i’ve been told for a long time that i’m a good person: sweet/kind/caring/empathetic/etc. and i’m usually told this because i’m not one to back down from helping other people. anytime i was told this when i was younger, i felt like i was getting the good kind of attention; i was being praised.
now, as a relatively functioning adult who tends to volunteer her time, i have to wonder if i’m really as good of a person as i’ve been led to believe.
i feel like everybody at some point has felt this dilemma, or at least heard something about it: are you really being a selfless person who has evolved to be altruistic and empathetic towards others, or have you been conditioned to go out of your way to be a nice person in order to have others think you’re selfless, altruistic, empathetic?
for example, my grandmother has alzheimer’s disease, and it sucks. she doesn’t know who anybody is anymore, she can’t ambulate without assistance, she needs help doing essentially everything, and it’s been extremely painful to watch. i’ve felt helpless and guilty because i feel like i never built a relationship with her, and now i’ll never have the chance.
an opportunity came up about two years ago where i could volunteer with the alzheimer’s association, and i thought that would be a great way for me to help other people who have this disease. now, i’ve helped with the in-home respite program and the walk to end alzheimer’s, and i regularly go to the chapter office for different group respite services. yet, why am i doing this?
i want to think that it’s because i’m a driven person, somebody so kind and selfless that i want to volunteer my time to help others. i want to think that i volunteer because i have a personal connection to alzheimer’s disease, which makes me feel as though i should be one of the people lobbying for more funding towards research and programs to help with caregivers. ideally, i should be volunteering because it’s the right thing to do.
but every time i volunteer, i am always being told that i am such a great person for doing so, and that inflates my ego. am i just doing this because i like the praise? if i were such a great person, wouldn’t i keep this information off of my curriculum vitae and resume? if i were that selfless, wouldn’t i be volunteering to help out my own family who is struggling to take care of my grandmother? wouldn’t i be motivated to help with her care?
it’s a hard question to answer, and there’s probably some studies and theories about which is the stronger driving force: a selfless desire to help others, or a selfish desire to seek praise for being perceived as good. i could take the time to look up studies like that, but meh.
my conclusion? i think it’s based on how you view yourself. personally, i do think that i started my volunteerism with the alzheimer’s association for selfish reasons (building up my CV, to be told i’m a great person, to alleviate my own personal guilt with my grandmother, etc.) but i’ve stayed because i do think i’m making a positive impact in somebody else’s life, and since it’s at a minimal cost to myself, why not keep doing it? it still benefits me, but i’d like to think that other people are benefiting more from what i’m doing, which means i can’t be 100% selfish, right?
i view myself as somebody trying to be good. yeah, i’m often trying to be kind to benefit myself, but i’m actively making an effort to do things because it’s the right thing or the good thing to do; it benefits me because it does make me a better person, and because i’m becoming a better person, i work on ways to help others in the future and i try to put them first.
being selfish got me started on a path to volunteering, and making a conscious effort to do it for the right reasons is finally paying off in that i’m actively putting other people’s needs ahead of my own, even if it’s just for a few hours a month. (technically, it’s still selfish because i’m doing it to make myself a better person, but i’d like to think that what keeps me coming back to it is the part of me that’s developed to be selfless.)