Service Misplacement is the the sixth pressure point described in my in-progress book, To Do Your Work. In this book I explore the spiritual practice of personal power and the twelve pressure points of modern living.
The mistaken notion to be in service proves self-worth.
To serve: an instruction, perhaps a command.
The original meaning of service was to be a servant, or a person privately employed to perform domestic duties for another. A position which usually meant long hours and little pay. A position lower than and less than within the power structure. A servant, viewed by Power-Over as subservient and only useful as a faithful follower. A person who chooses or is forced into a position of Power-Under.
Over the centuries, service could also be experienced by following the commandment to be a servant of God. In this position, like the domestic, the servant carries out the will of another. Though in this instance, the service is of a religious nature and proves loyalty and obedience to the ultimate external authority.
To prove self as a servant of God guaranteed special status in this life, plus assurances of being on the right hand of God after death. Compliance with divine will is not limited to the Abrahamic religions but moves throughout the interpretations and understandings of many religious traditions.
In more recent times, the instruction of be in service has been interpreted as a mandate to assist other first while deferring personal will and desire. This is a directive where personal purpose is best suited toward a focus on others before self. This other-focus is believed to be proof of personal worth. To do first for others is to demonstrate the best personal characteristics possible. A person who puts others before self is loyal, obedient, and redeemable.
This concept incorporates the intrinsic human desire to understand the purpose of life. To be in service to others – this is the preferred life goal deemed to emerge from and redeem as valuable the soul of the individual. Thus, life purpose and soul purpose are answered, clearly defined, and intently directed. Being in service becomes both justification and redemption. A command which clearly defines reward as substantiated self-worth. A guaranteed place of protection within the power hierarchy because self-worth has been appropriately and successfully proven while self-direction is given over to external authority.
Within the power structure of Power-Over and Power-Under, being in service becomes proof of superiority. For Power-Over this comes by being the mediator of all service extended. For Power-Under, this service proves superiority over those who have yet to agree to the preferences and biases of the dominating power structure. Power-Over wants adherents to be in service to stated objectives. Service to others is a demand which must be followed and becomes the pre-determined path for new members.
What evolves from service to prove personal worth is a perverted standard to prove who and what is good and who and what is bad. Those who do not serve are rejected, diminished, and demonized. A clever ruse and perversion — yet one which builds on the very old promise that service to the divine proves personal worth.
As with Blind Production, the fallacy here is built on the need to prove self-worth. As noted already, self-worth is intrinsic and proof of self-worth is neither required nor possible.
With self-presence, finding meaning in life is explored through the self-direction of personal power. The beginning point to live life is at center, in the balance of body, mind, heart, and soul. Not because self is better, but because that’s what, where, and how a person fully connected is empowered to begin: inside within the balance of being, within the integration of spiritual and physical. Personal power is an Inside-Out expression and is the source and expression of an individual’s Power-Within. By releasing the command to be in service first, self can live within personal power and develop the capacity to be self-directed in all aspects of life.
The fallacy with Service Misplacement begins with the delusion that to be in service proves personal worth. However, within the emergence of self-presence, with trust and self-worth, the concepts of autonomy, agency, and personal choice become conscious parts of daily life.
The path forward comes from understanding and embracing this idea:
Within personal power, I direct my life for me.
Let’s explore further.
My Story of Service Misplacement
What I have enjoyed most in my life occurred when I made a clear decision and took responsibility for experience and consequence. I asked questions and I learned along the way. I accomplished because I believe in my capacity and did not doubt my ability to choose for myself.
This isn’t to say I have always felt free to choose for myself. In fact, over time, I am aware of how the parameters of personal choice have shifted along a spectrum that ranges from self-determination on one end to external determination on the other. For most folks, life is a continual motion of learning self-care and personal autonomy, while moving away from the structure, and sometimes repression, of parental and social care and authority.
For me, even within the growing sense of responsibility, was also the push of what I felt I needed to do to keep my parents, my family, and my friends happy. Selflessly doing for others was a prized personal attribute in both a religious and a social context.
I see that I instinctively learned to anticipate desire and respond to experience of those around me as a way to gauge what I should offer up for others. Being other-directed was both to please them and to try to avoid the unpleasant, sometimes painful, consequences of disappointing them.
We all must learn to live peacefully with our community and within the world. I am not speaking to an idea that learning to get along is not healthy or desirable. I’m trying to describe how my experience and interpretation of this process affected my sense of autonomy, direction, and choice.
