Helping Yourself to Then Help Others

Statue of William Shakespeare outside the Carnegie

In an age where mental health is a subject increasingly occupying the forefront of our minds, headlining major articles both online and in print, and being registered and acknowledged as a very real and very important issue on a broad social and political scale, it becomes increasingly ironic that what is being preached is often not put into practice. In a society where work hours are creeping upwards, and individuals are increasingly being measured against their intellectual or monetary value, high grades, high salaries, and positions at the top of the ladder are the cravings of many today, feeding people into an ever accelerating leg race to be ‘the best’, and consequently leaving the mental health of many at its worst. In this article, we discuss mental health and self-love in relation to helping the self and helping others, finding a space to talk about the topic and understand the importance of keeping our minds as well as our bodies healthy in our journey to help other people.

The Golden Rule

The age-old sentiment of ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, also known as the Golden Rule, is the common rule of thumb when it comes to the way we treat other people. Aside from being an aphorism recurrent in most major religions including Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism, the ethic of reciprocity also backs Confucianism, and has roots in psychological, evolutionary, and sociological backgrounds. Although the saying is most commonly directed outwards in dictating personal action towards other people, it is interesting to consider the phrase in reverse. If we assume that, selfishly, we as individuals are only motivated to perform ‘good’ actions under the unspoken assurance that somehow, some day, these ‘good’ actions will benefit ourselves, then why not look at the very thing that will benefit the self in the first place and treat ourselves in the very ways we aim to have others treat us? Despite many being able to derive personal satisfaction from helping other people, it can also be mentally draining in the long run to be constantly looking out for other people with no regard for the self. Just as the Giving Tree offers the little boy everything until only a stump remains of her, it is sometimes easy to run ourselves dry under the motivation to be selfless. While it is often easy to assess the state of our physical health, our mental health is often overlooked as mental disorders do not always manifest themselves somatically. Thus whilst we aim to enact the Golden Rule in treating others well, we must be constantly assessing our mental health and ensuring that we are similarly treating ourselves with the care and compassion which we direct outwards. 

Self Love and Leadership 

Encouraging King Charles to exhibit the power of the French monarchy to Henry V, Shakespeare’s Dauphin quips that ‘Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin / As self-neglecting’. Even in taking the Dauphin’s words out of historical and theatrical context, there is much to unpack in this short line. Firstly, although the Dauphin is reassuring the King that ‘self-love’ is preferable to ‘self-neglecting’, the comparison nonetheless evokes the relationship between self love and sin. This is particularly important in highlighting a historically recurrent bias against self love in associating it with narcissism or selfishness. Philosophers of the seventeenth century such as Pascal and La Rochefoucauld denounced self love, or l’amour propre, as the root of most human evil. Self love, arbitrarily associated with pride and greed, an arrogance and hunger for fulfilling all personal interest while disregarding those of others around the self, becomes a sin opposed to the cardinal characteristics of ‘goodness’ such as generosity, temperance, and the modesty linked with self-effacement. The problem with associating self love with sin is that this unintentionally elevates its opposite to a position of desirability; whilst society may not be actively promoting self love’s polar opposite, self hate, seemingly innocuous concepts such as the modesty associated with self-effacement, or even the self neglect that the Dauphin mentions, teeter dangerously into the territory of self deprecation and hate. Note how easily jokes moulded around the phrase ‘I hate myself’ have permeated every day speech, and how flippantly people can throw around mental illnesses such as ‘depressed’, ‘bipolar’, or ‘OCD’ as pithy adjectives. All jokes aside, this not only normalizes self-deprecating speech, but it also acts to diminish attention and seriousness from individuals who actually suffer from such disorders. 

It should be recognized that self love is not only absolutely necessary for the self, but for the people who surround you. As a leader, or a part of a team, community, or other group, it is not only in the interest of the self, but of those around you, that you look out for yourself and your own mental health. The Dauphin is not only recommending for the King to practice ‘self-love’ in the sense of the King’s own self-interest, but is subtly reminding both the King and the audience that what is in the interest of the King should be in the interest of his people; to carry out actions in the King’s interest is to carry out actions in the interest of his kingdom. In the same way, self-love should be practiced when running an organization or team in a way that is mutually beneficial to the individual and the larger group. Thus, when heading the founding of a non-profit, charity, or other similar organization, one should always keep in mind that whilst the explicit goal or declared mission statement might be one of helping others, one should always make sure to focus adequately on the self as well. As most airlines announce, it is always recommended to put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others; far from selfish, this act ensures that every capable individual prolongs their personal consciousness in order to subsequently maximise the number of people they can then assist. This is not to say that all individuals who aim to start their own organizations must be completely healthy psychologically, as this is largely impossible due to our changing environments and ever-shifting psychological states; rather, it is a reminder that our goals of helping others and bettering environments and lives should not come at the expense of our own mental health. Simply put, we must illuminate the falsity behind the myth of always putting others before ourselves, appreciating that, for many, this doesn’t come from a place of selfishness but of self-preservation and understanding one’s own mental needs.

Author: Chloe Lee

Editor: Chloe Lee