There’s a lot of this going around on the Internet right now (especially if you follow therapy pages like I do). All the over-givers who are sick of getting “taken advantage of” are entering their “selfish eras” and “doing me” and whatnot. And don’t take my quotation marks for sarcasm; I’m in the same boat. Someone who’s grown exhausted with choosing to over-give (because no one’s forcing us; it is our choice, we just want acknowledgement and reciprocity for it). But seeing my peers say we’re being “selfish” now, I’m realizing we’ve grossly misinterpreted what the word selfish actually means. Because all the “selfish” stuff we’re doing by focusing on ourselves now and taking care of our own wants is really the shit we should have been doing all along.
Let’s look at the dictionary definition of the word selfish: lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.
That’s not what taking care of yourself is. Taking care of yourself is something we’re supposed to do. We’re not entering our selfish eras devouring fresh cheeseburgers while simultaneously staring down a homeless man with no remorse. We’re not scheming to get ahead at the expense of someone else’s suffering. We’re not shamelessly flaunting our fancy new expensive purchases in front of a friend who’s struggling financially to make ends meet. We’re not inconveniencing others. We’re simply doing more of what brings us joy and alignment in our own lives and trusting our fellow adults to take responsibility for themselves in non-life-threatening situations. You know…like healthy human beings?
We’re eating better, working out more, and focusing on more self-care to improve our mental well-being, not stealing candy from children or dipping into the collection box at church.
But somewhere along the way, society got introduced the notion that if you are always looking out for everyone else, it will come back to you.
Noble, yes, but also a load of bullshit.
Sure, there’s Karma, and sure, being kind to others does benefit you, but stretching yourself thin and exhausting yourself to your own detriment to do it became the gold standard because we all knew a grandma or auntie that always looked out for everyone and was always giving, and do we remember how they lived? Usually poor, on government assistance, and didn’t go out much. Harsh, but a dose of truthful reality. We looked out for them, but still, were their lives thriving? See, the giving notion got twisted to the point where it became ideal and applauded to always give to others even at the expense of yourself. Like, if I’m walking the streets barefoot and I see a guy in a wheelchair, I should give up one of my legs type deal. Sounds a little ridiculous, no? But then, where is the limit?
The truth is, this world is full of leeches who will seek out folks with this over-giving mentality and then suck.you.dry. This mentality also blurs the line of personal responsibility. At some point, as we grow from children to adults, we learn that we must take responsibility for our own lives, actions, and their consequences. There’s a fine line between being “helpful” and enabling someone, which many people forget, and that causes a whole new slew of problems in that by your eagerness to be helpful, you actually take away the learning experience that folks need to better themselves on their own, but since someone else is always willing to do the work for them, they no longer try.
I got called selfish a LOT growing up, especially because I was an only child until I was 15 (and most only children are called selfish by default). One of my earliest standout memories of being slapped with the selfish sticker was when I was about 7 or so, and my two cousins and I were each allowed to pick out one snack from the supermarket. I chose one of those really cute applesauce 6-packs, probably a Blues-Clues variation, or some sort of limited-time variety flavor. Now, I had plans for this snack. I was ready to ration out my portions for the next few days, because that was the sort of precocious child I was. One during a reading session, one hiding under the kitchen table, one on a car ride…I had plans for this snack. But what ended up happening was my 2 cousins snarfed their stuff down in hours, then came to me with their hands out for mine. And I was made to give it to them.
I was livid at the unfairness of it. Here I am, displaying advanced life skills that most adults struggle with like delayed gratification, restraint, and frugality, and I was just expected to hand over portions of the snack I was treasuring, just because my cousins wanted it. I hadn’t coveted theirs. I hadn’t asked for any of theirs. I hadn’t partook in theirs. But I was still berated by my family and called selfish because I didn’t want to hand it over. Why were my cousins not the selfish, greedy, gluttonous ones? Why did it not matter that I was losing out here, getting an unfair portion of the snack I fairly acquired? Why was I not praised for my discipline?
Now, I’m sure my family was only trying to teach me a lesson in being giving, no matter what the circumstances, and I’m sure most parents back then wanted to raise altruistic little Gandhis, but the result today may be a bunch of exhausted, codependent people-pleasers who’ve learned that the appearance of “nice” to others is more important than being kind to ourselves.
There were MANY other instances I was called selfish growing up, and of course I WAS at times, I WAS A CHILD. Children by nature are selfish, and that’s why adults who are selfish are seen as more childish because they haven’t matured out of the “everything revolves around me” phase. But I was an intelligent child; I didn’t lack consideration for others, and I was strongly empathetic. I don’t think I at all deserved it as the personality trait my family accused me of having. I was a big proponent of fairness. Of equality. Of everyone getting what they wanted, if they could. But we were taught that ONLY utter sacrifice of what you want is true giving, and that compromise in the fairness of all parties doesn’t count.
If you are maintaining a gym routine, weekly self-care days, improving on a hobby that brings you joy, taking a class or learning a new skill, that’s not selfish, and we need to stop acting like it is. You are not in your selfish era because you’re taking the reigns of your happiness and not expecting anyone else to do it for you. You’re living your life and investing in the most important person in it; the star of the show. The fact that we collectively see this as somehow selfish and there’s a guilt associated with it speaks volumes to society’s expectations and why so many folks can’t take care of themselves and are always expecting someone else to help them. Unless you are a parent or caretaker, you are not responsible for anyone else’s life. We are the ones in our lives who are in the easiest position to give ourselves what we want because we know what makes us happiest.
A narcissist ex once told me, “A relationship should be two people trying their best to make the other person as happy as possible.”
Awww so sweet–WRONG. First of all, sounds exactly like something a Narc would say; they want you in their pocket doing anything you can to make sure they stay happy and all their needs are met, while simultaneously throwing temper tantrums in response to your requests and trampling the boundaries you try to stand firmly on.
But it’s also unsustainable. There are just some things that another person is not capable of doing for you, that would make you happier than if you did it for yourself.
Another popular insight going around is that we shouldn’t be looking to other people to make us happy. Your source of true happiness must come from within, and not from an outside source. You have to be your own sun.
And being your own sun isn’t selfish. Tending your own garden isn’t selfish. Thinking of your own happiness, in conjunction with those around you is not selfish. The notion that we need to forsake our own needs to appear giving is a foolish one that needs to be retired, along with the idea that we even need to prove how giving we are in the first place, as if we earn some sort of floating badge attached to our human avatars that others can see, confirm, and validate us with. The fact that we actually think that by supporting ourselves in the same manner that we support everyone else is us entering our sElFiSh ErA is unhealthy, damaging, incorrect, and barf-worthy. This is not, and has never been a “Fuck everyone else’s feelings, I’m gonna do me” movement. It’s a “My needs matter just as much as everyone else’s, and I don’t need to hide them to appear ‘good'” shift.
Because what if, by considering your own needs as equally as you considered others’, it actually made things…EVEN.