I think there are two kinds of selfishness. There’s the negative kind where you become a narcissist, forcefully oblivious to the needs and concerns of the world around you. There’s also the kind where you choose to recognize what you need to be healthy and happy, and make a conscious effort to meet those needs in your own life.
This isn’t a bad selfishness. Taking care of yourself, even when it means saying no to people you like is not a bad thing. What I’ve been realizing as I’ve been growing up is that I am an emotional sponge. I take on the moods and mannerisms of the people I’m around and the media I expose myself to. Rather, the people I’m around tend to exaggerate certain aspects of myself, in good and bad ways.
This first time I realized this about myself, I was in an incredibly depressed phase of high school. I like to write this period of my life off as Typical Teenage Drama, because there’s nothing I dislike more than admitting my imperfections. (I know this is absurd. I have an insanely, impossibly high standard for myself. I don’t expect anyone else in the world to be so flawless, but I get terribly frustrated when I am imperfect…which I realize is ridiculous, because it is truly impossible to be perfect. I’m working on it.) If I’m honest, I was a bit over the edge of Typical Teenage Drama and living a little more in the world of Clinically Depressed and Suicidal.
The people I surrounded myself with at that time were also depressed and angry, and I piled their sadness onto mine, and kept plunging farther and farther into this ugly pit of despair and hopelessness and the-thought-of-being-alive-is-killing-me-ness. Then, I spent what was probably the best day of my life (in that, like, not to be dramatic, but I think it saved my life) with a house full of people who were happy and positive and capable of loving each other.
I remember walking into that house and instantly feeling some of the Badness squeezed out of my sponge, replaced by all this Goodness. I don’t like talking about “energies”, because I think it sounds a little too new-agey, but… I totally believe in it. When I left that day, there was still the Depression (because that’s not something that can be cured in a day, or even several) but my entire outlook had shifted. I felt like Happy was a thing I could be.
That’s when I realized how much of an impact the people I’m around have on my life and emotional state. Maybe this means that I don’t have a very strong character. Maybe, if I had more fortitude or self-assurance I could spend lots of time with all sorts of people without being phased. Maybe…but it doesn’t really matter, because the way I am right now, is sponge-like.
I have a lot of guilt around the way I handled my revelation- which was to immediately and completely stop spending time with all the folks who were bringing me down. In retrospect, I understand how cruel this was, and how much it can’t have helped those folks, who were also struggling with a lot of sadness. But it made my life so much better. I didn’t get healthy instantly- it took a really long time to work through all of that depression (hello, first half of college) but I learned this lesson that was probably more important than any cool theory I learned in school: I need positive people in my life.
The thing about Depression (capital D!) is that it’s always lurking around. It’s totally manageable, and most of the time I’m happy and excited about life and completely balanced. But if I start spending too much time with other depressed folks, pessimists, or the Too Hip to be Happy crowd… that Depression Monster gets really strong and starts controlling my life.
I know that if I’m already a little sad, watching an Indie Art House movie, where all the characters are depressed and there’s no such thing as a happy ending, is going to send me spiraling into an intense sadness. (This is why I always want to watch Parks and Recreation but can only watch Mad Men once a month.) I have a lot of friends who are sarcastic, or have generally negative views about life and the world. That’s totally fine. I like being sarcastic, too! But if I spend too much time with these friends, I lose sight of the Good and Happy. I start seeing the world as a Nihilist, and that’s really unhealthy and dangerous for me.
This is when it’s okay to be selfish. It’s okay to tell your friends you don’t want to see that film, or that you’d like to hang out alone for the night. If seeing negative things is a trigger, and someone you like only posts negative things, it’s okay to unfollow that person on Twitter or hide their stories from your Facebook feed. It’s okay to cut back on the amount of time you spend with your negative friends. You can still love those people, deeply and dearly. But if you know that just being around them, and listening to their downer views on the world is going to put you into a bad mental state… there is nothing wrong with looking out for yourself. You are the most important person in your life! Your life can’t exist without you! Of course you should look out for yourself!
No one else will be able to make you well or happy or love you, if you aren’t first well, and happy and in love with yourself. It’s all but impossible to love someone suffering from extreme depression, because they are selfish (in the bad way) and actively push everyone away, often in really cruel ways. I love my Debbie Downer and Negative Ned friends just as much as Positive Polly and Optimistic Olly. Sometimes I really need some good sarcasm. But what I need, in order to keep myself happy and healthy and alive, is an atmosphere of positivity and optimism and support. I need to be around people who believe the world is mostly good, that we can be mostly happy.
I don’t need or expect that things will be perpetually perfect, or that there won’t ever be sad and difficult times. But I’m much more capable of facing those sad and difficult things if I’m in a healthy place to begin with. When I was Depressed, all I could do was roll my eyes when I heard people talk like this. I thought all that happiness was disgusting. If you’re in that place now, I hope you believe me when I say the world is so beautiful. It’s so much better on this side of things. I hope you can be well and happy, because as stupid as it sounds to you now, there is truly no better feeling than replacing Sadness and Depression with Serenity and Happiness.