We’ve heard it many times, “Don’t let the opinions of others dictate how you see yourself.” But how can we ignore the opinions of others when we were trained to pay attention to how they see us? At first, we were small and dependent so we wanted to please our parents; it felt like our survival depended on their approval.

As our world grew, the people we tried to please expanded to include teachers, religious leaders, peers, bosses, spouses, and children. Trying to please everyone is exhausting, especially when they want different things.

When we focus on pleasing other people, there is little room for self-reflection. It doesn’t help that society seems to think self-actualization, or pleasing ourselves, is selfish.  

Science and wisdom from cognitive behavioral therapy can make it easier to define ourselves and give ourselves permission to self-actualize.

Why is our Definition of Ourselves Important?

Everything we experience is relational. We decide what we believe we can and can’t do by comparing our choices to our beliefs about ourselves. Our definition of ourselves influences our behavior. If we decide we learn new things easily, we won’t be as distressed by change.

If we decide people generally dislike us, we will interpret their words and actions in ways that reinforce our belief. Have you ever seen someone react negatively to a compliment? Their brain didn’t interpret the compliment as sincere because it conflicted with their definition of self.

Teams that individually and collectively define themselves outperform teams that don’t take the time to define what it means to be a member of that team.  

Does believing we are good contradict humbleness and not being egotistical?

If we keep in mind that no matter how good we think we are, it doesn’t mean anyone else is worse than we are, we can remain humble and not be obnoxiously egotistical. When we compare ourselves to others, we can get in trouble. A goal to be our best possible self and to perceive our prior self as our only competition allows us to feel good about our progress. This approach removes the temptation to build ourselves up by tearing others down.  

One team member treating another disrespectfully can disrupt team cohesion. When we see ourselves as good, but not better or worse than others, we respect everyone. We are also less stressed because we don’t see our teammates as competition. This creates a positive loop that feeds itself. As people are treated with respect, they feel better; when they feel better, they automatically treat other people better.

Is Pleasing Ourselves Selfish?

The folks who tell us it’s selfish to please ourselves are asking us to please them. Who is being selfish?

The idea that pleasing ourselves is selfish originates in a worldview that sees humans as bad.  Science refutes that view. Happy people are naturally nicer, better corporate citizens, and more cooperative at work.  When we please ourselves, we become a better version of ourselves.

Our energy declines when we always shove our intrinsic desires to the back burner. Denying ourselves can make us grumpy. One grumpy teammate can infect an entire team with a negative bias. We don’t want to be that guy. The best way to feel upbeat is to have something to feel upbeat about. Seeing ourselves as competent improves our mood and our behavior.