You don’t have any choice.
You are overwhelmed at work. Tasks to complete, calls to attend, proposals to draft, escalations to handle.
The home front looks no better. The daily slog before you leave for work: preparing breakfast, packing lunch, getting the kids ready for school — the youngest conveniently decides to throw a tantrum.
After work, evenings greet you with the grocery and vegetable runs, picking the kids from daycare, their school assignments. The living area looks like a battlefront — the clothes, books, and toys lay around as a testament of the morning melee.
You feel like drowning in responsibilities. Stress is ever-present.
Yet, you feel you have no time to idle around. You have to push a little harder.
You feel guilty, even ashamed when you take a break and spend time for self-care. You’ve been told, throughout your life, to put others first and yourself last. You don’t want to go against the grain and be labeled as “Selfish”.
It’s been ages since you went out and had a good time with your buddies. You don’t even recall the last time you exercised, read a book or worked on that DIY project you were so passionate about.
Now the toil has taken its toll. You feel tired and depressed; waking up and facing another day is a drag. Emotionally drained, you continue to do so — trying to force a smile while you are at it. Because giving up is not an option, not for you.
But, does it really have to be like this? Is being selfless, spending yourself like a currency — with stress and resentment being constant companions — the only way to exist in this world?
Why Selfishness Gets The Bad Rap
A selfish person lacks consideration for others and cares only about their personal benefit. They are greedy, uncaring and ruthless. Everyone condemns them and no one wants to be like them.
You are taught and conditioned to strive to be at the polar opposite — an altruistic, kind, selfless soul. One who prioritizes others and places themselves last — always.
The saga of the lone hero who sacrifices himself/herself for the greater good entices us all.
You applauded when Russell Casse flew Kamikaze style into the alien spacecraft. When the Iron Giant grinned and uttered ‘Superman’, just before the missile detonated, you bawled your eyes out (don’t even try to deny that).
So you try to be like the martyr, and not like the marauder — at the cost of neglecting your needs, wants and your self-care.
Blurring The Boundaries Between Self-Care and Being A Jerk
But this self-denial doesn’t fare well with our mind and body. When we are compelled to give constantly due to our preconceived notions, disregarding our own wants and needs, resentment creeps up.
To avoid this, we must not equate being selfish with being self-caring. When we value our needs and desires, don’t support others at our own expense — it doesn’t automatically turn us into callous jerks.
Human beings are driven by the pursuit of happiness. It doesn’t serve the world when we are selfless, forego our need to be healthy and happy, denounce being valued and appreciated, and end up miserable.
We can only nurture and help others after we meet our own needs. What’s the first thing they tell us when we board an airplane?
“In case of a loss of cabin pressure, please put your own oxygen mask on first and then assist your children or other passengers.”
Now you wonder if there such a thing as too much self-care? Is it possible for your self-care to transgress into selfishness? How can you be sure that you are really not being selfish?
Evaluate Yourself On The Selfish Spectrum
This distinction becomes clear when you stop treating selfishness and self-care and as two black and white digital levels and think of them as two ends of a scale.
Many have talked about this, but I like the simple, clear and concise way how Dr. Aziz Gazipura, PsyD articulates the concept. Enter the Selfish Spectrum.
When you always put others first, paying no heed to your needs (a.k.a the doormat), you are at the lower end of the spectrum. Conversely, when you always put your own needs first, the rest of the world be damned (a.k.a the asshole), you are at the upper end of the spectrum.
Self-care or healthy self-interest lies in the middle two rungs of this spectrum. You dwell on this level when you give priority to yourself and your needs, at least sometimes, and don’t feel guilty or ashamed about it.
Banish The Atlas Syndrome — Forever
If you are a working professional and/or a parent, you might always operate on the lower 3 rungs of the selfish spectrum. You think that you are bound to do so, be the ‘Superman’, and feel that you have no choice.
But you don’t have to emulate Atlas and carry the weight of the world alone on your shoulders. The amazing and unbelievable fact — the world will continue rotating on its axis even if you take a break for yourself.
Shift your priorities, move up the Selfish Spectrum and inhabit in the middle zone of healthy self-interest. State your own needs with the same temerity, give them the same priority and attend them with the same urgency as you have been doing for everyone else. You owe it to yourself.
One notable exception is for parents with infants or toddlers.
I take care of my son, bargain hard with him for that sip of water or morsel of food (the little devil has astonishing negotiation skills), wipe his poopy little bottom(even if I don’t want to), hold him when he wants to be held and show him around the house, again, even when I’m dead tired and its midnight. I choose to do so and it feels good to me.
The more he feels loved and respected at this age, the more he will develop a sense of attachment and self-esteem. The cogent way is to surrender my immediate needs and desires, and attend to my child’s more urgent needs and preferences; choosing that makes me the adult.
In turn, I compensate myself by zealously guarding my “me-time” (5.30–7.30 am). It’s a time dedicated to my passions, and it keeps me physically and emotionally in shape, energetic, grateful and happy.
Healthy Self Interest — The Amazing Benefits
So next time when you feel overworked and overwhelmed, understand that your body and your mind are trying to tell you something. Stop, take a break and listen.
What do you want? How urgent is the need? Why do you want that? Will this really impact anyone else? If yes, how will they be impacted? Can they handle this without you being involved? (most of the time they can)
Ask these questions and your fears will be alleviated — your fear of causing inconvenience to others, harming others, fear of being judged, fear of losing support, and fear of being alone.
Rest assured and stop compromising yourself for others, most of the time or at least sometimes. Soon, you will start reaping amazing benefits…
You will feel physically and emotionally healthier. You will feel balanced and more in control of your life. Your life will no longer feel like moving on autopilot.
You will be more adept and resilient in handling everyday stress. You will start to value yourself, your self-esteem will improve and your self-confidence will get a massive boost.
You will become a better caregiver. Taking care of yourself and being selfish – paradoxically — makes you more caring and compassionate. You cannot give to others unless your cup is full.
Self-Care Without Guilt — The Recipe Of Staying Healthy And Happy
Taking on the world while running on fumes can be depressing. It can leave you stressed, tired, resentful and emotionally drained.
The truth — putting self-care on the backburner to tend to your partner, friends or family is not a sustainable strategy.
Don’t burn yourself at both ends; make it a priority to attend to your needs instead. Don’t let guilt, shame or wrongness foster in your mind while investing in your physical and emotional well-being.
You might feel like going against the grain, but don’t let that perturb you. Curve out a slice of your day and dedicate it to self-care. Don’t let anyone put a claim on that.
Your body, heart, and mind will thank you for your efforts and bestow you with rich rewards. You will feel rejuvenated, grateful and invigorated. You will have much more to give to others.
Imagine embracing each and every day with joy, gratitude, and eagerness. Now go and make that happen.