My mother was always stingy with herself. She grew up in the Depression and came from a large family. Her mother was a reserved, religious person, who although I didn’t know well, I am certain was stingy with herself too. My grandmother was almost 80 years older than me and lived in a phenomenally different time. Our lives would likely be unrecognizable to each other. But I totally see the continuity being passed down.
My mother generally took the crappiest thing for herself even when it wasn’t necessary. She cut corners that didn’t need to be cut. We were a smart-mouth bunch, and there were wise cracks amongst us siblings about hair shirts and ashes. As I grew up I came to challenge how my mother treated herself. I was kind of outspoken about it once I was in my late teens and early twenties.
One time several members of the family were enjoying a cook-out at my grown sister’s house. We were grilling steaks (we did that then). Once they were cooked, a platter of meat was set out. When I saw what my mother served herself I intervened. She didn’t have to take, as I proclaimed loudly, “the smallest, ugliest piece of meat.” It was a line that went down in family lore. And I made sure my mother got a better piece.
I think about that from time to time. My mother served herself the smallest, ugliest piece of meat BY ROTE when there was no need. I think about it because, of all her daughters, I believe I picked up this trait the most. My sisters self-indulged more than I did, at least in specific ways, if not across the board. Between my mother and the religion that was such a huge part of my childhood, I learned suffering and doing without – INDEPENDENT OF ANYTHING ELSE – was laudable and the way to go.
Even after childhood, and the sea changes I experienced in my teen years, I still had the vestiges of this trait. I accepted crap. From other people and in general. I retained this belief that you could have one nice thing (which you should never actually use) and the rest had to be crummy. I allowed other people to short-shrift me. I kept quiet. I was uncertain how to self-indulge and when I did felt uneasy about it anyway. What was okay? What did I deserve?
I want to make clear that I’m not talking about negative self-indulgence. A whole lot of what people do in the name of “treating themselves well” is actually counter-productive. It’s things that harm them, whether in the short run or the long run. A person can be self-generous by treating themselves to a box of donuts or a gambling spree or a big shopping trip or a fourth beer but these are all “empty calories” that have a price. (If I may, this is usually promoted as The American Version of “Treating Yourself.”)
For a long time I waited for somebody else to come along and treat me the way I (secretly) wanted to be treated. Someone to be generous with me. And some people were. I’m not talking here about spending money per se, but about having generosity of spirit. But that’s not enough. (And the people I’m referencing weren’t necessarily good for me on whole or for the long haul let’s say.) It can’t come from elsewhere and change how you see and treat yourself. (No different from when another person wants a loved one to lose weight or stop using drugs or quit drinking. It may have some effect but somebody else’s desire or intentions alone will not significantly change how a person sees themselves or their behavior long-terrm. To Wit: I may have influenced how my mother acted sometimes but I don’t believe for a minute I ever altered how she thought about herself.)
It’s really here in middle age that I’ve made strides in this area. It’s taken this f-ing long. Sigh. I am aware of a tendency to be stingy with myself and I talk myself through it often. I certainly don’t see value in suffering and doing without in and of themselves. I am well aware suffering and lousy times come to you – why create more of them for no purpose? I don’t solve world hunger if don’t eat well. Wars don’t end if I buy myself several pairs of shoes at a yardsale (my thriftiness is a source of pride not stinginess!). Terrible things don’t happen when I am nice to myself.
I get now, unlike how I was indoctrinated, that it’s not an either/or proposition. That is, I’ve needed to shake the false belief that if I am good to myself, that is somehow wrong and I am neglecting other people (or not acknowledging all those who do with less and without, if only by suffering alongside them). In fact, I truly believe now you can’t be generous with other people until you are generous first with yourself. Otherwise the well runs dry. It’s all connected. I’ll leave it at that.