Fundamentally, my challenge in life boils down to Blind Production. I did not feel worthy as I grew and matured. I believed there was something fundamentally wrong with me.
In a sense, I also felt polarized: capable and self-directed while at the same time unworthy and less than the perfection demanded of me. Early on, I believed the way to transform this divide was to do what others wanted me to do and to do for others first before me. My self-direction existed only within the parameters created for me by others. Thus, for example, the issue wasn’t do I or do I not go to college. Going to college wasn’t a choice, rather a parental-set parameter I did not question. Where I went was mostly under my purview. Though, there were other-chosen criteria for me to follow. Of course, I will get married and have children though I was allowed choice of who and when. Yet, even within the choice I always felt myself taking care of how my choices landed especially with my parents.
I always was looking to please, and to do for them – all the people in my life. Whatever I could anticipate should coincide with their pleasure and their pleasure with me.
I wasn’t questioning my capacity as much as I was questioning my inherent value. My ability to choose and produce was phenomenal. My belief was that my essence, what made me, that’s where the trouble laid. That’s what was less than perfect.
Now I’ve talked a lot about my critical voice, and that certainly comes into play here. In this instance, my critical voice was on constant replay, noting the missing bits and the constant deficiency.
What I’m trying now to pinpoint is the source of the deficiency. What created the critical voice to begin with?
Or could be command as in commandment. But I think demand is a better descriptor of what I felt, and often still feel, inside as the director of my life.
This Demand was a constant push, a constant arbiter of my failure and my inherent deficiency. This Demand didn’t even have to utter a word because the disdain was felt within me. I felt the division, the polarization. I felt the immediate disappointment. I felt assessment that I wasn’t doing right and I wasn’t capable of meeting the standards. The Demand to be perfect in every moment, with every choice, for everyone.
I have come to understand this Demand has been part of every relationship I’ve had. Here I describe relationship in a broad sense, meaning a general connection with anyone and everyone. Store cashier. Neighbor next door. Parents. Boyfriend. Yoga instructor. Doctor. Teacher. I felt a demand to be a certain person, completing specific actions in a particular way for each and every one.
Inevitably, Demand would make itself known in every instance because for a long while, I never successfully pleased Demand to be a certain way, to follow a particular set of rules and to show I was the right kind of person.
Demand is the internal, imperative push which tempts and taunts self-presence and resiliency, creates a sense of imbalance, and challenges the truthful, heartfelt urge to just be to be me as whoever, however I show up in this moment.
Thus, Service Misplacement isn’t just thinking that selflessly doing for others should be your life purpose and the way to prove self-worth. Instead, Service Misplacement in its most insidious form is the inner Demand created from your experience and process of coming into maturity and self-mastery. It’s that push-pull felt within which arbitrates all choice, action, and experience entirely based on the command to be in service perfectly and without hesitation.
Often interpreted as selflessness, the demand of service is really a push to annihilate self. The imperative demand to not just be absent to self, but to eliminate self and install the preferences, choices, and beliefs of anyone but you.
Within selflessness, capacity is defamed. Self-interest destroyed. Personal power sabotaged and rendered useless and dangerous.
I have felt my sense of self displaced by Demand – that incessant, internal command constantly standing in judgement of all the ways I don’t measure up. This is not the chatter of the critical voice. This is a presence, an imperative decree to be all things, to be perfect, satisfy others, and always do right. Demand beats external authority to the finish line to condemn me for screwing up even the obvious and the easy. Even in writing this book, I’ve been dashing around trying to get it right and not miss the obvious. Demand pushes me to that reactive place of self-blame and self-destruction. I try feeding Demand to find peace which is both temporary and pointless because Demand is relentless. Thus, service isn’t just selflessness towards others to prove worth. Service is also toward Demand with the vain hope of inner peace and proof of self-worth.
For me, dealing with Demand at times has pushed me to despair and contemplation of how to end the consistent, paralyzing trauma. Demand is the ultimate gaslighting machine fed by others yet produced and maintained within self, by self.
I have never been driven to organize my professional life to be in service – has never been my objective. Very early on I learned of the destructiveness and futility of being other-directed, especially from surviving an abusive first marriage. This experience helped me to shift my choices to please me and find autonomy and choice from my Power-Within.
Instead, what has nipped at my heels, all along the way, was my constant servant state to Demand – to the injunction to be perfect and never fail. Demand is a persistent moving target, feeding a pervasive sense of futility, with no ability to do anything but try at every turn to please the incessant.
