I’m a Psychotherapist, and Here Are 4 Ways Positive Selfishness Can Actually Improve Relationships

Photo: Getty Images/Sarah Mason
As a feminist psychotherapist who specializes in modern love, I support individuals and couples in finding the line between independence and interdependence. Romantic ideology often spells that togetherness is the key building block to a strong connection, which can force many to choose connection over the desire to act in accordance with their authentic desires. But, as relationship expert Esther Perel believes, there's a need for both togetherness and separateness in a healthy relationship, which means there is certainly room for honoring desires that skew selfish.

When we become overly concerned with what others want and need, we lose both curiosity and clarity about our own wants and needs, which is why positive selfishness has a place in relationships. Selfishness requires having a clear sense of one’s own needs and desires, paired with the belief that advocating for such is essentially a birthright—and in some measure, it can indeed be positive.

When we deprioritize selfishness in order to be accommodating, we actually pose a threat to genuine connection rather than fuel it.

When we deprioritize selfishness—and by proxy our feelings, beliefs, and ideas—in order to be accommodating, we actually pose a threat to genuine connection rather than fuel it. In her book, The Dance of Anger, psychologist Harriet Lerner, PhD, coined the term of de-selfing to describe when one person in a relationship does more giving in and going along than their share, and therefore loses contact with their own preferences and ability to make self-attuned choices. Since a healthy relationship is marked by the melding of multiple perspectives and desires, the loss of one's own beliefs in the name of selflessness isn't necessarily a good thing.

How can you know if you could stand to lean in to positive selfishness a bit more in your relationship? One indicator you may be giving to others more than yourself is a growing sense of resentment. This feeling may be an invitation to consider how to fill your own cup before agreeing to pour into another’s.

Below find four strategies for choosing “I” over “we” in a way that may enhance, not hurt, closeness.

4 healthy ways to prioritize positive selfishness in a relationship

1. Learn, know, and accept your truth

Not all needs in a relationship must be met, but they do need to be acknowledged. Doing so allows you to notice what is true so that you feel more empowered to make choices that come from a deep sense of who you are.

If being one with your own experience feels uncomfortable, consider why. Might that be because you’re accustomed to wondering what others think and feel? Our nervous system resents the unfamiliar, so the more we sit with the question “what is happening for me right now?” the more comfortable we get with being with our own experiences, and in turn, acting in a way that honors what we want.

2. Get curious about your relationship action tendencies

Notice if you are usually in pursuit or avoidance of closeness, and determine how much space you want to take for yourself as a result. It has been my experience as a couples’ therapist that, regardless of your identity or background, most partners fall into one of two roles: pursuer or withdrawer.

Those who feel more anxious, often the pursuers of connection, are concerned about their partner’s capacity to return the love they give and therefore over index on togetherness as a way to escape feeling alone and fears of rejection. If this description resonates with you, going your own way may feel “selfish” simply because it is misaligned with what you learned is required in order to maintain connection.

If your action tendency is to pursue others, I invite you to channel that energy in pursuit of your own self-interests and the things that make you feel alive that have nothing to do with your relationship. To nurture yourself not only gets you acquainted with your imagination, fantasies, and intuitions, but it also helps to shift the relational dynamic. That is, if you are not the one seeking connection, it creates room for your partner to be the one who is anxious about closeness.

3. Keep secrets for yourself

In a society that encourages self-disclosure (aka social media), it can feel like we are doing something wrong to keep certain things for ourselves. Yet, desire and eroticism, which are necessary for a healthy relationship, thrive off the unknown that encourages exploration.

When deciding what to keep for yourself, consider the difference between seeking privacy and hiding out. Are you keeping the secret in order to be better liked and to avoid feelings of friction that disclosing might cause between you and your partner? Or are you sharing compulsively because you feel obligated to do so and you want to discharge your anxiety rather than sit with it until you know the value of sharing the secret in the relationship?

No matter where you fall on that continuum, consider that our entire nature need not be thrust upon another, but we can still share when appropriate.

4. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries

Prioritizing space isn’t indulgent but rather an act of self- and relational-preservation. Boundaries are meeting places: We may associate them with pushing people away, but in practice, they actually invite others closer in because they help us be our best selves.

In order to set boundaries, we have to become acquainted with the idea that we have limits. Start by noticing how limits show up in your body—what sensations or beliefs arise as you begin to feel into what it’s like when you don’t want to give or be what someone else wants you to give or be?

When you say no to others, you say yes to yourself: your passions, sensuality, and creativity. Your capacity to connect with these parts of yourself directly correlates with your ability to connect with others and uphold a healthy relationship.

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