PSA to the People-Pleasers: In Defense of Self-Interest

by Denise

There have been times that I recall being really surprised by and uncomfortable with a decision someone made that seemed to go against someone else’s interests.  Maybe they didn’t technically owe it to the other person to act differently, but nevertheless, it certainly wasn’t nice.  They were in one of those situations where they were not strictly obligated to defer to the other person’s wishes, so they went with what they perceived was best for them, even though it caused the other person a lot of disappointment.  I couldn’t say that they had done something wrong per se, but like I said, it just wasn’t very nice.  But you know what, in both instances, those who chose to do what was best for them ended up with something that was genuinely better for them in the long run.

Other people will invariably experience disappointment when we don’t act in accordance with their wishes.  They want us to act in a way that furthers their own sense of self-interest (Wouldn’t we all love for everyone to act in a way that directly benefits us?).  But sometimes their desires and our own goals don’t match up.  We owe others justice and charity, but we do not owe them the fulfillment of their desires.

As much as I hate to say it, in my life I’ve erred on the side of people-pleasing.  My mother has mentioned more than once that she would chastise me as a child because I would get money and then spend it on my little sister.  I would go beyond justice and charity to do things purely in order to ensure that someone else’s desires are fulfilled, whether it was parents, friends, siblings, and so forth. This is all well and good until you’re compromising your own interests for someone else’s.

I first realized that perhaps I had taken things too far when, several years ago, I was buying myself some shoes that I needed, and my sister pitched a fit because I wouldn’t get her a pair she wanted.  I didn’t have extra money to just go shopping like that, but she had come to expect me to give her what she wanted.  I had to take responsibility for encouraging that dynamic (my sister has since grown up as well).

There’s a light and a dark side to going out of your way for others.  On one hand, it can be motivated by a sincere desire to promote someone else’s good.  I like to see people happy and I like to do what I can to make people happy.  At the same time, there’s a dark side that is motivated by dependence on other people’s approval.  You don’t just want them to be happy, you want them to be happy with you–so much that you allow their approval to replace your actual good.

It happens with parents–following a certain career path that you think is ill-fitting because that is what they deem to be most acceptable.

It happens in courtship and dating–not ending things with someone that you know is not right for you, but who wants things to continue between you two.

It happens at work–not moving on to pursue better opportunities because you don’t want your boss to be upset (though it is the nature of at-will employment that they could let you go at any time).

It happens with friends–remaining in a certain social circle because it is what is expected of you rather than because of the depth of the relationships.

It happens at church–pledging a greater amount of time (or money) than you truly have to give because you want the pastor and fellow congregants to think well of you.

My most recent lesson came this past weekend.  I was working an event featuring the Harlem Globetrotters.  I had never seen them and hoped I’d be stationed in the arena rather than out by the concessions.  I also figured the other workers would also want to be in the arena, too.  Our team lead, for whatever reason, asked me to work in the arena and the others to work outside.  One of the other workers piped up that she had been hoping to be in the arena, as she had never seen them before either.  My immediate inclination was to tell her that she could have my spot, but I stopped myself and remained silent.  It was difficult to do so, and I felt guilty for it, but I challenged myself with the question, “Why should you give her your spot when you want to see the Globetrotters just as much as she does?”

Once the team lead and I settled in the arena, I thought of a better solution.  I told him that if he wanted me to rotate positions with any of the others, that I’d be happy to do so.  At half time, he asked me to go see if the other worker wanted to trade places with me.  When I went to ask her, it turns out that she didn’t want to switch after all.  She had figured out a way to see it from where she was.  Had I gone with my first inclination and just given her my spot, I would have been disappointed that I didn’t get to see the event, and it turned out that it wasn’t even that important to her anyway.

I felt relief that all had turned out well because I feared that I was being selfish.  This can be a tricky thing since  the label “selfish” is often thrown around and is a label stuck on people who won’t do what someone else wants.  But selfishness isn’t simply doing what is best for you rather than what someone else wants.  It’s doing what you want despite how it harms someone else.  It’s refusing to even seriously consider the impact your actions have on those around you.  It totally precludes any suggestion of sacrifice.  As I mentioned above, we owe others charity and justice, and not necessarily what they would like from us.

There is nothing wrong with being generous and going out of our way to help others and to avoid disappointing them.  At the same time, a part of our role as stewards of our lives is that we have to be principally concerned with making the most of what has been given to us, not to our neighbor.  Jesus tells us to love others as we love ourselves. Paul tells us to consider not only our own interests, but also the interests of others.  Both commands presume that we are pursuing our own interests first.