Since March, we’ve been spending a whole lot of time in the same space with the same people—and spending lots of energy to make sure everyone’s needs are accounted for. Between remote learning, meal prep and work, you’re barely treading water, let alone thinking about “me-time.” Hell, you might even feel like even Rumpelstiltskin the dachshund is being pampered more than you are, between all those long walks, lengthy petting sessions and endless supply of treats.
While all this giving is selfless and admirable, there’s also a downside to it. It’s called “de-selfing,” (the term originated in Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide To Changing The Patterns of Intimate Relationships—a fabulous read), and it’s harmful not only to your psyche, but also to your relationships. To help us grasp the gravity of de-selfing and how it affects us in quarantine, we asked Dr. Paula Wilbourne, clinical psychologist, co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Sibly, to help us understand the phenomenon and how to overcome it.
What exactly is ‘de-selfing’?
“De-selfing occurs when one gives up things that are core to who they are to fit in or maintain an important relationship,” Dr. Wilbourne explains. It essentially describes a situation where a person compromises other relationships, activities and interests in service of another person’s needs. For example, let’s say practicing yoga is really important to you, but your spouse doesn’t like that you do it; he feels left out from your yogi crew and wishes you would spend more time at home. Instead of saying, “Yoga is important to my mental and social health and I’m going to continue doing it,” you sigh and say, “Fine. I’ll go fewer times a week.” Or maybe, you say nothing at all and let your favorite activity wither on the vine.
But isn’t compromise good for relationships?
Sure, while certain compromises are key to a good marriage, not everything in your life should be negotiated. Take, for example, the core parts of who you are as person, including “thoughts, feelings and aspirations,” per Dr. Wilbourne. When you concede these things, it can have both emotional and health consequences: “De-selfing occurs when we betray ourselves to serve the needs of someone else. We become less of ourselves, failing to honor our own needs, strengths and interests.”
So why could de-selfing escalate in quarantine?
Dr. Wilbourne paints the picture for those of us staying home: Basically, quarantine requires us to socially isolate and obliterates habits and connections we built into our lives to keep ourselves grounded and connected, “No more visits to the gym or stops at our favorite coffee shop. No time to organize our thoughts on the commute into work or process the events of the day on the drive home before diving into our personal and family lives.” These sudden changes, Dr. Wilbourne emphasizes, disconnect us from habits and routines and “leave many of us feeling unmoored from ourselves.”
Plus, there’s the umbrella of stress we’re currently living under. “We may fly into crisis mode to help keep everyone afloat,” Dr. Wilbourne shares. We lose time to ourselves to support distance learning. We give up privacy to share workspaces. According to our expert: “The pressure to compromise our own needs to help everyone else function can be exponential and the compromises we make in the heat of a crisis may not go away.”
How might de-selfing negatively affect a marriage or relationship?
“In healthy relationships, we balance our individual needs and expressions with our need to connect and cooperate with others,” says Dr. Wilbourne. But de-selfing is kinda like doing this on overdrive—you lose the delicate balance between autonomy and serving the needs of those around us, becoming enmeshed with our partners, giving voice to their needs and burying our own. If your family is a garden, think of de-selfing as a weed, slowly but surely absorbing your partner’s or kid’s anxiety and eschewing the resources you need to address your own problems. “If intimacy is defined by sharing our private thoughts and feelings and the feelings of being understood, appreciated and cared for, de-selfing eliminates it,” addresses Dr. Wilbourne. So, ironically, while you may think that this type of enmeshment would make you closer, Dr. Wilbourne tells us that de-selfing actually undermines the core of our relationships. “If you have no sense of self,” she says, “it can lead to depression, resentment and anxiety. From there, it can even remove the closeness from our relationships and alienate us from ourselves.”
What are signs to look for that you're experiencing de-selfing?
Losing your individual identity can be a quiet and slow process, like any type of erosion. So how do you spot it? Dr. Wilbourne advises that if you are losing connection to your values, your activities and the full range of relationships you usually enjoy, it can signal a problem. “When you typically value fitness and health, but find yourself neglecting those things, it can be a sign you are neglecting your own needs. If you find yourself feeling resentful or exhausted by a partner or friend, it can be a sign you are compromising too much for the relationship.” Other signs of de-selfing might include taking too much responsibility for the functioning of someone else, excessive worry about the other person, trying to rescue others from their own problems and a growing sense of exhaustion and burnout. “If you find yourself unhappy but are failing to take steps to address the problems in the relationship, it can be a sign that you are de-selfing,” notes Dr. Wilbourne.
What are tips to stop de-selfing in quarantine?
1. Pay attention to your feelings, values and needs
Write them down and take note of what you want, need and hold true. With your values in mind, you can more easily tell if you are honoring them in your everyday routines and relationships.
2. Attend to these values
Explicitly and purposefully explore, express and act on your own needs. In the midst of pandemic chaos, this might seem impossible. So, start with scheduling in ten minutes here to go on a solo walk and 20 minutes there to practice breathing.
3. Try to express empathy and appreciation for your partner and ask them to do the same
“Your experience of the world is different than theirs. Both perspectives deserve attention and validation,” Dr. Wilbourne reminds us. That means your partner should give you the same grace as well.
4. Keep in mind our universal needs for both autonomy and connection
We need a balance between these two things to keep ourselves afloat and to truly connect in our relationships. If the scales lean too heavily toward one side, the relationship gets into toxic territory.
5. Reframe the questions you ask yourself
“Sometimes de-selfing happens when we get isolated in a microcosm with another person. Looking broadly at the world, your community, friendships and family may help you feel less personally responsible for what is happening. For example, you can reframe the question, ‘How am I failing to take care of my health?’ into ‘How can we all find a way to take care of health in the context of the pandemic and the social unrest of our current moment in time?’” Since de-selfing can stem from a need to help others, this thought process takes the entire onus off of your shoulders and spreads it into a communal problem to solve together.