Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.

Oscar Wilde



Self Nourishment

Self-nourishment is a term (from therapist David Richo) that describes a balanced, self-regulating approach to wants and needs. When the natural expression and innocent pursuit of wants and needs cause a problem with early caregivers, a person learns and develops unnatural and generally unsatisfying ways to pursue needs and wants.

It will probably be beneficial in this topic to discuss the semantic issue between 'needs' and 'wants.' If there existed in English a word that simply meant both, I would use that word. The distinction is not important for the idea presented here. Unfortunately, often there is a moral undertone to the distinction. To many 'wants', are things to be curtailed and only needs are legitimately pursued. This is a false distinction perpetuated by the predicament of many children facing caregivers who feel they don't have enough for the child, but who at the same time are uncomfortable saying no. That is, our desire presents problems when caregivers or loved ones do not feel adequate. Desire becomes associated with shame and rejection.

Clearly some things are essential to survival and could be described as needs, and some things are inessential to survival, and could be described as wants. To organize an entire way of life around that distinction, though, shows a troubled relationship to desire. All people have a right to receive sometimes and get sometimes. Receiving is taking what some one wants us specifically to have, if we want it. Getting is asking someone for something they have and we want. Some examples of needs:

When early experience teaches that wants and needs are problems, adaptation forms into two paths, 1) self-sufficiency (which is an illusion) and 2) emotional dependency (which for adults cannot work). The two paths can be present in one person together.

Strife happens when 'expectations' are mistaken for needs or wants. Emotional dependency in older children or adults leads an indirectness. The hope of the needs and wants getting fulfilled gets channeled into expectations about what others will and should do. Much wrangling results when others inevitably do not comply. Trying to control exactly how wants and needs will be fulfilled leads to frustration and unnecessary conflict. The underlying needs and wants are legitimate but the process of judging others and judging other's responses is not.

Self-sufficiency is the attempt to dissociate our wants and needs from the co-operation of other people. Primarily, we try to supply our wants and needs ourselves. This of course never fully works, and when other people must be involved, we insist that other people's role in our needs is mandated by rules, 'what is right', or by the obligation of what we have done for them. That is why hearing no is so upsetting to some people. More than the denial of what is asked for, the disruption of the illusion of self-sufficiency causes deep anxiety. Attempting self-sufficiency puts one at war with both human generosity, and human fallibility.

Mostly people are generous, and are glad to help. Receiving help however, triggers pain and resentment because it exposes that the lack of support early in life was not inevitable but rather an empathetic lapse by caregivers, which was at that time, and remains in the present, a horrible truth.

Humans are also fallible of course. Because self-sufficiency relies on the illusion that if everyone 'did what they should' help would not be needed, any mistake by others is experienced as an affront, again because it evokes shame of the original lapse. It may become impossible to distinguish in others willful malice (rare) from routine innocent errors (commonplace). Alternately, reasonable self-interested acts of others like taking breaks, closing on time, pacing themselves, or saying "no" may be experienced as malevolent. Needless to say, the person trying to maintain self-sufficiency is brutally punitive with him- or herself over any perceived mistake.

Self-deprivation is the attempt to make self-sufficiency work by reducing both material comforts and non-productive experiences to a bare minimum. It includes all the usual dynamics of self-sufficiency listed above, with the addition of a sense of specialness or purity. In the spiritual practice of poverty, care is taken not to become too attached to comforts and so distort one's life to keep comforts flowing. In poverty, one enjoys pleasure as it happens but does not become obsessed by it. With self-deprivation, one flees from pleasure in order to be consistent. The result is a coldness and deadness that is disturbing to others.

Emotional dependency is the attempt to dissociate our wants and needs from ourselves. Other people are seen as the origin of our wants and needs, and of course it becomes the duty of others to fulfill them. This is of course a stance appropriate to the very young. When taken by an adult, who also of course wants full autonomy, it tends to produce chaos in relationships.

Self-nourishment is taking ownership of our wants and needs, while at the same time accepting that other people, in part, have a role in their satisfaction outside our control. It constitutes a certain faith that the world, in general, is a fulfilling place, and also a faith, that some relationships are possible that are very fulfilling if not perfectly fulfilling. In practical terms, the idea has two parts: 1) taking care of oneself, not to prove that one can, but to increase comfort, and 2) actively seeking good things from others, recognizing that "no" is possible but not inevitable.

To some extent, everyone hopes their wants and needs can be fulfilled without asking. For someone to already know our needs, perhaps even before we do, has a certain feeling of 'rightness' about it. This is in fact what a responsive mother does for an infant or a very small child. It helps the infant come to know better his or her wants and needs, and if as adults we also are not sure of our wants and needs, it can seem that we deserve the same. However, it is just not possible for anyone to do it reliably for another adult. Occasionally, the needs or wants of others can be anticipated and fulfilled before and without their asking, but to organize a relationship around this rarity is very unstable and produces resentment. Adults must build relationships on self-nourishment, and then perhaps enjoy the 'mothering' of others once in a while, as it happens, by chance.

Similarly, to some extent, everyone hopes their their wants and needs can be fulfilled without struggle. But when there is difficulty with self-nourishment, even minor conflicts with others are seen as a sign of something gone wrong and not as part of human existence. When asserting oneself is difficult, there can be a quick emotional recourse to an abstract idea of justice and a call for rules. There is perhaps an expectation that a parent-like arbiter should step in and settle it. People who are otherwise good candidates for meeting needs and wants are made somehow into enemies. But needs and wants are defined and refined in occasional struggles with others. This is how the 'self' is strengthened in self-nourishment.

Self-nourishment is a stance that can apply to all activities in life. The following are some concrete examples, however, that may be worth suggesting: