selfishness | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Growing Into Our Humanity, Part 3: The Myth of the “Ego-Free Project”

I haven’t been on the internet much lately, because I’ve been deeply engaged in a new project.  I’ve been creating a computer game with a friend.  It’s built around an adventure story, as many games are, but the main focus is my ideas about what the spirituality of prehistoric people was like.

Being a reflective sort of guy, as I’ve worked on this, I’ve been asking myself from time to time “why am I doing this?”  Two reasons have come to mind.  One is that I think this game could really stimulate the personal growth of people playing it.  The other is that I want to be recognized, and for people to think I am cool.

Are My Wounds Behind The Wheel?

The second reason has troubled me a bit.  If I’m doing this because I want people to think I’m cool, doesn’t that mean my ego is driving the project?  Doesn’t that mean my wounded child part — the part that feels abandoned and needs approval — is really behind what I’m doing?  And if so, is it healthy for me to keep moving forward?

I hang out with lots of folks who are “on a spiritual path,” or interested in self-development, and many of them are dealing with the same dilemma.  They worry that, if they work on a project they feel called to do, they’ll be feeding the “selfish” part of themselves, instead of doing the seva, or selfless service, they think they should do.

After a lot of thinking about this issue, I’ve come to the conclusion that an “ego-free project” is a pipe dream.  No matter what I do, I’ll probably be motivated, to some degree, by a desire for approval — and, I’ll also be driven by a genuine wish to serve.  In other words, there will always be a mix of “healthy” and “unhealthy” motives behind everything I do.

Real Self-Love Loves The Ego

Although I can’t totally get rid of these “unhealthy” motives, and the ways I operate from a sense of lack instead of abundance, I can choose how I relate to those motives.  I can choose to acknowledge and accept them, rather than pretending they aren’t there or beating myself up because they exist.

When I can admit, without self-blame, that “part of me is wanting attention,” a weight lifts from my shoulders, and my body feels lighter.  In those moments, I’m practicing real self-love, as opposed to just loving the parts of me that I label as pure and righteous.

On the other hand, pushing those “unhealthy” parts away, in my experience, just creates more unhealthiness.  When I pretend I don’t have a “selfish” part, I end up projecting my selfishness onto others — judging them as self-centered, and casting myself as superior.  That’s an unpleasant experience for everybody.

I often notice the same dynamic when I’m with people whose spirituality is all about “selflessness” — when they talk about the volunteer work they do, with no expectation of reward or approval, I usually notice an undertone of aggression that sounds to me like “and how much service do you do?”

I’ve harped on this theme lately, but I think it’s important — that personal growth in its highest form is about getting comfortable and familiar with all parts of ourselves, including those we tend to label as bad, inappropriate, embarrassing, and so on.  The more “okay” we get with those parts, I think, the more peace and focus we can find in all areas of our lives.

Finding Compassion Through Selfishness

There’s a part of me that doesn’t care about you.  It’s not here to solve your problems, lend you an ear, or serve you in any other way.  It looks out for me and me alone.

Isn’t that a terrible thing? Actually, I don’t think so.  In fact, I think acknowledging I have a “selfish” part — and, sometimes, doing what that part wants — is key to experiencing, and expressing, real compassion for people.

I Used To Be Such A Sweet, Sweet Thing

I used to act really nurturing and giving, all the time.  Whenever someone had a request or a problem, I was the first to volunteer my time and energy.  I can practically hear Alice Cooper now:  “I opened doors for little old ladies,” and so on.

But I eventually had a couple of disturbing realizations.  The first was that I expected praise for service I did, and felt upset when I didn’t get it.  Why would I care about receiving praise, I wondered, if I genuinely liked helping others?

Second, if someone — heaven forbid — criticized me in a way that suggested I was selfish, I got even angrier.  I couldn’t help but ask:  if I’m really such a 24-7 generous guy, why does it bother me when someone says I’m not?

Acting Caring Vs. Being Caring

Finally, it dawned on me that, at least sometimes, I wasn’t helping people because I enjoyed service.  Instead, I was doing it because I wanted to show people I wasn’t self-centered.  In other words, I did it because I didn’t want to experience the shame I felt when someone called me selfish.

I started wondering:  what if, on some level, I actually am selfish?  What would happen if I learned that there is, in fact, a part of me that thinks only of my wants?  Would I explode, implode, or be annihilated in some other messy way?  Probably not.

