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Self-Interest Doesn’t Always Come from the Ego

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All of the blog posts are written by Arien Smith with the intention to heal, inform, and expand every reader. Three posts a week: Monday Mindfulness, Wednesday Yoga, Saturday Reflections. 

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Self-Interest Doesn’t Always Come from the Ego

Arien Smith

Last week, I covered the basics of “the ego.” It is a common spiritual theory, yet quite misunderstood despite being the antithesis of the spiritual core we all have. Comprehending the concept will help you understand your own ego, so it is extremely important for any spiritual path you embark on. If you missed last week’s article, you can read it here. This week, as promised, I’ll talk more about self-love, self-centeredness, and selfishness and how they relate to the ego.

It is a common belief in spiritual communities that it is egoic to act on your own needs. Being “self-centered” as a negative ring to it, whereas it is actually the complete opposite! Although contemporary spirituality and society as a whole often places shame onto a person who acts out of self interest, the Universe actually wants us to be self-centered. 

When we focus on our needs first and foremost, we provide ourselves with compassionate fuel. If we sustain ourselves with love, it will be much easier to expand this out into the world around us. Without taking care of ourselves first and foremost, we will drain ourselves dry through self-neglect. When exhausted, we lose the ability to effectively help others. Being self-centered helps prevent this toxic fatigue.

The reason self-centeredness is seen as egoic is because many people consider it synonymous with selfishness. Selfishness, in contrast to self-centeredness, is an over-obsessed attention to the self. It usually manifests as not just providing your needs and fulfilling beneficial wants (like healthy self-centeredness does), but instead selfishness commits to actions that drain others dry while benefitting the selfish individual. Being self-centered is a symbiotic, mutually beneficial, relationship with the world. Selfishness is where you act as a parasite.  

Respecting your need to be self-centered is so important because it is the foundation for self-love. Not many of us deny ourselves basic needs like shelter and food, but we do frequently deny ourselves emotional and personal needs. This is because we don’t respect our need to be self-centered. How many times have you said yes to something you knew would take a toll on you, just because you felt it was selfish not to? How many times have you neglected giving yourself a break when you could, but thought you “shouldn’t?”

Beginning now, it is important to start viewing this need to say no as something spiritually beneficial. This doesn’t mean you’ll avoid all uncomfortable situations, as there are times when it is better to serve someone even if it tires you a little. It’s when it will harm you, mentally, emotionally, or physically, however slight, that you need to consider setting that healthy boundary and knowing that this boundary comes from spirit, not from ego. 

It takes a lot of discernment, trials, and errors to determine where these lines of giving are. Give too much, and you’ll be drained, give too little and you might slip into selfishness. Trust that you’ll need some time to figure this out, but don’t let this stop you from reviewing your perspective of valuing your personal needs.

Ultimately, running from ever being self-centered and always neglecting your needs will not help you find this healthy line. It takes overstepping and under-stepping it to figure your mental and emotional needs out. 

As mentioned earlier, when you take care of yourself first and foremost, you will be able to take care of others better in the long run. Love we bring towards ourselves multiplies and then can be radiated outwards to the world. This references the law of attraction, where our internal landscape affects our external world. The more love we trust ourselves with, the more love will both come to us and the more we will be able to give in return. Love is infinite; you won’t drain a reserve by providing yourself with more love.

Setting firm boundaries and saying no, even when others request your help, is important. Doing this is a way of telling yourself and your spirit that you respect your own needs as an individual living in a world where you have limited time and energy. We all wish we could help all those who request aid from us, but it isn’t something we can possible accomplish, and trying to will only strain and exhaust us. This practice alone can help restore feelings of self-worth and confidence that you are helping those the Universe wants you to in the most effective way you can.

Of course, there are egoic ways to set boundaries too. Let me give an example of both an egoic and a mindful way of handling a situation:

Your friend, who has just lost a long-term relationship through a messy few months of going back and forth with their ex, has been turning to you for support these last couple weeks. You love them and they mean a lot to you, and you know they aren’t the type to perpetuate drama—their crisis is genuine. Yet, you’re starting to realize that you can’t keep taking their late night phone calls when they are upset and you’re in the position of consoling them. You were able to extend this energy with ease for two weeks, just needing to do a little self-care and relaxation after, but now you can feel it affecting your day beyond the phone calls themselves. You’re starting to feel resentment build towards your friend: “why can’t they just get over it?” No matter how slight this negativity is, it’s there as more than just natural fatigue. You know it isn’t healthy for you or your friend to keep pushing yourself to help, you might end up doing more harm than healing in your next conversation with this friend.

This is a point where it would be important to enact a self-centered action and set a boundary. It would be egoic not to, since if you were to stay completely as a shoulder to lean on, you might end up resenting your friend in a way that damages your relationship in the long-term. Or, out of fatigue, you might snap at them for inconveniencing you. 

You also probably feel a conflict, like they might be upset or even angry if you say you can’t help them when they call. If they become angry, though, it is not on you and is not your fault—it is a product of their own ego and them being angry at you does not make it wrong that you set this boundary. Unless, of course, you did it in an egoic way. 

Your ego might say to your friend, when they call and you set a boundary, “Hey, I really can’t talk right now. Your emotions are getting to be too much for me to handle.” Although this isn’t cruel, per say, it’s still coming from the ego, not from a compassionate and mindful heart. There’s a sense of blaming the friend for your emotions, rather than just acknowledging you needing a break because you need it, not because they caused it. 

Your loving and mindful self might say, “Hey, things sound really difficult for you right now, I’m sorry to hear that you’re in a lot of pain over this break-up and that you’re experiencing it again tonight. I’m not able to talk right now, but I want to let you know that you’re loved and you have my support.” You might also then suggest some other resources, like another friend they could call, a counselor, or a lifeline if that’s applicable. 

This mindful response comes from compassion, for both yourself and them. You acknowledged their vulnerability and crisis without shaming them for feeling the way they are. You make them feel important and loved and you set the boundary you need to in the process. 

If you want to feel the difference between the ego and the spirit in this case of setting a healthy boundary, I’d suggest imagining a friend or loved one going through a crisis and you being a bit emotionally drained as a result. Then, say aloud both statements in quotes above, seeing how each feels different when spoken. Are you able to pick up on the flow of compassion in the second response? That is loving, pure, ego-free boundary setting. It’s being self-centered and it’s being loving. You could also try imagining yourself in the place of a friend in a crisis. It should be clear which response is easier to hear! 

If we perpetuate the pain of another, like in the first quoted response above, or we neglect our own needs, we will become fatigued and drain our energy. Doing this is denying self-love and respect towards our own needs, since the ego strips us of the ability to let love flow. Wouldn’t you respect a friend who acknowledged their boundaries? It’s important to do the same for yourself. 

The ego is a complex topic, and is something that I’ve passionately researched for years. A lot of the topics on this blog will discuss compassion, ego, and how to live a mindful life free of reactivity and full of genuine experience: to receive twice weekly emails about blog updates, you can subscribe here!