March, 7th, 2017
The Myth Of The Selfless Hero
You’ve probably seen any number of movies in which the main
character or one of the supporting characters sacrifices themselves
in order to save others from some disaster.
After reflecting on those kinds of movie scenes it seems reasonable
to conclude that to be ‘heroic’ one must value selflessness. After all,
it appears as if loving oneself might get in the way of jumping on the
grenade to save one’s buddies.
Hence, selflessness appears to be a virtue that ought to be sought after
by anyone that fancies themselves ‘heroic.’
But there’s a problem with this.
What people tend to think of as selflessness is not actually selflessness
at all – it’s co-dependency.
Co-dependency is a concept in the mental health field that describes
a style of social interaction in which one person avoids themselves
[treats some aspect of themselves as if it were an object – something that doesn’t really matter] by pursuing an activity, task, or relationship.
Some people use alcohol and drugs to avoid this part of themselves –usually uncomfortable emotional states, some use promiscuity, and others focus on “helping” to avoid themselves and their own unsatisfying circumstances.
Typically, you can tell the difference between co-dependent “helping” and heroic helping by looking closely at the impact of the help on the person being helped.
Here’s some questions you can ask yourself to find out if your helpfulness is actually helping:
Did your help increase the probability that the other person will stay stuck in a developmental delay? In other words, did it “help” an adult to keep behaving like an adolescent?
Did it help them to stay addicted?
Did it help them to get something without having to earn it - something that they could have gotten on their own, with a little effort?
Did it help them to stay dependent upon you for their survival? Do you only help them when they are unlikely to reach your level of life success?
Heroic helping is helpful because it does something for the other that they couldn’t have done for themselves, even if they wanted to do it.
Heroic helping often involves sacrifice but heroic people don’t sacrifice because they value selflessness – they do it because they love their neighbors as they love themselves.
Heroes help others to get un-stuck from developmental delays.
Heroes help people to develop independence [self-reliance] and inter-dependence [a teamwork orientation].
Heroes are not threatened by the success of others. Heroes especially want to help people to reach the higher levels of their potential – even if the hero’s sacrifice will catapult the other into a higher level of life success than that of the hero.
I believe that you’ll be more likely to make sacrifices if you value yourself. I think that’s true because when you value yourself you pay attention to what your ‘self’ needs - in order to be well and do well in life.
When you love yourself you try to learn about yourself. When you learn about yourself you discover that your ‘self’ has two important aspects; there’s you the individual with ‘wants’ and there’s you the human being with ‘needs.’
When you spend time getting to know who you are as an individual and as a human being, you may discover that while other people are different from you as individuals, with different ‘wants,’ they are similar to you as a human being – with the same human mental health needs.
You discover that you and the rest of humanity have in common needs like equality, safety, sufficiency, balance, hope, peace, justice, respect, freedom of movement, trust, authenticity, and personal empowerment.
In this way, your self-awareness connects you with the rest of humanity.
Additionally, when you start to pay attention to your own ‘needs’ you will begin to notice how they are being met – via good rapport with others.
You’ll notice that your ability to get your own mental health needs met is contingent upon how other people treat you – and on how you treat others. In other words, you’ll figure out that your own mental health needs are actually need-satisfaction experiences – they’re social experiences.
Think about it. Why did Martin Luther King, Jr have to advocate on behalf of African-Americans in Civil Rights Era America? He did it because the majority culture were treating African-Americans with a lack of regard – were treating them as if they didn’t matter. He did it because he knew that their needs were also his needs. He was being treated as if he didn’t matter.
If you don’t like being mistreated it’s probably because you believe that you matter and if you believe that you matter then you will maintain a good rapport with others. You won’t mistreat them or allow someone else to mistreat them- because you need them to be healthy, functional, and to want to work with you as a teammate. Hence, you’d be willing to sacrifice yourself for them.
You’d sacrifice yourself for them because you know that if you didn’t sacrifice yourself for them you’d be just as likely to be mistreated by whatever evil force is threatening them. Hence, your self-sacrifice is actually a high-stakes form of teamwork.
It’s that realization that separates the heroic role from all of the other roles that people play in our lives. The person who intervenes to improve a situation for others does so because s/he can empathize with the plight of the other – when the needs of that other are threatened by some external source of potentially destructive impact.
In other words, as a “hero” you are able to empathize with others because you can empathize with yourself. You can love your neighbor because you love yourself.
Consequently, you are more likely to sacrifice for others when you and others are confronted with a threat to those ‘good life’ need-satisfaction experiences because you know that if you don’t intervene then whatever evil you are facing, in the social and physical environment, will just continue unchecked – will expand in its’ capacity to harm you and / or others on that human needs level.
So, in actuality, it would make more sense for someone to sacrifice themselves for others when they love themselves than it would for them to sacrifice themselves for others when they don’t love themselves.
If I de-valued myself then I would de-value others too and if I did that then why would I intervene to help them? I wouldn’t.
Objectification, or the view that self and others are not important, is more likely to bring about villainous behavior than heroic behavior.
So, upon closer inspection of those movies in which a hero appears to be sacrificing for ‘the greater good’ it turns out that they are actually sacrificing for ‘the common good’ – the idea of “good” that they have in common with others – an idea that is anchored in their shared humanity.
Thus, what we previously thought was a valuing of selflessness turned out to be a valuing of healthy social environments.
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