I noticed my body relaxed, and I sighed with relief, when I asked questions like these.  It was as if, to put on a benevolent mask for the world, I had to tighten some part of my body, and use up energy keeping that part tense.  Dropping the mask freed up that energy, and was a big relief.

I also saw that, the more relaxed I felt, the more I experienced real gratitude.  Life, I found, is more fun when I’m not trying to appease someone or protect myself from criticism.  From that genuinely grateful place, compassion for others comes more naturally.

In other words, interestingly enough, admitting there’s a part of me that doesn’t care actually releases and nourishes the part that does.

Everybody Is Everything

Why?  I think about it this way:  each person is like a prism – an object that breaks up a beam of light into the colors of the rainbow.  The colors represent every human character trait:  compassion, selfishness, love, anger, sadness, and so on.

Often, we decide we don’t like one of the colors — perhaps we’d rather not be blue (sad), red (angry), or something else.  So, we cover up the prism to keep others from seeing that color.  The trouble is that, when we block the prism, none of the colors can be seen — no part of us can be fully expressed in the world.

When I try to hide my “self-centered” part, it’s like I’m covering up my prism — “hiding my light under a bushel,” as the saying goes.  The result is that I can’t really bring my generous part into the world either.  If I want my compassion to fully show up, I need to let my selfishness make an appearance too.

With That, Some Gratitude

I want to thank two generous and, undoubtedly, totally unselfish souls for the gifts they gave me.  :)  Evita Ochel and Patricia Hamilton recently wrote warm and wonderful reviews of my audio course.  I hope you’ll check out their sites and enjoy what they bring to the world.

Self-Love Isn’t Narcissism

narcissus

Many of us know the story of Narcissus — the boy who drowned because he fell in love with his reflection in a lake, and jumped in hoping to embrace his image.  At first glance, this story seems to be about the dangers of loving yourself too much.  If Narcissus had only taken his attention off himself and put it on others’ needs, we tend to think, he wouldn’t have died.

But a mentor of mine told me a different, and convincing, interpretation of the story.  As he pointed out, Narcissus didn’t actually love himself at all — he loved his reflection.  After all, Narcissus didn’t need to jump in the lake to be with himself — he did it because he wanted to be with the image he saw in the water.

I’ve thought of this story lately because I’ve been reading books that are critical of personal development as part of my research for an upcoming book.  I’ve noticed that one common criticism of personal growth ideas is that, by asking us to love ourselves unconditionally, they encourage us to be selfish — to focus only on our own finances, relationships and so on, and stop helping others.

I think this criticism stems from a misunderstanding of what self-love is, and I think it’s important to correct that misunderstanding in light of all the negative comments we’ve been seeing recently about personal growth.  In fact, I think personal growth, in its highest form, is about moving away from narcissism — away from loving the image we present to the world — and toward loving who we actually are.  What’s more, once we fully love ourselves, real compassion for others becomes possible.

Why We Fall In Love With Our Reflection

Out of necessity, when we come into the world, we’re deeply concerned about how others — usually our parents — see us.  Because our survival depends on their willingness to care for us, we quickly learn which behaviors please them and which ones don’t, and we shape our personalities to give them what they want.

Unconsciously, we carry this mindset into our adult lives.  We still think we need to win others’ approval, and so we design our careers, relationships, hobbies, and so on to appeal to the world.  Like Narcissus, we get fixated on the image we present to the world, as opposed to who we actually are.

Because it seems like our survival is at stake, we’ll do practically anything — including hurting others — to make sure the world sees us the way we want to be seen.  Our love of the image the world sees, instead of ourselves, leads to greed and abusive behavior.

What Real Self-Love Does

When we start to love ourselves unconditionally — no matter how others see us — the need to maintain the right image falls away.  Energy we once used up putting on a pretty facade can be used to care for others.  Helping people is no longer a strategy for looking like a good little boy or girl, or showing that we’re morally better than someone else — it’s now an expression of genuine compassion.

This is why, I think, we see a focus on self-love in many spiritual traditions.  For example, in Buddhist metta or loving-kindness meditation, the meditator is to focus first on loving him- or herself, and then to focus on the wellbeing of the rest of the world.  Similarly, Hindu teacher Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj told his students “by all means be selfish — the right way.  Be all; love all; be happy; make happy.”

When we truly understand what self-love is and what it isn’t, we can see why it’s part of many personal growth teachings, and the good we can do for the world by creating it within ourselves.

