Selfishness is defined as: “devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.” We see selfish people as bad individuals being concerned only with themselves. “You,” are no concern of theirs. But is this image actually realistic? Are selfish people always selfish or are they just better at taking care of themselves than the rest of us? Are self-sacrifice and sharing always the right thing to do? Maybe being selfish is simply getting a bad rap and the term needs to be reconsidered.
On one hand, I can think of countless times that I needed someone to be there for me. In some cases, they were, other times they were not. Occasional instances don’t bother me so much… it’s when there is a symptomatic consistency that I start to feel used and abused. The biggest problem is when someone assumes the gift of my time, money, space or energy never considering that I may want something different. That isn’t really selfishness on their part though, is it? It is a lack of “caring for oneself” that is being completely disregarded… by me! In fact, I have become a doormat, and that is not ok.
Most are familiar with the Golden Rule – generally understood (in the U.S.) as a Christian tenant, but it can actually be found in many other religions and would be considered the ideal human behavior. We are told that if we treat others as we wish to be treated then the world would be a better place. Yet, what if we flip this rule on its head and think about it in another way and teach others how to treat us by treating ourselves with the kindness we give to others? Being kind to others means nothing if we don’t also treat ourselves the same way.
If this thought process feels uncomfortable, think of a child. When they are little and unable to make decisions for themselves parents plan their birthday parties, choose the gifts, decorations and the flavor of the cake. As the child matures he gets to pick these things for himself and parents love giving them what they want.
What would it look like if a 10-year-old when asked what kind of theme party he wanted responded with, “Oh, I don’t need a birthday party it is always so much work for you.” Yeah, pretty unrealistic.
But this is exactly what we do if we are not selfish.
When my son was born, many wise women told me to sleep when he slept, that I had to take care of myself in order to take good care of my baby. This sage advice was easy when he was an immobile infant. It became a lost battle when he got older and naps were discarded. Society told me that in order to be a good mother self-sacrifice was the best direction.
Later, enmeshed in my faith, that self-sacrifice extended to everyone else as well. I lost the right to self-care and self-love. I lost the right to be selfish because it was an unspoken taboo. What I was left with was a shadow; a broken, tired, angry shell of my former self. I did not have a purpose or a life to live if it wasn’t wrapped up in someone else. It was extremely unhealthy.
I eventually learned, that I needed to speak up for myself and that I had the right to have what I gave to others. By placing boundaries on what or how much I would do slowly taught others how I wanted and deserved to be treated. If I wanted a party for my birthday I would ask. Unfortunately, changing your behavior will have consequences.
When you stand up and say what you want backlash is inevitable. There will be people in your life who are comfortable with your self-sacrifice and will complain. I had several loved ones turn away because I started choosing things that benefited me; upset because I didn’t place their cares or concerns above my needs. My new behavior was seen as an insult and considered offensive even though they were not harmed just inconvenienced.
I am not perfect at being selfish, the bad habit of giving beyond what I am able to give still haunts me. I love someone so I want them to be happy. I give up some small thing so that they can have something that will make them glow with gratitude and this is ok as I am not neglecting myself. I am learning to know the danger signs.
I know I have given too much when I start to resent others requests. This means I need to pull back a bit and consider the situation. It isn’t that there is anything wrong with them asking, but it’s not ok if I am unable or unwilling to give what they want or if their request places an undue burden on me – but recognizing that I can choose to give at these times or not is key. (As in the case of an emergency.) I am learning to gauge my feelings about the request before saying yes and paying attention to my own body’s signals to let me know how I feel.
A good gauge would be to focus on the request and decide the pros and cons of the situation. If you feel motivated to say, “yes” out of a sense of guilt or obligation, it may not be the best choice. If negative emotions are your only motivating factors you are not offering that person your best and not giving from a place of lovingkindness. I wouldn’t want someone to give in to my requests if it only served to build a wall of resentment.
Learning to be selfish is a balancing act. Give yourself permission to lean on the side of self-care if you are feeling worn-out or used. Remember too that healthy selfish behavior is not an excuse to be uncaring or unloving towards others, but one stepping stone on the path towards loving yourself as you love others.
If you struggle with boundaries, saying “No” or don’t even know where to start in this process there is an excellent book on this subject by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No,” I receive no compensation if you follow the link.