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Why Being Selfish Is the Most Unselfish Thing You Can Do: The Martyr Mentality Myth

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The human disposition is cruel. We beat ourselves up for faults big and small; we are our own worst critics. After all, we need to be our best selves if we are to thrive, if we are to attain and maintain the success we've worked so hard to achieve. This process requires critical self-analysis. According to psychologist Kristin Neff, that self-criticism comes at a price: It makes us anxious, dissatisfied with our life, and even depressed.

We're often told to be compassionate, show empathy and be more understanding with our family, friends and colleagues -- but are we denying ourselves the same virtues, and at what price?

Extending compassion involves three basic components:

1. Noticing suffering
2. Being kind and caring in response to that suffering
3. Offering a shared knowledge that imperfection is part of the human experience

Self-compassion means including these elements as part of our own thought processes. I learned this lesson the hard way.

I was young, successful on all accounts and looking at my life from the outside in. Yet, I sat in a daze as the plane taxied down the runway. "Should oxygen be needed, a mask will drop down from the compartment located above your seats. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, be sure to secure your own mask first before assisting others." I sat, silenced, as I let the words of the usual take-off ritual sink into the depths of my mind.

Suddenly, sitting up straight as if I'd been hit by a cue of inspiration from the unknown, the message I received was distinct and powerful. In fact, I was stirred into action. I turned to my husband at the time (whose name has been changed for the for the sake of this piece), and said, "Kal, I want a divorce." I watched as the blood drained from his face. After several long moments, he responded, "We never fight, I treat you well, and our careers -- well, they're thriving. I don't understand what it is that you want?"

"I want love," I replied simply.

"Renee, we've only been married six months. We can make this work. Anyway, we don't get divorced," he said with a now discernible edge in his voice. The "we" he was referring to were Indians. Like our first generation peers, we identified strongly with both our culture from India and from America. With respect to marriage, most of us erred on the Indian side. I believe "just make it work" was the unwritten rule. As we prepared for take-off, Kal continued to appeal to my sense of tradition. A protective hand found my forehead in response to the memory that now bombarded my brain as I listened to Kal desperately try and reason with my new charge.

It was my wedding day. I closed my eyes hoping for a moment of peace. Instead, I was struck by the roar of my mind, "Renee, there is still time. Turn around -- run away!" It was my intuition that, prior to that day, had offered only broken whispers, but the voice did not speak unopposed. As always, my false logic provided an alternative, "No, Renee, this is the right person. Look at the bliss that has spread around you." Suddenly, my internal quarrel drowned into the music, the wedding march had begun. It was too late, so I did the only thing I thought I could. I kicked my brocade gown one careful step in front of another and walked directly into the biggest mistake of my life.

The plane jarred from turbulence, springing me back to reality.

"Why did you agree to marry me?" I could hear Kal's voice shuffle through my foggy memories. I thought about it and the answer was utterly lucid: I had put the happiness of others ahead of my own. I had been a martyr for the happiness of others. This is something we all do far too often.

This union fulfilled a dream of my parents and my culture. Although encouraging of my desires, I sensed a consistent overlay of cultural influence directing my decisions -- a roadmap of sorts. Here was the roadmap: Get good grades, get into a good college, get a great job, find a great man, get married and have kids. For most of my life, I buried my own desires and followed the roadmap. By marrying Kal, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of my parents; their sacrifice to come to this country was not in vain. By marrying Kal, I fulfilled an age-old Indian tradition of finding a suitable mate and building a suitable life. Yet by marrying Kal, I began to forfeit my own dreams, values and desires as they did not align with those of my parents and culture. I thought by trading 'one' for another, I could still flourish.

I was wrong.

I turned to Kal and said, "I believed that to be happy myself, I could simply float on the happiness of those around me. I now see that life just doesn't work that way. Kal, the flight attendant instructed us to place an oxygen mask securely on our own face before offering assistance to even our own children. This concept was never intuitive to me, but I now understand it. It's a basic survival skill -- a prerequisite for happiness. Before extending happiness beyond my own person, I must first offer it to myself."

The day after the flight, I made the most difficult and most wonderful decision of my life -- I filed for divorce. I was 25 years old; it was time to start drawing my own roadmap.

By showing myself compassion, by choosing to understand and accept my own pain, by choosing to say goodbye to a traditional value that was no longer of service to me -- I made the most unselfish choice of all: I chose to step into my true calling. Today, I am honoured and grateful to be doing what I love -- developing scientifically-approved, fully-animated social and emotional learning programs for kids.

The third metric can be taught, just like the first two metrics-- money and power. We can empower our youth with third metric skills by teaching our young generations to thrive, not just survive, as they prepare to pursue the proverbial ladder of success. By equipping kids with social and emotional learning skills, by integrating these skills into our education programs at schools, we can shift the age-old, no longer relevant, traditional metric of success to include -- gasp -- happiness.

Compassion, true self-compassion, recognizes that the human condition is imperfect. By making space for the imperfect, to recognize that we won't always be able to 'hold it together,' we are better able to feel connected to others when we fail or go through a period of suffering. Rather than feel separate or isolated because we somehow tell ourselves that we 'missed the mark', we give ourselves the space to accept and understand that sometimes we need to be patient and kind with ourselves.

It goes without saying, one cannot give what one does not have. Learning to show oneself compassion by safely securing our own oxygen mask first, by making our own happiness and well-being a priority, we allow our self to tap into the source of our energy. Our human family deserves our full attention, not some dimly-lit, overly-stressed, emotionally-taxed version of ourselves.

The martyr mentality myth has been debunked. If you sacrifice yourself to make others happy, you won't have any meaningful energy, the energy that matters, left to share with those around you. Being selfish, by putting your needs first, is truly the most unselfish thing you can do if you want to show up as your most powerful, productive self. This is the essence of the third metric -- learning to live well so that you can contribute more by first connecting with, and making space for, your own desires.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.