To Feel Inspired, Focus On What You’re Contributing

Publishing journal and magazine articles used to be a stressful experience for me.  When I first started, of course, it took me much longer to prepare each piece for submission, because I wasn’t familiar with the editing process.  More importantly, however, I had a nagging guilt at the edge of my awareness about sending my writing to editors.  Wasn’t I taking up their time by making them read my work?  Wouldn’t the magazine have to use a lot of paper or web programming time to make my articles publicly available?  Was all that worth it just so I could get my name in print?

Although I had this feeling, I kept chugging away at the publication process, hoping some day I’d gain some insight that would change my perspective.  Eventually, an interaction with one of my readers gifted me with that insight.  It was nothing particularly spectacular or unique—a woman simply e-mailed me to tell me one of my articles helped change her outlook on life for the better.  But her e-mail led me to a key realization—I’m actually giving people something when I write my articles, not just receiving recognition, money, or whatever else.

I recognized that, when I thought about my publishing endeavors, my attention would be fixed on what I was getting out of the publication process, and what others had to do to help me get it.  I was placing no attention on what my writing was contributing to the publication or its readers.  Of course, when I thought about publishing that way, it seemed like a pretty raw deal for the magazines I submitted articles to.  I got to spread my name around and (at least sometimes) get paid, and they had to run through the whole rigmarole of printing my piece.  No wonder I felt self-centered and guilty.

When I realized I could actually give others something by publishing, suddenly the process began to feel more inspiring.  My productivity and focus in writing magazine articles blossomed, and I no longer felt constricted by the fear of “bothering” or “taking from” editors or the reading public.

Many of us have the hangup I described in at least one area of our lives.  We worry that, if we pursue our goals, we’ll be somehow taking from others and giving nothing in return.  In essence, we’re afraid that following our dreams might be inconsiderate or selfish.  This phenomenon certainly isn’t restricted to career issues—many people live with it, for instance, in their intimate relationships.

Some people, when they’re considering introducing themselves to someone they’re attracted to, place no attention on what they have to offer the other person.  Instead, they’re entirely focused on the possibility that they’d bother the other person or make them uncomfortable.  They’re fixated, in other words, on what they’d “take,” or the inconvenience they might cause, and not what they can “give.”  Not surprisingly, this mindset has them hold back or become nervous as they’re meeting the other person.  But when they hold in their awareness the gifts they can bring to a relationship, meeting people can become inspiring and enjoyable again.

In my experience, people with anxiety about public speaking often have similar concerns.  They worry that they’re boring or inconveniencing the people they’re speaking to, and thus they’re less confident and articulate than they’d otherwise be.  When they turn their attention to the gifts they can bring the audience—the education or entertainment they can provide—suddenly public speaking ceases to feel like such a difficult and stressful exercise.

I believe that, in our deepest essence as human beings, we naturally desire to care for and bestow our gifts on others.  This desire is a strong motivator when we’re pursuing our goals in life.  Simply remaining conscious of what we’re contributing to the world with our activities does much to dissolve the fears and mental barriers that get in the way of our success.  In Unfolding Self: The Practice Of Psychosynthesis, therapist Molly Young Brown aptly describes how connecting with our drive to serve is a powerful source of energy and focus:

When we know ourselves to be most essentially spiritual beings, acting through particular personalities and organisms, we are set free from the fear of selfishness that has plagued the good children of our culture for so long. We truly can trust ourselves! When we plunge deeply into who we are, we discover that we are creatures of great potential who yearn to use our capacities to serve humanity . . . . To be truly Self-centered is to be a giver of gifts to the world.

If you have a goal you’ve wanted to achieve, but you’ve felt restricted by fears of “taking from” or inconveniencing others, I invite you to try this exercise.  For a moment, remove your attention from the praise, material things, or anything else you may receive from the activity, and the possibility that others might disapprove of what you do.  Instead, focus your attention on the ways what you plan to do would serve the world.  Picture the happiness, comfort, productivity, and other gifts you’ll bring into people’s lives.

If you aren’t accustomed to thinking this way, I suspect you’ll be surprised by how motivated and inspired you’ll feel, and how insignificant your fears will appear compared to the joy you can bring others.

Switching Off The “Mental Horror Movie”

My life has taken a few twists and turns recently, and many outside observers would probably call them “turns for the worse.”  My car won’t run for some reason, I haven’t been able to sell my condo for three months, and my investments have taken a beating.  Five years ago, I definitely would have lost some sleep worrying over these events, particularly because they all happened in a short time period.  But today, I’m taking them in stride.

One of my friends couldn’t understand why I’m not worried about these setbacks.  “I’d be worried if I were you,” he said.

