Do You Feel Guilty about Your Own Needs?

One frequent problem people present with in therapy is: not knowing how to care for themselves emotionally. Many people make their lives all about caring for others, and not enough about caring for themselves.

They might make statements such as:

  • “My husband doesn’t like Chinese food, so we never go”
  • “I would never spend the money on a spa treatment for myself, I just don’t feel like I’m worth it”
  • “I did not feel proud when I got my promotion, I don’t want to be seen as egotistical”

Problems with Ignoring Own Needs:

This kind of attitude toward life whereby you shun your own needs, desires, and healthy pride due to feelings of guilt and shame can in the long run lead to problems.

First of all, when you shut down your natural desires and wants because you feel selfish for having them, you end up feeling more empty inside and more alien from yourself.

Second of all, when other people’s needs always take priority, you will end up feeling increasingly resentful of others and drained by other people’s company.

Is Your Focus on Others Self-Effacing?

Psychoanalyst Karen Horney refers to this lifestyle of minimizing your own needs and focusing always on what others want as a defensive strategy of self-effacement.

Karen Horney: Neurosis and Human Growth

Karen Horney has written about the strategy of self-effacement in her best-selling book “Neurosis and Human Growth”

Karen Horney: Neurosis and Human GrowthThe person who lives their life this way cannot spend money on themselves, cannot openly demand anything, and cannot celebrate their own successes. They always live in the shadows of others and shun any feelings related to being proud of themselves or entitled to having their needs met.

Although a certain amount of humility and perspective-taking is certainly both healthy and appropriate, it is not healthy when we cannot proudly own our accomplishments, assert our needs, and take interest in ourselves.

When We Lose Touch with Who We Are:

Sometimes the ability to feel inside ourselves for answers to what we want may become muted to such an extent that we feel rather empty inside and lose touch with who we really are. At this point we are likely to become depressed.

Therapy with such people will often uncover that the reason why they have become so alienated from their desires is that they experience intense guilt feelings, shame, or anxiety whenever the focus is on them.

Unless these feelings are resolved, they are going to continue to shun any feeling that hint of pride, confidence, self-interest, and making themselves a priority.

These positive feelings about the self which are vital for a fulfilling life, are then going to continue to be judged as “selfish”, “self-indulgent”, “egotistical” and will therefore continue to be rejected and disowned.

Indeed some people might even go the extra mile and idealize their lack of self-care as a sign of their good-hearted, self-sacrificing, and saintly nature, erecting an even more formidable barrier to regaining healthy self-esteem.

When Self-Sacrifice Becomes Sign of Low Self-Esteem:

The reason why the ban against caring for oneself is so problematic is that instead of being a genuine virtue it often covers up shame, lack of self-love, low self-esteem, and a sense of unworthiness. Were we to really get to the bottom of things, we would often discover that the primary motor for shunning one’s assertiveness is not really a commitment to a more ethical and virtuous life style, but doubts about being liked, needed, wanted, or loved.

Questions that often underlie a compulsive need to please or a fear-driven avoidance of assertiveness, include questions such as:

  • Would my partner still love me and be with me if I made more demands?
  • Would I really discover that I am a horribly selfish person if I indulge my impulses?
  • Am I really worth enough to myself or to anyone to deserve to have my needs met?

These are not the questions of a virtuous person, but the questions of someone who doesn’t love themselves deep down.

What is the Solution?

The solution to the problem of lack of self-love is not to become more virtuous, self-sacrificing, and caring of others, but to learn how to care better for oneself. One must get to the bottom of why it is that vital feelings of pride, self-respect, and self-interest became shameful and needed to be shunned.

As so often happens when people engage in the therapeutic work of truly identifying the causes of their defenses and distress, what they will likely find is a history of losses, absences, and neglects that will need to be properly mourned and confronted.

Once the person goes through this process and reworks the meanings and implications of these past events, they will no longer need to disown parts themselves because they deem them to be unworthy or shameful. Instead they will develop greater self-compassion. Instead of shunning parts of themselves in order to protect themselves from unbearable bruises or erroneous conclusions from the past, they will then once again feel entitled to own all of themselves.  They can then get in touch with the natural sense of pride and self-esteem that is the hallmark of a life worth living.

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston, TX, who specializes in helping people get to the root of their depression, lack of self-compassion, and low self-esteem. Click here to read more about my treatment for depression.