Why is it so hard to act in our own best interests? Or, since I can’t speak for everyone – as much as I’d like to – I’d better rephrase that and ask why it’s so hard for me to act in my best interests?
When I don’t act in my best interests, it’s generally because I’m acting in someone else’s – to please someone else or to do what I think that other person wants me to do. But the irony is that acting in my best interests is, as far as I can see, always the best possible thing, not only for me but also for everyone around me – at least in the long-run.
Generally, when I’m not acting in my best interests, I’m acting out of fear – fear that people won’t approve of me, or that they’ll be angry with me, or that they won’t like me, or that I won’t get what I think I want in the long-run so I’d better take a short-cut or manipulate a situation so I can get my way. Or maybe it’s because I don’t know what’s best for me – I’m unsure of myself, I’m like a feather being blown around in the wind.
But if I go against what I think or I know is right for me, I’ll end up with two possible outcomes (actually probably a lot more than two but it’s been a long day and I can only think of two for now):
- After a while, I’ll start to feel angry and resentful towards myself and this anger and resentment will come out sideways, generally hurting others who are actually the innocent parties in all this – they’ve just unwittingly got caught up in the aftermath of me going against my best interests.
- After a while, I’ll feel shame, because I’m acting in a way that I know isn’t good for me and, in the long-run, isn’t good for others. Shame makes me feel pretty rubbish about myself but it can be quite convenient. It gives me an excuse to dislike myself or to treat myself badly.
Of course there are reasons we find it hard to do what we know is best for us. Maybe we tried to act according to what we thought were our best interests in the past, when we were very young and vulnerable, and maybe we got shouted at. Maybe we took a risk to speak up for what we believed to be right and we were met with anger. Or maybe we decided to express our feelings but we ended up feeling there was something wrong with us, that those feelings weren’t appropriate or valid.
And in that moment, a thought registered in our young brains: it’s not safe to act in my own best interests – it makes people angry and leaves me feeling very scared. And my feelings aren’t true or valid – in other words, I can’t trust them and, by extension, I can’t trust myself. The seed of self-doubt is sown.
These wounds, for some of us, go very deep so it’s no surprise we find it hard to break out of patterns of behaviour that we adopted to stay safe and sometimes to survive. And it’s no surprise that we ended up doubting ourselves or struggling to trust ourselves – or to trust anyone else.
But as the saying goes, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.
So I’m making a conscious choice – from today – to act in my own best interests, in the full knowledge that although it might cause short-term pain or disappointment for others, in the long-term it’s the right thing for everyone involved.
But even as I write those lines, I know it’s not going to be easy. I often struggle to know what’s good for me – to know whether I’m following my heart or my head, to know if I’m acting out of faith or fear. This happens in my work, in my relationships, in decisions around my free time or my social life.
What am I talking about exactly? Well, it’s that little tap on the shoulder, that gentle nudge or that feeling in the gut that tells you to follow course A. But then fear, your head or your ego takes over and you follow course B. The great thing is that with a little bit of awareness, we can change from course B to A, and we can try and act differently the next time around. Because there always will be a next time.
Where do all these musings come from? Well I heard a definition of addiction the other day that really struck a chord. We often think of addiction as drinking ourselves into oblivion or damaging our bodies with cocaine or bingeing on food until we feel sick. But once you clear out all the substances and behaviours that are obviously unhealthy, underneath you’re left with an addiction to acting against your best interests. That’s why addicts may manage to stop bingeing or drinking but they may still be drawn into harmful relationships. Or they may stop taking drugs or smoking cigarettes but they still work themselves into the ground.
I did a quick Google search on ‘acting against one’s best interests’ and I found an interesting post by author Mark Forster. He suggests we ask ourselves what we would do differently if we were to act consistently in our best interests. I particularly like this answer: ‘I would only say yes when I was able to say it wholeheartedly, otherwise I would say no.’ I can’t remember how many times I’ve said ‘yes’ when I didn’t really mean it but there have been quite a few, but then I’m sure I’m not alone in that either.
To act consistently in my best interests is a tall order but I reckon it’s worth a shot. If it were New Year’s, I’d make that my resolution. But maybe I’ll try it out in December and see how I go.
And perhaps the sunshine will help. I’m off to Mexico on Thursday for a month! So this blog may have been a little heavy, but expect some colourful posts in the next few weeks …