“What would you be worried about?” I asked.

“I’d worry that things weren’t going to get better.”

“You’d be imagining what might happen in the future?”

“Yeah,” he said.  “I’d be imagining that, in five years, none of those problems would be solved.”

I found this conversation very enlightening, because my friend pinpointed the exact reason why I no longer find myself stressing about the setbacks in my life.  When a problem would arise, I used to do exactly what my friend described—I’d form a pessimistic mental picture of the future.  In this imaginary future, the problems I face in the present have exploded to fearsome proportions.

For example, if I were creating mental pictures of the future based on my current problems, I’d be imagining myself being flat broke a year from now because I never sold my condo, repairs for my car ended up being massively expensive, and the stock market never picked up.  I’d be preoccupied with fear of that imaginary future, and that fear would have harmful physical effects—my chest and back would be tensing up, and I’d be grinding my jaw and giving myself headaches.

Why did I have this habit of conjuring up negative possible futures in my mind?  Like I said, those mental pictures were painful to experience, and creating them didn’t have many practical benefits to me.  Constantly worrying about a problem didn’t motivate me, or help me come up with ways, to solve it.  To the contrary, all that anxiety about bad possible futures would paralyze me.

Because the imaginary futures seemed so threatening, I’d hold off from making a decision, for fear of doing something wrong and making my mental movies “come true.”  Often, I’d try absorb myself in some other activity to avoid thinking about them.  Instead of learning the valuable lessons the problems in my life could teach me, I refused to face them because I associated them with frightening mental images.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I had this habit for the same reason many people enjoy watching horror movies.  Quite simply, on some level, I get a kick out of getting scared.  Because I have a fairly vivid imagination, I don’t need to watch a movie to satisfy my craving for anxiety.  I can generate limitless nightmare scenarios from the comforts of my own mind.  The problem is that, although watching mental horror movies gets me my “fear fix,” it distracts me from actually dealing with my problems and creates physical discomfort.

People compulsively worry about the future for different reasons.  Some people, for instance, don’t do it because part of them likes being afraid—they do it because, consciously or otherwise, it has them feel righteous.  To them, their constant anxiety about the future makes them mature, responsible people.  Making mental horror movies, in their view, is just part of being an adult.  Similarly, some people worry about others’ safety all the time because it makes them feel caring and protective.  If they weren’t constantly fretting about others’ well-being, after all, they’d be selfish people.

How do you get your mind out of the business of making horror movies?  For me, the key is to stay alert for those moments when your mind starts imagining a negative future scenario.  When you sense your mind doing this, simply remind yourself—whether internally or out loud—that your mind is feeding its fear addiction.  Further, remind yourself that you don’t need those pictures to address the problems in your life.  In fact, if you’re relaxed and composed when you’re solving your problems, you’ll do a much better job at it.

When you come to see them for what they really are, your mind’s nightmare scenarios don’t have the same emotional impact.  What’s more, when you can detach yourself from the illusions your mind creates when you run into problems, you’re far more able to calmly and effectively address those problems.

A New Perspective On Procrastination

At some point in your life, I’ll bet you felt like you weren’t getting enough done.  You wished you could keep your attention on your work, and stop “procrastinating” by doing frivolous or unimportant things, but it just didn’t seem possible.  I used to have this problem myself, until I had a realization one day that transformed my understanding of what procrastination is and how to deal with it.

At work, I would sometimes have trouble staying on task.  After working on a project for a little while, I’d find myself losing focus and finding ways to avoid being productive.  I would deal with low-priority work issues, read the news, or get antsy and pace around the room.  I’d try to get back to my project, but I’d feel like every cell in my body was resisting my will.

My normal reaction to this experience was one I think most of us identify with—I shamed myself.  “Come on, get a work ethic,” I’d tell myself.  My belief was that I procrastinated because I was fundamentally a lazy and selfish person, and that I only cared about doing what I wanted to do instead of helping others achieve their goals.  The only way to change this mindset, I figured, was to punish myself until I became willing to change my evil ways.  Unfortunately, beating myself up only seemed to strengthen my body’s resistance to getting work done.

One day, however, I made an interesting observation while I was having trouble focusing.  I noticed that, while I was reading the news, checking e-mail, or doing some other unproductive activity to avoid work, I wasn’t actually enjoying myself.  Even as I procrastinated, I was thinking to myself “this is boring.  I want to do something else.”

