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Opinion: Here's how to fight being 'good' all the time and mind yourself first (by a Zen Buddhist)

Haemin Sunim is a Zen Buddhist who writes about how to love imperfect things – including yourself – in his new book.

Haemin Sunim

WERE YOU ONE of those children who were praised for being “good”? Did you then try hard to be good by always agreeing with parents, teachers, or older relatives?

Even if sometimes it was hard, you learned not to complain and bore it quietly? And now that you’re an adult, do you still feel a responsibility to please other people? Do you constantly make an effort not to disturb or be a burden on others? But when there’s someone who makes things difficult for you, you try just to ignore it or put up with it, because it is not in your nature to do or say something that can potentially hurt someone or make someone feel uncomfortable?

I have met many good people who suffer from depression, panic attacks, and other emotional disorders due to difficult human relationships. Such people tend to be gentle, well mannered, and solicitous of others. They are the kind of self- sacrificing person who will habitually put other people’s wishes before their own. Why, I wondered, do such good people often fall victim to mental and emotional suffering?

I, too, was introverted and meek as a child, and so was often praised for being “good.” A good son who wouldn’t give his parents any trouble, a good student who listened to his teachers— all this taught me was that it was good to be good.

But when I went to graduate school, I began to feel that there might be a problem with only being good. In group work with students who were smarter than I was, with stronger personalities, I found that the tasks everyone wanted to avoid somehow always fell to me. I kept on telling myself that it was good to do good, but as time went by it started causing me quite a bit of stress. When I opened my heart and spoke honestly to
an older friend who was in the same program, he gave me the following advice:
“Be good to yourself first, then to others.”

It was like being struck by lightning. Up until then, I had only ever worried about what other people thought of me. I had never once thought properly about caring for myself, or loving myself.

When we say that someone is “good,” we often mean that the person complies with the will of others and isn’t self-assertive. In other words, people who are good at suppressing their own desires in deference to another’s are the ones who frequently get called “good.” If someone always listens to me and follows my advice, naturally I like that person and think of him or her as a good person. It seems that “good” sometimes refers to a person who thinks too much of others to be able to express his or her own will.

While it is not always the case, there is a particular pattern that can be seen in our relationship with whoever raised us as a child. Many who are self-effacing in this way grew up with a dominant father or strong- willed mother. Or as a middle sibling, who received relatively little attention from the parents, giving rise to a strong desire to win the parents’ recognition by obeying them in all things. In certain cases, when the parents’ own relationship is not good, or the family dynamic is awkward in some way, there are also those who take it upon themselves to make their parents happy by being “good.”

But the problem is that, by living in accordance with the demands of others, we unwittingly neglect our own desires and needs. If as a child you were indifferent to your own feelings, minimising them or not considering them important, as an adult you will not be able to tell what it is you yourself want to do, or who you are as a person. And then when you encounter someone who treats you unfairly or makes things difficult for you, since you do not know how to properly express your own feelings, the anger that ought to be directed toward its instigator is trapped inside you and ends up attacking you instead.

“Why am I such an idiot, that I can’t express my feelings properly, can’t even speak up honestly?”

Above all, please remember this: What you are feeling is not something that should just be ignored, but something very significant. The feelings inside you will not easily disappear just because you decide to suppress or ignore them. Many psychological problems come about when repression becomes a habit and the energy of those suppressed emotions is unable to find a healthy outlet. Just as stagnant water becomes fetid and toxic, so it is with our emotions.

But it’s not too late. From now on, before going along with what others wish you to do, please listen to the voice inside you, telling you what you truly want. Even when you feel yourself buffeted by constant demands, if you really do not want to do something, don’t try to push through with it, exhausting yourself to the point that you are no longer able to cope. Instead, try to make others understand what you are feeling by expressing it in words. Don’t worry that expressing yourself will cause the other person to dislike you and the relationship to become strained. If the other person knew how you really felt, she probably wouldn’t have made such demands of you.

Even when everyone says, “Let’s all have coffee,” if you want a chai latte, it’s okay to speak up and say, “I’d like a chai latte instead.” We consider it good to be good to others, but don’t forget that you have a responsibility to be good to yourself first.

Learn to express what you are feeling without agonising over it. It is a life skill every bit as important as learning how to read. Without it, dissatisfaction builds up, arguments break out, and relationships can blow up like volcanoes.

Does it make you feel frustrated to be the only one doing the work? If so, don’t just swallow the feeling; speak up: “It’s difficult for me to do it on my own. Could you please help me out?” Little by little, expressing your feelings will become easier.

When someone asks for a favour, don’t forget that you have the option to say, “I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t do that.” You have no obligation to take on a task that will be a great burden on you. And if the relationship grows strained because you do not do the favour, it was never a good relationship to begin with.

Love for Imperfect Things

Extracted from Love for Imperfect Things by Haemin Sunim, published by Penguin Life. Love For Imperfect Things asks us to turn inwards and show love and compassion to ourselves this time, to practice self-care in a world that seems to demand perfection. Out now in bookshops.

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Haemin Sunim

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