Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Enlightened Self-Interest

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 20, 2013

When do we take care of others for the sake of ourselves? Jolie, fifty-four was about to lose battery power on her iphone5. Her husband, Shawn started to get anxious on Jolie’s behalf? “Why do you care about my battery?” Jolie asks Shawn. “Because I don’t want to deal with your tantrum when you can’t use your cell phone,” Shawn answers, startling Jolie. One could say it is sweet that Shawn is looking after Jolie, but one could also say that Shawn is looking after Shawn. In fact, Shawn could say he is caring for his wife, and/or he could say that he is protecting himself from future harm. Of course, Shawn is doing both, such that to say that Shawn is being selfish is not completely true, nor is it true that he is being altruistic. One could argue that enlightened self-interest is the best kind of love, since Shawn is caring for himself and Jolie at the same time. Too much selfishness, like too much altruism is a set-up for an unbalanced, and hence an unstable relationship. Having said that, should Shawn be honest about his consciousness that he is acting in his own self-interest, or should he emphasize the caring nature of his behavior? Perhaps Shawn could learn to say both parts to initiate a deeper understanding of their relationship. The most enduring kind of caring involves self-care, as well as care for others. As in my previous post about volunteering, one gives of oneself, as a way of getting back self-esteem-another form of enlightened self-interest. The narrow path resumes. Like the diagram above, the challenge in life is that very narrow, middle path.

6 Responses to “Enlightened Self-Interest”

  1. Jon said

    You state, “Perhaps Shawn could learn to say both parts to initiate a deeper understanding of their relationship.” Yes, that is true. However, isn’t it also true that Jolie could come to understand Shawn’s dual purpose of Shawn’s concern and be a bit more accepting of his anxiousness on her behalf? As opposed to “Why do you care about my battery?” could she not say, “Thanks for your concern” and then tend to the battery when possible?

    Also, I have a question of the Ven Diagram graphic above. In that graphic, “selfishness” and “altruism” never intersect; however, each has an intersection with “enlightened self-interest”. I would have thought that “enlightened self-interest” was indeed the intersection of “selfishness” and “altruism.” Could that not be the case?

    • Oh yes, Jolie’s hostility towards Shawn is an issue worth noting, so thank you for pointing that out.

      As for the Ven Diagram, I agree that the picture would be better as you suggest. If I could draw it myself, I would do that, but the computer tools to do that escape me at the moment. Thanks.

  2. Ashana M said

    This is not altruism and not care. It’s entanglement. Neither of them is taking responsibility for themselves, their behavior, or their feelings. Shawn is trying to control Jolie–as if she is an object and not a person with responsibilities and choices–in order to make himself more comfortable. Jolie seems to have a habit of using Shawn as a punching bag to vent her frustrations on–as if he is not a person either. What is lacking is both accountability and an awareness of the other as a separate person.

    Jolie can deal with her own battery and Shawn can cope with his own feelings.

    • Ashana, you bring out the complexity of this vignette. Caring can be entanglement. Anger can be projected from an uncomfortable internal state. On the other hand, caring can be both helpful and selfish. All is true and so each person needs to think about each encounter in a way that seems to make both cognitive and emotional sense. Hearing a vignette is a revision from the actual encounter and as such, it is subject to interpretation and mis-interpretation. Thanks.

  3. Shelly said

    I find this statement in your blog most interesting, “The most enduring kind of caring involves self-care, as well as care for others. As in my previous post about volunteering, one gives of oneself, as a way of getting back self-esteem-another form of enlightened self-interest.” Why do you say that the most enduring kind of caring is self-caring? If my spouse takes care of his interests first, how is it that I will feel loved? I will still feel uncared for. Yes, it is true if one gives of oneself one will gain a trmendous amount of self-esteem, which is enlightened self-interest, but how does this help in relationships?

    • I am talking about a sophisticated kind of self-caring, where one helps others, and thereby helps oneself. This is not the same as selfishness. A more sophisticated understanding of one’s needs leads to deeper relationships. Being self-centered in a relationship leads to resentment and bitter feelings, and hence the dyad is happier when there is more thoughtfulness and concern. Thanks.

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