This observation didn’t support my theory that I procrastinated because I was lazy and only cared about having fun.  If that were true, you’d think I would have enjoyed my frivolous diversions.  But in fact, while I was in “procrastination mode,” I didn’t like doing anything.  Procrastination, I recognized, was just a symptom of an overall attitude that sometimes overtook me—an attitude of refusing to accept the situation I was in, regardless of what it was.

For whatever reason, I had moments when my mind basically decided it wasn’t okay with any aspect of reality, and became determined to reject anything the world gave it as inadequate and “boring.”  I call this mindset one of non-acceptance.  Some spiritual teachers call it “saying ‘no’ to the present moment.”  I procrastinated when I was in this state.

Happily, simply recognizing that I was in a place of non-acceptance had the effect of liberating me from that place.  If I just admitted to myself that I was saying “no” to my situation, without punishing myself for it, I’d find my refusal to accept reality dissolving, and a peace and alertness pervading my body.  Once in this state, I could concentrate on my work again.

If you find yourself procrastinating at times, and you want to improve your ability to focus, I have two suggestions for you that build on the realization I described.

First, be aware of, and acknowledge, when you’re in a state of non-acceptance.  To start doing this, notice that, when you find yourself procrastinating, nothing seems to satisfy you.  You can try doing a few different activities to prove this—you can read the news, play solitaire, call a friend or loved one, and so forth.  You’ll start to see that, when you’re in a state of non-acceptance, everything you do seems to be inadequate, boring or unfulfilling for one reason or another.

The central lesson here is that, when you are in this state, looking for something better to do won’t help, but recognizing that you have this attitude will get you back on track.  Once you see that your mind is generally rejecting reality in that moment, admit it to yourself.  Saying it out loud, for me, is the quickest way to dissolve my state of non-acceptance.  “I don’t like anything right now,” I’ll say to myself.  “Nothing is good enough.”  Normally, when I say this, I find myself laughing, and the boredom and discomfort I had been feeling disappear.

Second, start noticing what events tend to put you into a state of non-acceptance.  In other words, what usually happens right before you lapse into that state?  Maybe it’s a communication with a certain person at work; a particular type of document you have to prepare; a certain hour of the day; or something else.  For example, I would start “saying no” to the world whenever I’d get an e-mail from a colleague checking on my progress on a project.  I’d feel like they didn’t appreciate the quality of my work or how much effort I put into it, and I’d start getting resentful.  For at least a few minutes after I got that e-mail—and perhaps a few hours—nothing I would do would seem enjoyable or meaningful.

When I figured out that I’d start rejecting reality whenever I would receive this type of e-mail, I became mentally prepared for, and able to stay productive in, that situation.  Whenever I’d get an e-mail checking on my progress, I would simply acknowledge to myself that I was about to enter a state of non-acceptance, and that, once I was in that state, nothing would be able to satisfy me.  Admitting to myself I was about to say “no” to the world would dissipate my resistance to reality and help me regain my focus.

Why do certain situations cause us to reject reality?  In my view, we say “no” to the world when we feel that the world doesn’t love or appreciate us.  Saying “no” is our way of telling the world “you don’t care about me, so I’m not going to enjoy you or do anything for you.”

Often, the situations where we react this way resemble moments from our childhoods when we felt rejected or neglected by our parents.  For instance, after some reflection, I recognized that, when a colleague would ask how my project was going, I would feel the same way I did when, as a kid, one of my parents asked whether I was done with my chores yet.  In those moments, I felt like I was only appreciated for the quality of my work—as though I were a machine, or something less than human—and I’d feel the vindictive urge to shut out the world.

Overcoming procrastination is about becoming aware of those situations where you tend to reject reality.  Simply gaining that awareness, and acknowledging—without beating yourself up—when you’ve said “no” to your circumstances, is an effective method for dissolving that “no” and getting your productivity back.  Just accepting the fact that you’re in a rut, without blame or judgment, is often the fastest way to pull yourself out of it.

(This article appeared in the Carnival of Engaged Spirituality, located at http://virtualteahouse.com/blogs/beth/archive/2008/05/05/2nd-carnival-on-engaged-spirituality-engaging-resistance.aspx.)

Are You “Burdening” Others With Your Problems?

A friend recently admitted that she feels guilty when she talks to me, because it seems like she’s always “unloading her problems” onto me.  It’s true that she sometimes tells me about the obstacles and anxieties in her life.  But I’ve never felt “burdened” or “unloaded on” when she tells me what’s going on for her.  I’ve actually felt touched that she chose and trusted me to discuss those issues with.  In fact, I’ve never quite understood what “burdening someone with your problems,” and the social taboo against it, mean at all.

