Psst. I have a little secret for you. Don’t let anyone know I told you this: Be selfish. I know that sounds like terrible advice. In fact, it’s the extreme opposite of what our mothers told us growing up. What we learned was: to be selfish was a terrible thing; a dirty name; a personality trait that no good girl or boy would ever want to be accused of owning. That word can also be a wonderful tool for inducing shame and getting people to behave the way you want them to. If it were an archaic word, growing dusty on the shelf of our childhood, rarely used, I wouldn’t write this article. Instead, that word is so commonly thrown about, tossed from husband to wife, mother to child, our self to our self, leaving guilt,shame, and self-doubt in its wake, that it demands investigation.
The Webster’s Dictionary definition of selfish is: “Devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others …” If we look at the definition closely, we can see what all those mothers were upset about: “caring only for oneself,” “concerned primarily with one’s own …” and “… regardless of others.” Those phrases do sound pretty heartless, bringing the image of Scrooge to mind. But the rest, “caring for oneself” and “concerned with one’s interests, benefits, welfare, etc.,” address a way of being that we all are, or should be, instinctually doing: taking care of ourselves. That makes it a little confusing; the word “selfish” contains both something integral to human safety, and a harsh censure against it.
This is not to say there aren’t people who act within the literal definition of “selfish,” and whoshould be made aware that their behavior is harmful to themselves and others. I’m concerned about the nonliteral, inappropriate use of the word “selfish.” I worry about the people, so wary of incurring condemnation for their actions and receiving the title of “selfish,” that they confuse healthy behavior with unhealthy, and become immobilized.
The phrase “self-care” is the argument for the necessity of taking care of our physical and emotional well-being, becoming much more popular and widely used in recent years, encouraging people to take better care of themselves: getting regular check-ups, eating healthy foods, getting adequate sleep, enjoying their favorite activities and so on. Even if people are aware of the necessity of self-care, especially in regards to emotional well-being, it may still be hard to do.
We need to take care of ourselves, but too many people don’t. The reasons are numerous; usually stemming from lessons learned in childhood, possibly suggesting a history of neglect, low self-esteem, poor role models, and more than we can consider here. Those deep personal reasons, in combination with society’s excessive concern about not being “selfish,” may stop many people from taking care of themselves in the ways they should.
The truth is, the way the word is misused, everything we do for ourselves could be considered selfish if there is another person who doesn’t want us to do it. But what if the action we are attempting to take is important, healthy, and necessary, and the desire of the other person to stop us from doing it is selfish? No, disregarding others is not an accurate measure to determine whether you are being selfish. Sometimes we must disregard others in order to take care of ourselves. That can be an extremely difficult thing to do.
I’m sure you’ve had numerous experiences of putting your needs ahead of someone else’s: disappointing the cook by resisting the cake, refusing your child to care for yourself, saying no to the friend and yes to you. On the other hand, how many of you have regretfully eaten that cake, given in to the child, or sacrificed your own wishes for your friend’s? And if these are the small choices, how well do we manage the major ones? People acquiesce to having children they don’t want, pursuing careers they didn’t choose, marrying partners they don’t love. This doesn’t lead to happiness for anyone involved.
If we become so afraid to take care of ourselves because we fear being judged, then who is supposed to take care of us? Having received harsh warnings about selfishness, many people become dependent on others for their happiness. They hope others will know what they need and will provide it. This can become a helpless position to be in, hindering the individual’s self-awareness and self-efficacy.
It seems both a heavy burden and a confusing task to ignore your wants and needs and to instead focus on guessing and fulfilling the wants and needs of others, all while expecting others to be doing the same for you. It’s like the adage, “You wash my back and I’ll wash yours,” except that in this case, they can’t wash their backs unless the other person does it for them. Wouldn’t it make more sense if we, who should know ourselves better than anyone else, were responsible for taking care of our own needs?
So my suggestion next time the word “selfish” comes up, either with another person or with you, is that instead of shame and shutdown it leads to thought and exploration. “Selfish” can lead to greater insight into yourself or your relationships. “Selfish” should be examined on a case-by-case basis, examined to see if the accuser is attempting to get their own way, examined as a guide to what you really want, examined to see if you really are being inconsiderate of others, examined in order to generate solutions that could satisfy both parties, or, if that fails, examined to see if your personal need is important enough to you that you must proceed regardless of the other.
“Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.” —Oscar Wilde