What’s in your best interest?


Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts

Self interest? That’s doing something for oneself. That’s selfish. Wrong! Self interest does not mean selfish; but for many people, these two attributes are lumped together, stirred around and come out selfish. Webster defines self interest as arising from a concern for one’s well being. The definition of selfish runs slightly longer: arising from a concern for one’s own welfare at the disregard of others.

When clients were out there drinking and drugging, their denial would often prevent them from acknowledging the selfishness of their addiction as it affected others around them. They may have thought that it was to their own best interest and they weren’t hurting anyone, even themselves, by sitting in a bar or crack house. When they were getting sober, they begin to identify being selfish for going to meetings, spending time at recovery centers and trying to learn “a whole new way of living.”

REBT’s basic core philosophy of demanding-ness, low frustration tolerance, and rating of self worth, addresses this traditional thinking often. We all tend to rate how we are doing in our job, family recreation, friendships and many people do it rationally and easy. However, many people have a problem with doing something for their own “self interest.” Millions of people in our society – especially women – feel guilty behaving selfishly. They rate themselves as bad, selfish, shameful or not caring. Unfortunately, these same millions also feel guilty about behaving in a “self-interested” manner because they confuse selfishness with self interest.

What leads people to feel guilty about doing something for their own self worth? People that create guilt and feel guilty, not only judge themselves and their actions, sometimes unmercifully, and lump it in with their worth or value as a person. The REBT class hears me say this often: “You are not your behavior.” The behavior may not be appropriate, but it nowhere devalues your worth as a person. This is a hard concept because our society teaches from kindergarten through high school rating systems like, “good, bad, pass-fail, rich, poor” and we tend to use these as guidelines as to how we live our lives.

Many people that I’ve worked with have done such a great job of destroying most of their self worth by thinking they are the “devil reincarnated.” If I never evaluated my actions, I would most likely behave in ways that would have serious consequences like repeated DWIs that would cause me guilt, shame, anxiety and possibly lead to depression.

So, what do clients do to remedy this after beating the “hell” out of themselves for years? The loved ones of recovering people have tended to rate them as selfish in active addiction. I don’t have a problem with that type of thinking because any parent that’s been on the roller coaster with a child actively using knows what I’m talking about.

Just as the using person confuses selfishness and self interest, so too do parents, wives, husbands, teachers, coaches. You may have heard the term “helicopter parents;” we in the addiction field have concerned “helicopter counselors.” The self worth vs. selfishness concept I feel comes from inside-out, not outside-in. Many of the people I respect in this field know that we don’t get anyone sober. Conversely, we don’t get anyone drunk, but can contribute to people staying chemically dependent by not allowing them to feel the consequences of their use, both positive and negative.

Thus in REBT we teach people to stop rating everything they do, and begin to overcome self-worth related issues like anxiety and inhibitions, and realize that their choices are between self-esteem and self-condemnation. Rather than the previous statement, I tell them your choice is between establishing an overall self-image or establishing no self-image, that is a person can choose to view their external actions as desirable or undesirable, but abstain from any traits esteeming or damaging themselves as a whole.

This has been a “shock” to many clients, because “letting go of the rope” that family, school, religion and friends has taught hasn’t worked for them: the average person appears to spend only a scant few moments each day consciously evaluating their self worth. The people that are thinking rationally, psychologically do not spend an inordinate amount of time doing self appraisal, even though these brief moments are sufficient. The reason that it’s sufficient is because these people spend their time observing their external environment and try to do something interesting or productive within their environment.

Next week: Part two.

Mike Tramuta has been a CASAC counselor for more than 30 years and currently runs the REBT program on Thursday nights at the Holy Trinity Parish Center from 7- 8:15 p.m. Call 983-1592 for more information.