The Peril and Promise of Selflessness

A psychologist explores the path into depression or anatta


As a psychologist for 30 years, my focus has been on understanding the factors that lead women to depression, always with the goal of helping to prevent and treat the suffering it causes. From listening to interviews over time and across a variety of cultures, I have heard a core theme that puts women at risk: a specific understanding of selflessness. As depressed women have described it, selflessness means caring for others first and silencing their voices in order to preserve their relationships or their safety. “Silencing the self,” as I have called it, blends the genuine wish to be morally good and loving with cultural prescriptions about women’s roles, namely how they should consistently place their needs second to those of others, especially their partners.

For the past 13 years, however, I have deeply challenged my own notions about “self” by immersing myself in Buddhist teachings and meditation practice. In 2001, as a Fulbright scholar to Nepal teaching at Tribhuvan University and conducting research on gender and depression in government outpatient clinics, I began meditating. Through these and other experiences, I became familiar with a different, positive, and aspirational kind of selflessness, one that functions to alleviate suffering, not cause it. These two very different understandings have led me to puzzle over the relationship between self-silencing from a psychological perspective, and selflessness from a Buddhist perspective.

How do the Buddhist and Western concepts of selflessness differ? How do women (and many men for that matter) encounter the Buddhist understanding of expansive, compassionate selflessness without confusing it with the smaller, constricted view of selflessness that leads to depression? Can the Buddhist understanding of anatta, or selflessness with compassion and insight at its core, provide guidance for how to balance one’s needs with the needs of others?

These are ongoing explorations in my own life as a wife, mother, grandmother, professor, and committed meditator, but the questions they present are also relevant for many women for whom selflessness acts as a way into depression and, with greater understanding of anatta, possibly a way out.

Silencing the Self

What is self-silencing from a psychological perspective? In order to silence herself, a woman must divide her mind. One aspect of a woman’s mind directs her to be selfless; that is, outwardly compliant to what she thinks others want/expect. She does so for the sake of intimacy or safety, while the other aspect of her mind experiences feelings of resentment about forsaking the self. In effect, she creates an idealized “good” self that opposes what she perceives as a dangerous “bad” self.

Because the cognitive activity required to turn against one’s own thoughts and feelings is invisible to others, such a woman may come across as hyper-responsive and caring about others’ needs—even “virtuous” for having such generosity. Images of how to relate, such as “pleasing,” “harmonizing,” “self-sacrificing”—all of which seem morally good—direct women’s actions in relationships and foster divisions of their minds/selves. Depressed women are aware that they silence the “bad” self that threatens their relationships or their safety, as revealed in a representative statement from a 30-year-old married woman below:

“And so when he speaks to me in a harsh tone, or criticizes me for something that I have done wrong or haven’t done or whatever, I’ve tended to think to myself, ‘. . . just ignore him.’ Just, just, you know, don’t confront the issue sort of thing. And so inside I’ve been building up a lot of resentment and a lot of anger.” 

For many women, these behaviors solve the puzzle of how to create intimacy within unequal relationships. In striving to be “good” and loving, they follow this flawed understanding of selflessness, which leads them to mute their voices in relationships and experience what they describe as a “loss of self” and despair.

The phenomenology of depression sketched here has been measured by the Silencing the Self Scale (STSS), which I designed to test the theory. More than 100 published studies across numerous countries by researchers using the STSS find that when women silence the self, they are at high risk for depression and other problems. Consistently putting others first can result, for example, in neglecting self-care during treatment for cancer; or increasing HIV/AIDS vulnerability by not requiring partner condom use; or developing eating disorders by communicating emotions through the body rather than words. Silencing the self during marital arguments has been found, over a 10-year prospective study, to result in a fourfold risk of mortality among women. And of course, wider societies often foster women’s self-silencing through inequality, lowering their self-esteem, and keeping many in damaging relationships.

The Buddhist View of Selflessness

How does this destructive kind of selflessness compare with the Mayahana Buddhist concept of anatta, or nonself? Unfortunately, the teachings on anatta are among the most misunderstood by Westerners, probably because our culture celebrates individualism and “I-dolatry.”

Briefly, the Buddhist teachings about anatta and other essential insights into the nature of mind lie at the heart of liberation from suffering. Anatta comes from an experiential realization of the impermanence of all things, including ourselves; of understanding that what we call a self is neither solid nor unchanging; and of knowing that suffering comes from defending, enhancing, and grasping after this illusory sense of self.

As a practitioner’s understanding of the nature of reality deepens and obscurations and afflicted mind states begin to dissolve, feelings of love, caring, and compassion for others arise spontaneously, flowing naturally from the wish to alleviate suffering. This kind of selfless care for others does not result from external role pressures, relational demands, or fears, and does not lead to the suffering of depression.  Rather, it is the source of a deep sense of well-being and joy.

In Buddhist writer Kimberley Snow’s words, anatta:

“. . . doesn’t mean that you don’t have a self, but that it isn’t separate and isolated. Nor is it solid and immutable as we like to think. Nor is it always right. Nor the center of the known universe. The self is an ever-changing, moving  collection of aggregates of physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, and consciousness. It is made up of a collage of images concerning our name,  gender, nationality, profession, likes, dislikes, relationships, which are updated from time to time. Nonetheless, in the end, what we call the self is as cobbled together and transient as everything else. Not to know and realize this is a  cause of endless suffering. . .”

As the Dalai Lama has explained, “Selflessness is not a case of something that existed in the past becoming nonexistent. Rather, this sort of ‘self’ is something that never did exist. What is needed is to identify as nonexistent something that always was nonexistent.”

