Selflessness Will Save Your Life


I’ve had a busy few weeks. Apart from training mindfulness teachers in our new kindfulness teacher training, I’ve been developing a new leadership training for Zen of Business, working more closely on the Museum of Happiness project and attending a brilliant conference called Compassion and Leadership organised by the Compassionate Mind Foundation.

My Visit to a Compassion conference

Everyone is a leader, as explained in my last post. But there’s a lot of incredibly poor leadership in the world at the moment - either narcissistic or egotistical - states of mind that are cause suffering both for the leaders, and society as a whole.

I see great leaders in the field I work in, like mindfulness, compassion, positive psychology and wellbeing, but notice how easy it is for these leaders to be so kind and giving that they are heading towards burnout rather than joy. A lot of my work now focuses on ways to ‘help the helpers’ - to enable these wonderful people to work in a way that’s sustainable physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually - I feel this is very much needed right now.

At the Compassion Conference, I listened to a fascinating talk by Rasmus Hougaard and bought his book called The Mind of the Leader published by Harvard Business Review Press. I love the book and think some of their insights will be helpful to you.

What I found most powerful is their model of leadership, based on looking at all the current research on leadership and the many thousands of leaders they’ve trained around the world:


I was most fascinated by the section on selflessness.

I already knew research showing the greatest leaders show the greatest humility. They could be considered servant leaders. But I discovered just how important this is, even in the use of language.

The Danger of Excessive Use of I, Me and Mine

I didn’t know is the negative effects of using words like ‘I, me, mine’ can have on you.

The book refers to the following fascinating studies:

1. One study from University of California found the more people use I , me, my and mine had a higher correlation to coronary heart disease and mortality.

2. Another study found Individuals with depression and anxiety have a higher than average use of first person pronouns.

3. Yet another study on poets and suicide found a staggering result - increased use of first-person pronouns was strongly correlated with later suicide.

4. Better news with this study in Psychological Science. The research found when we actively use other pronouns like we, he, she and you, and less use of I, me and my, our health actually improves!

(I find these results amazing. And I’m feeling quite concerned how many times I’ve used the word I in this blog post! Perhaps I too need to make better use of words like we and us.)

Linking this to leadership, the books shows several studies that link higher leadership positives with using more words like ‘we, you and yours’.

This was my other favourite study. Analysis from all 43 Australian elections since independence in 1901 found the more candidates used ‘we, you and us’, the more likely they were to win - and to win by a larger margin. Successful people are more others-orientated and engage and speak to the collective identity of themselves.

I also think I’ve discovered the reason why so many people follow Donald Trump! He uses the word ‘we’ on average every 23 words. That’s a lot. Hillary Clinton used it once every 76 words. In Australia, the leaders that used the word once every 79 words won the election. This is an example of using language to influence others for personal ends, rather than the greater good.

All these studies show excessive focus on your sense of self can be emotionally draining. Your brain is constantly working hard to create a sense of self. If you don’t give your brain a break from thinking about ‘me’, you end up suffering physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. To become more we-orientated, consider the following question.

Who am I anyway?

Beautiful practices likes meditation give you the time to stop and reflect on the bigger questions, such as ‘Who am I?’

Most neuroscientists and psychologists have been searching for the brain’s control centre - our I or our true self. Despite the many billions of neurons in our brains, there’s been no discovery of one centre that can be called ‘I’.

So although there’s no physical centre in the brain that is the self, we are designed to have an illusory sense of self. This sense of self is often thought to be fixed, unchanging with specific characteristic. But researchers would argue this ego, this sense of self, is a creation of the imagination, giving the illusory idea that this self runs the show.

Don’t worry! If you accept that your self of self is an illusion, it doesn’t mean you don’t exist altogether. It just means your sense of separation is ultimately an illusion. And although in everyday life some sense of separation is necessary for us to do things and eat food and have conversations, excessive isolation is unhealthy. As my wise friend Nipun Mehta always says, let’s go from me to we. In that shift of mindset, we go from isolation to community, from consumption to contribution and from loneliness to aloneness (al-one = all one).

Selfless doesn’t mean pushover

One common misunderstanding is to think being selfless means being a pushover. That’s not true. I like to use the term ‘humbold’ - a combination of humble and bold! You need to be humble enough to know that you’re not the centre of the universe, but at the same time, you need to be bold enough to stand up to your values and what’s right.

To be humbold means to stand up and follow through courageously with your values. In the book, they call this self-confident selflessness.

Here’s the four quadrants they refer to:

Narcissist - They’re both selfish and unconfident. Most people think narcissists love themself - actually they don’t. They lack a core self. They only love themselves through the eyes of others.  Find out more here.

Pushover - They are selfless, but lack the confidence to stand up for what’s fair. In this quadrant they’re at a higher risk of burnout as they’re not looking after their own wellbeing. You could consider this to be an over-giver. As the link beautifully states ‘Generous giving feels light and joyful. Over-giving feels burdensome because it is a one-way flow of energy.’ They tend to incredibly kind people, but struggle to set limits. Helping people to move out of this quadrant is what I do. Kindfulness is one way out.

Egoist - They’re focused on self, but self-confident too - driven by selfish goals and desires. Egotistical leaders here rarely recognise the needs of others.

Enabler - You have found the sweet spot. Of course, it’s not a fixed place so we all move around the quadrants to a certain extent. But if you lean towards this quadrant, you’re not under threat of being like a doormat as you have the confidence to stand up for what’s fair. However, your drive comes from the greater good - not just me, me, me. You enable others to perform and thrive. You don’t worry about being praised, and happily pass that onto others. You offer service rather than expecting others to be of service to you.


Take Action

Consider what you can do today to be more selfless and humble. Here’s some ideas:

  • Take a few minutes today in meditation to reflect on your sense of self. Step back from your thoughts and emotions and be an observer to the ever changing play of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations. Let go of your sense of control and see what happens.

  • Everytime you’re about to say I, me, mine, consider if a more inclusive term would be better

  • Consider how you get in the way of your work or home life. What one step could you take to overcome this limitation?

  • Would you like to cultivate greater humility? If so, what could you actually do to achieve that?

  • Consider where you are on the quadrant at the moment. Do you need to focus on being more selfless, or more kind to yourself? What one tiny thing could you do today to begin shifting quadrants?