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"Selfish," A Label That Isn't True

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An Article by Alyce Barry

We all carry shaming labels inside that say we're bad in some way. It's as if the shame we experienced long ago tattooed a word or phrase on our inner foreheads.

Ironically, most labels, in my experience, describe the exact opposite of what we actually are. That's not a coincidence, of course. I think when we get shamed, one part of us (the Lover) takes that shame and wears it across the forehead. But another part of us (the Warrior) responds with, "Oh YEAH?!" and starts working hard to disprove it. And the work pays off!

"Weak" is a good example of a shaming label that doesn't ever seem to be true. Every person I've ever met who carried the label "weak" on their inner forehead was in fact holding out against something with incredible fortitude, often an addiction or a codependent relationship. In their own eyes, the fact that they still have an issue and occasionally give in to it means they're weak.

I've come to believe that we all become pretty strong just by living with parts of ourselves in shadow. Living without a part of yourself is kind of like hopping on one leg, and that one leg gets to be pretty darn strong!

"Trouble with commitment" is another good example of an untrue label. When I'm doing Shadow Work® with a person's who's giving himself a hard time about "finding it hard to commit," I like to point out what he's doing. Most people in the world rarely look at their issues, or even know they've got issues to look at! But here he is, doing Shadow Work® with me. That means to me that he's deeply committed to his own personal growth and development, far more committed than the vast majority of people in the world. Doesn't look like trouble with commitment to me!


A shaming label that's a little harder to disprove is "selfish." A lot of people carry this one around, even people whose behavior is astoundingly generous.

My dictionary defines "selfish" as "concerned with one's own welfare or advantage without regard for others." In other words, caring about one's own needs more than, or to the exclusion of, the needs of others.

Let's see if I can explain why I think there's no such thing as selfish.


As you know if you've done Shadow Work®, we trace most of our emotional issues back to experiences we had when we were small, when we were most vulnerable to the actions and beliefs of others.

The selfish label often traces back to a fairly common scenario between a parent (or other caretaker) and a child. For the purposes of explanation, I'll call the two of them Big and Small. To make the pronouns easier, I'll say that Big is male and Small is female, but of course this scenario can and does repeat with either gender in either role.

The scenario begins as Small wants something that Big doesn't want to give. Children want a lot of things, like love, approval, guidance, connection, and they want them pretty much non-stop. Children need those things, I believe, in order to become healthy adults.

But Big doesn't always want to give what Small wants. Big is just a human being and can't give Small absolutely everything even if he wanted to.

More to the point, Big has his own shadows, his own set of shaming labels tattooed on his inner forehead. The shame that Big carries about one of these labels in particular is about to react when Small asks for something that Big doesn't want to give.


Let's say that Small wants to sit on Big's lap, and Big wants to be quietly reading without Small in his way. So Small crawls onto Big's lap, and Big responds by putting Small back on the floor.

If Small keeps trying, at some point Big tells Small, "You're selfish." (Since we're talking here about the moment when Small got "selfish" tattooed on the forehead, even if this happened many times and each previous time Small was able to shrug it off, this particular moment is when Small finally "gets it.")

"You're selfish" translates as something like this: "You want something I don't want, and you don't seem to care that I don't want it. You care more about what you want than you do about what I want, and that means you're bad. The word for this particular kind of badness is 'selfish.'"

It's the shame inside Big that's speaking. The same shame that in the past tattooed "selfish" on Big's own inner forehead now wants to tattoo the same thing on Small's inner forehead.

The question becomes, Why does Small accept this label across the forehead? For a number of reasons, both simple and complex.


One reason, certainly, is to keep Big's love. Every child needs love, can't live without it. At this moment, however, Small hears that in order to keep Big's love, she needs to give him what he wants at the expense of what she wants. Small sacrifices what she wants in order to accede to what Big wants. Sacrificing what you want so that another person can get what he wants is the very opposite of selfish!

Another reason Small accepts the label of selfish is that she has taken something from this experience about what connection is. Small loves Big and wants him to love her back. He has just shamed her for being bad. Did Small originally think it was bad to want to sit on Big's lap? Of course not! In accepting the label of selfish, Small has just learned from Big's example that people connect by shaming each other for being bad. Small has changed what she knows about connection so that it agrees with what Big knows. Changing what you know so that it agrees with what another person knows is the very opposite of selfish!

Finally, what might Big have done differently? Big might have sacrificed his desire to read quietly and taken Small on his lap. He could, after all, have resolved to read quietly at a later time when Small was doing something else. Big might have felt some pain from postponing his own desire but might, in compensation, have also felt some satisfaction from being a loving parent. Instead, as it played out, Small was the one feeling pain after the interaction. Taking pain from an interaction when the other person does not is the very opposite of selfish!

The first step to removing any shaming label is to find out where the label came from. Probably from someone you loved. And probably that person had/has the same label on their own inner forehead. You can't do anything about the label on their forehead, but you can get the label off your own.

Alyce Barry is a Shadow Work® coach and facilitator in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She is the author of Practically Shameless, How Shadow Work Helped Me Find My Voice, My Path, and My Inner Gold. Paperback and audio editions are available from Practically Shameless Press.


This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in March 2008. To subscribe, visit our subscription page.

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