Flying Solo: Selfishness vs. Self-care

As my colleagues at Roubicek and Thacker will attest, I am a Star Wars fanatic.  I love how archetypes and philosophical truths are blended with fantasy, fiction, and cool technology.  Next month another Star Wars movie – Solo – will be released.  Though many more things about the famous smuggler will be revealed in a few short weeks, I am confident that the overall message of the life of the character of Han Solo can teach us many things about how we meet our self-care needs in the context of relationships.  

In the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV – A New Hope), Han Solo is portrayed as a selfish, smuggler and scoundrel that only cares about himself.  After rescuing Princess Leia from the Death Star (mostly because of Luke Skywalker’s suggestion that saving a rich princess could be lucrative), he has the following conversation with Leia:

Han: Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution. I’m not in it for you Princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in it for the money.

Princess: You needn’t worry about your reward. If money is all that you love, then that’s what you’ll receive.

Talk about selfish!  But what is interesting about the character of Han Solo is that by the end of the first film, we see him beginning to care about someone other than himself.  He flies out to the Battle of Yavin and shoots Darth Vader’s TIE fighter sending it spinning off in the galaxy and clearing the way for Luke Skywalker to blow up the Death Star.  He started to care about the “Kid” (Luke) that had been at his side for the adventure. He also cared about his co-pilot, Chewbacca, and even started having feelings for the Princess.  By the end of the original trilogy (Episodes 4, 5, and 6), we see a very different Han Solo. By then, he has unselfishly signed up for the Rebel cause, fallen in love, and is capable of balancing his own needs in the context of his relationships with the people he most deeply cares about. In essence, Solo is no longer flying solo.  He has relationships and commitments where he thinks about others.

Each of us has to learn to balance getting our own needs met in the context of relationships with the people we care about.  How do we distinguish between being selfish from doing good self-care? (Remember, self-care is important so that we don’t end up behaving poorly due to a serious lack of need fulfillment.) The answer is actually fairly simple.  Selfishness is an attitude of taking care of our own needs regardless of the consequences it has on others. It is basically disregarding the effect our actions will have on others because we feel our needs are so great that nothing else matters.  When we are selfish we are destructive – almost always to others and often to ourselves. For example, feeding an addiction like pornography, substances, gambling, food, or other forms of addiction always hurts the people we love and, in the long-run, ends up hurting ourselves.  

On the other hand, self-care is a reasoned balance of getting our needs met in the context of our most important relationships.  It takes forethought and effort to engage in wholesome activities that meet our innermost needs while taking into consideration the needs of others.  

Selfishness usually involves only looking inward.  Self-care involves looking both inward and outward and then making a healthy decision.  Self-care involves careful calculation of the sacrifices we make for others and the sacrifices we ask others to make for us to meet our needs.  It requires introspection and communication.

For example, if I feel I need to exercise for my self-care (which I do!), I need to think about how much time and energy is appropriate for my needs.  Let’s say I settle on needing about 45 minutes or so each day for exercise. I then need to communicate with my wife and consult with her about when is the best time in the day for me to exercise in consideration of my work schedule, her schedule, the schedule of the children in our family, and other activities we have planned.  It will require some sacrifice on the part of my family to let me have the time I need to exercise, but I also give them the blessing of living longer and being able to care for, serve, and support them. Likewise, I need to cooperate with my spouse to give her the time she needs to exercise and have her other self-care needs met.  Self-care, then, is a relationally constructed decision agreed to by the individual and the people in which he or she has significant relationships with, taking into account the needs of the family system, as a whole.

Paradoxically, self-care requires us to reach out and connect with others in healthy ways to find a balance between our needs and the needs of others.  A famous pioneer in the field of marriage and family therapy, Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, developed a model called Contextual Family Therapy. He noted the need for balancing self needs in a relational context.  Dr. Bosormenyi-Nagy once wrote:

“Psychological and psychodynamic literature generally underemphasize the… concern and caring for others as the self’s needs. Instead, considerable attention has been directed at the self-serving needs of persons in artificial isolation from the ethics of their vital interests in relational investments.” – Ivan Borzormenyi-Nagy (1981).

As marriage and family therapists who subscribe to systems theory, we encourage people to engage in good self-care in the context of their relationships.  Selfishness is not the goal, rather, good self-care in the context of relationships is our aim.

If you have struggled with selfishness vs. self-care, you are not alone.  Learning to assert our own needs and cooperate with our partner’s needs is complicated business.  In fact, there’s a whole conflict resolution model by Thomas and Kilmann designed to address that very issue as shown in the graphic below:

Thomas_Kilmann_Conflict_Modes.jpg

The ideal style for most relationships is collaboration.  The root words are “co” and “labor” – to work together. It takes a lot of effort, but the rewards of such relationships are sweet.  Collaboration requires being highly assertive of one’s own needs while being highly cooperative in meeting your partner’s needs. “Flying Solo” is basically being assertive without being cooperative – not a great way to handle relationships.  Only by learning to collaborate can we engage in assertive self-care while cooperating in our relationships and thereby avoid selfishness.

It would seem that over the life course of the character of Han Solo, he learned to collaborate rather than “fly solo.”  Hopefully, he inspires you to do the same as you strive for self-care in a collaborative manner in the context of your relationships.