is set on? Fight (argue)? Flight (silently agree)? Maybe when you hear “You can’t”, you begin to over-analyze.

My question to you isn’t so much about a notion or plan having actual merit, but about the doubt being cast-upon whether you can or should do whatever you’re thinking about. I’m referring to the “can’t” that feels ‘personal’. Some examples:

“You can’t wait until (age) to start a family; it’s too problematic!”

“You can’t travel to (country) by yourself; it’s too dangerous!”

You can’t go back-packing when you’re 7 months pregnant; it’s too risky!

You can’t …go back to school / change careers / move to another country / stay single forever.

With the exception of moving to another country (which might still happen!), the  statements above are all part of my ‘history’, uttered by people I really cared about, no doubt with the best of intentions. And yes, in most cases I chose to do what was I was cautioned not to do, because I really wanted what I wanted. There’s an emotional price to pay when we defy the ‘reason’ being expected or even demanded from us. Being human means that our lives are most often interwoven with the lives of others. Some connections are so deep that we might listen too intently to what others want for us, or what they think we should do, and make choices not authentically our own.

From an early age we’re taught that sharing is good, behaving selfishly is bad. But once we exit childhood, acting in one’s self-interest becomes more complex. If we’re in relationship with others, we’ll hear comments and feel like resistance routinely, as we assert our freedom of choice. Typically, the deeper the connection (marriage, parenting), the greater the resistance. As women, we might feel that the resistance is too much, and let-go of the thing we really want, or want to do. We may “go-along to get along”, as the saying goes, far more often than males. According to research on women in leadership roles, this behavior is very common in workplace relationships also. Anyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship (of any kind) can attest to the need – and struggle — for balance, cooperation, communication and negotiation.

But, do choices and decisions not based on consensus mean that the person doing the choosing is acting selfishly, in the most negative meaning of the word? It’s a delicate question. In my circle, it was common for women “back in the day’ to accept (not choose) a less demanding career – or no career – so that the man could pursue his dream-job. The dream-job was seen as enabling a better life for The Family. But, and this is going to sound cliché, as husband and wife in this scenario grew older, resentments were not uncommon and dissatisfaction was sometimes fatal to a marriage. Not surprisingly, it was almost unheard of, at least in the U.S., to have a Mister Mom at home, and a female bread-winner. But, I digress…

Wherever you are in your life, whatever age you are right now, what are your “Non-Negotiables”? What are the desires that have been held deep in your heart, and that you know are vital to your happiness? I encourage you to hang on to them and to live them to the extent that you feel comfortable with the inevitable resistance. If you are a woman reading this, I already know that you are “wired” to discuss and compromise on your needs and desires. Which is why I close this piece of writing by reminding us all of the crucial difference between behaving selfishly, and behaving in one’s own best interests. Only you know what your heart wants, and it’s up to you to make sure you assert those desires that you cannot, and should not, live your Best Life without.

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