Many others seem to understand this idea.  When asked how they’re doing, people feel obligated to respond “fine,” lest they “burden” the person asking with what’s going on in their lives.  Several of my friends make sure only to tell their parents the rosier aspects of their lives, in order to be good children and avoid worrying their parents.  And most of us have many “less-close friends” with whom it’s understood that we don’t discuss the negative or difficult aspects of our lives.  These days, it may seem like the only person you can talk to about your problems without being rude is your therapist or some other “helping professional.”

Unfortunately, to my mind, the social custom forbidding telling one’s problems to others inhibits the growth of deep and fulfilling relationships.  I feel far more connected to my friends and loved ones when they’re willing to share the difficult aspects of their lives with me, and when I do the same with them.  It saddens me when people are afraid to open up to others in their lives, or shut out others who want to open up to them, based on the belief that you’re not supposed to “burden” others with the less upbeat events of your life.

If you feel “burdened” or otherwise uncomfortable when someone describes their problems to you, I suggest that this feeling stems from the perception that you’re required to respond in certain ways when others do this.  First, when someone else describes a problem to us, we often assume we’re required to help solve it.  Second, we often believe that, to avoid being rude or inconsiderate, we must listen to the other person’s full description of the problem, and ask questions that make it sound like we’re interested—even if we aren’t.

Neither option is very appealing.  Trying to solve another person’s problems can feel like hard work, and raises anxieties around giving unhelpful advice.  And sometimes, for various reasons, we don’t have the time or desire to process the difficult aspects of others’  lives with them.  As I’ll explain below, however, if you tend to assume that you have to select one of these two options when someone discusses their life’s challenges with you, you aren’t considering the full range of choices available to you.

Let’s think about the two alternatives we tend to feel are available to us when someone tells us their problems.  First, many people feel that, when someone else brings up a problem, they have an obligation to help solve it.  If I tell you my intimate relationship is on the rocks, you may feel like I’ve made you responsible for making me feel better or offering some plan to improve the quality of my relationship.  If you take this view, you probably will feel “burdened” and resentful when I relate my problem to you, because I’m imposing an obligation upon you by telling you about it.

But do you really have such an obligation?  If you’re convinced that you do, think about why you believe you’re supposed to solve others’ problems.  What event in your life made you decide it was your job to do that?  And what do you think would happen if you didn’t solve a problem someone presented to you?  What would that say about you as a person?  Would it say you were ignorant?  Incompetent?  Or something else?  If you seriously consider these questions, I think you’ll begin to doubt that this obligation exists, and to see that your fears around failing to solve others’ problems are at least somewhat exaggerated.

Also, consider whether others, when they tell you their problems, really want and expect you to offer advice.  When you describe the painful events of your life to someone else, don’t you sometimes just want them to listen to your story and to how you feel?  In fact, don’t you sometimes become irritated when someone offers you advice, because all you really wanted to do was express your emotions around your problem?  And if you feel this way, doesn’t it seem possible that others do as well?

Second, as I said, some people feel that, when someone brings up a difficult aspect of their life, they have to fully listen to the other person’s concerns.  Anything else would be selfish and hurtful.  If you hold this view, it’s no surprise that you feel imposed upon—and perhaps even exploited—when others talk about their problems.  You probably don’t have the time or desire to process, or act as the sounding board for, all of the complaints of every person in your life.

If this concern comes up for you when others relate their problems to you, consider whether there are acceptable ways for you to convey that you don’t have the time or inclination at the moment to listen to those problems.  Can you tell someone “unfortunately, I don’t have time to talk about this right now?”  Or will even that feel inconsiderate or impolite for you to do?  Will saying that hurt the other person, or cause them to hurt you, in ways that seem too painful to risk?

If you don’t feel there are any acceptable ways to tell someone you don’t want to hear about their problems at the moment, take the inquiry a bit deeper.  What will happen if you tell someone you aren’t available to listen to their problems, and they’re hurt by it?  How will they respond?  Will they abandon or attack you?  Will you be an evil, selfish or ignorant person?  If you simply consider these issues, you’ll likely start to question whether you truly need to be available to listen to others’ problems at all times.

Simply developing awareness regarding why you feel “burdened” when others tell you about the painful aspects of their lives can begin to ease that burden.  With this awareness will eventually come the realization that you aren’t obligated to solve or listen to people’s problems.  You may want to do these things, and choose to do them, but at least recognizing that other options are available to you will weaken that feeling of “burden” or imposition.