Subtle, nuanced, sneaky. Sure I feel balance in seeing to my health so losing 20 pounds is a reasonable objective and off comes the weight. Then with one tiny jolt to my heart, I see my failure: twenty pounds is not enough, I didn’t lose fast enough, my arms are still wobbly and on and on. In excruciating detail, I detail my utter failures. My critical voice then picks up the litany of my defeat.
As I said earlier, my critical voice is a chatterbox I’ve learned to quiet and curb. It’s Demand with expressed emotion so slight, I can be pushed down a river of self-judgment and defamation without a single conscious thought, behaving as if I’m in service to something which is both me and not me. Something which, in turn, interrupts personal power and sends me on a wild goose chase to nowhere beneficial for me.
What to do?
I’ve learned to pay attention to the tiny motions, especially the ones demanding perfection and those demanding I acknowledge myself as failure. This is difficult because Demand can hide behind learning and growing. Demand can hide within release and forgiveness. Demand can appear to be reasonable and logical.
Within me, I recognize Demand as the needless chase, and the pointless self-judgment.
This where I catch Demand. In the fallacy upon which it relies. Within self-presence, I know I can repair the broken bits within because:
I am not broken.
I am not a failure.
I am not inherently at fault.
You might think by now that I would have rejected Demand from my life. I am a spiritual guide after all.
You know what I hear in this observation that I should be different: Demand.
I’ve come to this realization: Demand is not about elimination because that sets me up for more self-condemnation. Instead, my path is to notice and observe Demand’s presence and not react. To be gentle with myself, take a deep breath and not respond to the chase, to the Demand for perfection.
Just as I am, I am what I seek. I have no need to condemn myself to serve a heartless master.
I let go of Power-Under to the relentless Demand.
Instead, I follow my heart and trust myself to hear and follow my truth.
Power-Within is now my guide.
I am not perfect.
I don’t need to be.
I simply want to live life for me.
Fallacy of Service Misplacement
Because personal value is intrinsic, not only is proof not required, but the external search for proof will always, in the end, be fruitless.
Thus, the beginning point for anyone is: I am worthy.
Nonetheless, self-worth and the internal consuming challenge to feel worthy underlies life experience. This urge shows in self-absence and numbness, within the choice of Power-Under and self-judgment, and in the push to control and build self-esteem through a sense of superiority.
Human nature seeks validation to feel life has meaning. Seeking to define purpose is a reasonable effort – yet one which can be diverted and rerouted into the defense and proof of self-worth.
Meaning can be found in assisting others, in sharing connection, and in supporting anyone in their personal motion to define purpose and claim worth. Though it may feel exactly the opposite, we are not alone.
The central fallacy of Service Misplacement centers in the motivation to be in service. This impetus is used to manipulate personal action and to ignore or go against personal interest, desire, and choice. Ignoring the personal in favor of others.
The command to be in service is trying to get you to go against yourself by equating selfless, others-first service with self-worth.
I am not saying don’t assist or support others – instead check your motivation. Ask: why? Pay attention to your shoulds, musts, and suppose-tos. To be self-directed, motivation begins with you, inside, based on your awareness of you.
If you find yourself wanting to do XYZ to help people, stop. Time for an internal check. Time to ask why. Time to make sure that your motivations are your own and not charged by a notion of proving self-worth or engendering self-validation.
Agency is the ability to independently make free choice for yourself. When the directive to be in service is accepted without clear consideration, when your choices are colored by should, suppose-to, and must – then personal agency is handicapped by faulty assumptions, limiting beliefs, and external expectations.
Service Misplacement will also erode the awareness of personal autonomy. Personal boundaries lose definition and the clear edges of self-presence fade. As the dictate of service begin to lose clear hold, the edges of self re-assert, claiming awareness, presence, and autonomy.
To be in service can also become the easy default when trying to figure out life and make choices. The overwhelm of possibility can feel insurmountable. Folks often fall into the pit I call Please-God-just-give-me-the-answer. The EBFJs of life create a sense of living in a narrow tunnel where there is no awareness of the horizon. All the things to learn and do, all the people to please, all the bills to pay, are temptations to just let anybody relieve the overwhelm with specific answers, steps, and rules.
In this situation to do for others has a simple clarity which is enticing. The desire to define purpose and clarify meaning is answered. Self-worth is assured. But behind the scenes, under the surface is disruption, distortion, and deception. Self is misplaced.
