When it pays to be selfish

We often say that the point of Prosocial is to balance and integrate self and collective needs. But people often hear that as saying that we should think more about the good of the group and less about themselves. In this post, I want to tell you a story about how becoming more prosocial is sometimes a matter of going deeper to understand and express our own needs.

I have a 15-year-old daughter. We love each other deeply and have lots of times of loving connection. But lately, I have found myself frequently saying the same sorts of things over and over again in an exasperated, irritated tone.: “Please put your phone down and tidy your room,” “Please get up off the couch and do your chores,” “Please do your homework before you check out and play games.” Often these requests are met with anger, eye-rolling, or delays from my daughter. My parenting feels like wading through treacle, and it isn’t working so well for either of us.

So, what can I do to create a more cooperative, alive, prosocial relationship?

If I use the noticing tool (ACT Matrix), the first thing I notice is mostly INNER-AWAY stuff:

“I am ineffective as a parent,”

“Others are probably doing this a lot better than me,”

ANGER,

DISAPPOINTMENT,

and even some SADNESS as I compare how I see her spending her time compared to what I remember of my own, phone-free, childhood.

I find myself feeling like I am at war with Apple. They are a hostile force in my house — uncaring about my daughter for anything other than her continuous attention to the damn phone!

But what is probably triggering my daughter’s ire are the judgments and expectations: “My daughter is lazy,” and something like “She isn’t very good at doing the hard stuff first. She has to learn, or she will fail in life.” Even as I write this, I see more space around it. It is true, but it is also a lot to ask of a 15-year-old girl.

As I write all these things, I can see how I could argue against all of them. But that isn’t the point here. When all of this hooks me, it has me doing the stuff I mentioned earlier, nagging and expressing my irritation (OUTER-AWAY)

So what next? What can I do about this situation? I want to jump to solutions (OUTER-TOWARD), but I know the habitual ones I have been trying have not been working, so I want to make a stop along the way with clarifying what matters to me about this interaction (INNER-TOWARD).

Let’s hold that question “what really matters to me about this situation?” up to the light. I notice that typically there are two levels of response I make to a question like that: purposes and values. Purposes are my overarching aims that guide my behaviour and values are the qualities of behaviour I want to bring to how I respond. So my main purpose here is to maintain and strengthen my relationship with my daughter, and perhaps to help her to learn to tackle the hard stuff first. The values I want to bring to our relationship are to act in a loving, empathic but courageous way. Listening and receptive but also standing up for what matters to me as a parent, even when it is a lot easier to accede and go with the flow.

But all of this feels a bit cognitive. Lately, as I have been re-exploring my long-standing practice of non-violent communication (NVC), I have noticed I can enrich the ACT process by considering needs as well as purposes and values when addressing the question “what really matters to me about this situation?” One thing I like about needs is that, unlike purposes and values, which are future-oriented and aspirational, needs are right here and right now.

Needs are simply that which we require to thrive. We can have physical needs like food, shelter and warmth, but here I am mostly focused on psychological needs. Let me show you why I think they might be so crucial for Prosocial.

Let’s start with the question “What are my needs in this situation?” Initially, you might think my need is for tidiness or order, but this isn’t a need at least from the NVC perspective. Needs in NVC are all universals. Unless I could say every human would want tidiness in this situation, it doesn’t make the cut. But more importantly, this actually isn’t it for me. I sometimes go into her room, but most of the time if she wants to live in a sty, that’s just fine by me.

As I go a bit deeper, I begin to notice this idea that she is distracting herself with the phone, that she is maybe not learning the skills of self-regulation she will need as an adult. I notice myself wondering if my need if for her to succeed in life, to be able to rise about the challenges she encounters.

Is that my need? Not really — it is about her, not me. So what is my need?

Maybe my need is to be a good parent? To feel proud of my actions and to be able to compare my parenting with others and not find it wanting. Maybe this is an identity thing — am I a good parent?

That does matter in some situations, in particular when I get into a kind of comparison with some good friends of mine whose parenting I admire and I look at how their teenage girl behaves. But most times, I don’t get into that kind of comparison mode. It is just a way to beat myself up and serves no useful function. So I can say with clarity and cleanness that this is not really my need.

So what is my need? As I sit with this question, what emerges for me is that my more profound need is for peace of mind. Like most parents, I care for my daughter so deeply that when she is unhappy, I am also unhappy. It is as simple as that.

This phrase ‘peace of mind’ shows up in me with a sensation like a kind of settling. There is a rightness to it that is as visceral as it is cognitive. And then noticing the simplicity and truth of this, I suddenly have more options.

The first thing that occurs to me is that there are other ways I could find peace of mind. Maybe I could meditate more often and greet the world with more equanimity. Or perhaps I could focus on other aspects of the situation, like noticing all the times when she does buckle down and do the hard things, or how my older daughter had a very difficult time at this age but is now a well-balanced 18-year-old.

These ideas all have value, and may yet help me in this situation. But right now, it feels to me as though I am repeating an oft-worn pattern of avoiding conflict by looking at ways that I can reframe the situation to make the conflict go away. The reality is I have a need here that I am not meeting in many of the moments of our current relationship.

Maybe I could talk to her, bringing my newfound insight that I want peace of mind in my relations to her. Perhaps I could explain my process, noticing that it matters to me that she does the hard stuff first. But why should she care what would give me peace of mind? From her perspective, I could just get on with my life and get off her case!

So, in the end, I circle back to a provisional answer that I am holding for now. I can see now how my daughter’s happiness and success gets inside me quickly and easily. I still want to empathise with her struggles and help her when I can, but I also want to bring a newfound sense of clarity about how my peace of mind also matters — I am no more nor no less important than she is, and my needs are no more nor no less important than hers. When I talk with her, I know what matters to me and what matters to me is at least as much her wellbeing as it is my own. Knowing that, I can focus my best efforts on communicating in a way that ensures I have the best chances of us all being happy.

I won’t say I have it all worked out. No doubt, I will continue to learn. But at this point, I have more choices. And there is a higher likelihood that the next time we talk, I will be clear on the drivers I am bringing to it, and I will be able to express myself more clearly.

My main point here is that exploring purpose and values was not enough in this situation to create deep cooperation. When we talk about balancing and integrating self-interests and collective interests, it feels cold and logical. But here is a time when I needed to know and honour my interests deeply before I could make space for approaching my daughter truly primed for cooperation.

Balancing self and collective interest really is a dynamic process of integration, not a covert plea to think less selfishly.

I research and write about creating greater cooperation and harmony in the world. I am co-founder of www.prosocial.world and author of the book “Prosocial”.