The experience of selflessness occurs in glimpses, over time, through meditation and teachings. It is developed as part of the Eightfold Path and Six Paramitas, cultivating compassion for self and others with the motivation to transform the self and the world through that compassion.

But this presents a problem, since the two perspectives describe radically different realities and motivations while using the same term of “selflessness.” For example, consider this quote from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, an early, well-known teacher of Buddhist thought in the West: “The bodhisattva vow is the commitment to put others before oneself. It is a statement of willingness to give up one’s own well-being, even one’s own enlightenment, for the sake of others.”

This sounds similar to representative sentences from the 31-item Silencing the Self Scale, such as:

  • “Caring means putting the other person’s needs in front of my own.”
  • “Considering my needs to be as important as those of the people I love is selfish.”
  • “When it looks as though certain of my needs can’t be met in a relationship, I usually realize that they weren’t very important anyway.”
  • “I rarely express my anger at those close to me.”

Compare those sentences that measure a destructive selflessness next to the Bodhisattva ideal described by the great Tibetan Bodhisattva Langri Tangpa in Eight Verses of Training the Mind:

Whenever I associate with others,
May I view myself as the lowest of all;
And with a perfect intention, May I cherish
others as supreme.  

Though these words about selflessness may sound alike on the surface, they are worlds apart in terms of motivation, meanings, and context. However, if a woman who already feels the “lowest of all” on the Silencing the Self Scale encounters these concepts without knowing their spiritual motivation, she can easily incorporate teachings about the Bodhisattva ideal into her already existing self-neglect. This danger increases as Buddhist teachings are often cherry-picked out of their deeper context (as I am doing here).

Of course, one could ask: Does an examination of selflessness and self-silencing from Buddhist and psychological perspectives matter? Is it simply the case that the great wisdom teachings of Buddhism hold the possibility for misinterpretation, as do all complex teachings? Perhaps, but I think we need to take gender into account.

One in three women in our world will experience some form of serious abuse during her lifetime; women’s rates of depression are at least two times higher than men’s across the globe, and rates of depression are rising. Women’s social inequality exposes them to the factors known to precipitate depression: violence, trafficking, poverty, economic dependence, and lack of freedom. In these ways (and many others), gender and inequality condition the development of the ego and the experience of self. Clearly, our world must address women’s pervasive inequality and the violence against them, which the United Nations has labeled “the number one human rights abuse.”

Silencing the self calls attention to the social, interpersonal context of mental distress, and points to how social inequality and gender live in one’s mind to affect everyday interactions and the experience of the reified self. On the other hand, Buddhism places great value on a different kind of silence, a silence of the quieted mind. This silence allows us to experience a deeper understanding of the nature of mind, self, and reality.

Each of us enters the teachings and practices of Buddhism from different standpoints, lived realities, and positions of power. But if a woman takes on the teachings of anatta at face value, without first deconstructing her own selflessness and how it has led to resentment and depression, then she may easily succumb to what seems like a new admonition to erase herself. She first needs to experience, through meditation/mindfulness, that the self-silencing leading to depression is motivated by fear of loss, which is a kind of grasping after permanence. Though it feels focused on the other, this kind of self-sacrifice is not concentrated on the well-being of another. One who self-silences is trying to protect the (illusory) self, reacting to others’ needs out of a deep sense of insecurity, looking to the other for safety and/or approval. Such a sensitivity to another’s needs or wishes does not genuinely pertain to others and what they need, but ultimately pertains to self-clinging.

In this context, a glimpse of the inherent emptiness of a subjugated self can be experienced as a great liberation. Buddhist teachings and practice lead not so much to a freedom of the self, but to a freedom from the self.  All forms of self are constructed, and when a person is oppressed some very unhealthy forms of self are created. Meditation, by its very engagement in moment-by-moment awareness, can be an act of “self” that helps dissolve the reified, false self. Meditation also means quieting the mind so that we can detect when clinging to something like a person, a self-image, or an addiction has hijacked our minds and led us down destructive paths. Paradoxically, meditation—an act undertaken by one’s mind/self—may become a gateway toward freedom from the self.

Long ago, the Buddha detailed what findings from anthropology, neuroscience, biology, and psychology now affirm: the self is relational, that is, utterly interdependent and co-arising with others. Likewise, depression is relational, conditioned, and interdependent with one’s world: It is a psychological response to social events that results in biological disruptions. As Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) have demonstrated, mindfulness practices creatively adapted to the West are effective in treating a range of conditions, including depression. Even so, when participants commit to mindfulness practice in such interventions, it may be useful to be aware that some bring an imperative that others’ needs come first.

As Buddhism spreads in the West, its great promise of social and personal transformation may be complicated by the myriad of meanings that swirl around the term “selflessness.” The more carefully we look at the complexities of selflessness, the more apparent it becomes that there is a potential danger for the depressed person who turns to Buddhism for solace and hopefully recovery. The Buddhist path, including ethics and community, is not a quick fix. It has different phases leading to shifts in realizations, and it takes time and discipline. Without adequate teachings on anatta, it would be easy for a person to continue a destructive pattern of subordinated selflessness, while trying to embody “good bodhichitta.” Thus, a continuing conversation between Buddhist thought and Western psychological findings about women’s depression may further clarify the peril and promise of selflessness.

DANA C. JACK is a psychologist and professor who teaches at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Western Washington University. She formulated the “Silencing the Self” theory and the Silencing the Self Scale, now used in 21 countries, to explore the relationship of self-silencing to depression, gender, and social context. She is the author of four books and numerous other publications. In 2012, she received the Ursula Gielen Book Award from the International Division of the American Psychological Association for Silencing the Self Across Cultures: Depression and Gender in the Social World (co-editor, Alisha Ali), which praised the book as “the most significant and fundamental contribution to psychology as a global discipline.”

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