Choosing to be in service to assure self-worth reinforces the outside in approach to living life. Your agency is suppressed as others make choice for you. Self-direction is replaced with external direction. The battered edges of self weaken authonomy.
Life will feel like a constant chase where heart peace and calm mind become the most elusive desires of all. The burden to complete successfully, to share perfectly, to fully experience your goodness will jumble and taunt you to up the ante of your selflessness. All of this because the initial impulse of service to others derailed your agency and autonomy aligned with personal power.
Selfless service cannot ever be aligned with personal power. In selfless service, by definition and in practice, self is left behind and distorted as neither helpful or valuable.
Underneath is the deception borne of Power-Over arrogance and lies. The objective is to get you to give up yourself – that is the one and only goal of making you think the best, the highest, the most valuable goal in life is to be of service.
Stop a moment and take stock.
Why do you do what you do in life?
What are your shoulds pushing you to do?
What is the justification attached to any personal motivation or choice?
With awareness of self-worth, what can you do for you first?
Knowing you are worthy, shift into the self-belief of your personal power and direct your life for you.
Daily Life of Service Misplacement
Joel sought me out at the painful juncture between marriage and divorce. A thirty-year relationship, three kids all successfully launched into wonderful lives, and an amazing career creating an incredible business – all the things.
“It’s not that I’m unhappy or that I want to chuck it all and move to a monastery,” he began. “It’s that I realize I’ve done most of all of this for others.”
He took a deep breath and continued.
“It’s that I’m at a place I never thought I’d be and I don’t know what I want because its never been about what I truly want. It’s been about what I was expected to want.”
Another deep, ragged breath.
“The hardest is that I feel incredibly selfish by even daring to think about what I want.”
These are words I’ve heard often from both men and women.
Another client, Sara, said, “I’m supposed to be self-authentic at the same time I am to find purpose by doing for others. What’s authentic in ignoring myself?”
Josie, a very aware 80-year-old woman, observed about herself, “I’m pretty sure I left myself on the altar of my marriage sixty years ago and I don’t know how to get her back.”
I can give hundreds more examples of people as they begin to experience the split within themselves between who they thought they should be and whoever they might want to be now. Realizing that in the choice to focus life on doing for others they left themselves behind. And they made that choice because they were told that is what good people do to participate in society and prove their value. Moreover, this choice was based on a lack of self-awareness and an absence of self-belief. External expectations displace self-belief as guide.
When self-presence creeps back in, there is a sense of loss, shame, anger, betrayal.
Sara put it this way. “After my kids went off into their lives, it was like I just showed up one morning expectant and totally judgy.” Sara explained she felt like she failed though she had done all that was expected and requested by others.
“There’s no way that after doing everything right I should feel so terrible. But I do.”
The confusion overcomes people at all stages of life.
Twenty-four-year-old Cara approached me with this inquiry. “My life has been about what I thought I needed to do to be a good daughter and a good person. In a month I’m supposed to be getting married. Every morning for the last month I’ve been getting up feeling nothing but terror. What’s that about?”
As we talked what came out was both confusion and deep awareness. Essentially, Cara was in the midst of getting a very real lesson in the difference between what I think I should want versus what I want.
“It’s not that I don’t love the guy. It’s that I know I am not ready for all the things marriage implies. It’s not what I want right now.”
Cara made the choice to put a halt on the proceedings, and in a heart-felt conversation with her fiancée, they decided to bear the financial responsibility of cancelling the wedding and took the honeymoon to plan a life together based on what they each truly wanted.
“Once I quit going along to get along and was honest about my true desires, our entire relationship shifted into a much deeper place. Plus, he was so relieved – he felt exactly the same as me. Now when we get married, it’ll be how and when we want. Not to make our parents happy.”
All of these people are consciously experiencing the gulf between being other-directed and self-directed. After enduring the extended motions of other-direction, there is an expanding sense of disconnection from that which used to provide fulfillment. There is fear both from the judgment of having done life wrong and not knowing what to do now. There is also confusion over what and who and how to belief.
“Success is my life. So why do I feel so frozen in this moment?” Joel inquired.
Josie framed her profound disappointment with these words, “At eighty it’s too late to be different. And it’s incredibly sad that I’ve wasted my life.”
“I feel capable of living a happy life for the first time,” Joel explained. “A life for me.”
This comes in the willingness to ask one question, “What do I want?”
To learn more about the concepts within To Do Your Work, begin with this article: The Spiritual Practice of Personal Power.