The Importance of Being Selfish

Do you feel disturbed, dismayed or even disgusted at the possibility that it might just might be OK to be selfish… at least, from time to time? Yes, me too – or at least, that’s how I used to feel.

Many of us have been socialised to believe that we were here to serve others, to put others’ needs before our own – and that it was almost accepted that those who chose to put their own needs before others, were in fact selfish. I'm not talking about egotistical individuals here – my use of the term 'selfish' is narrowly defined as 'regard for self'.

It wasn’t until I presented with depression and/or anxiety to a rather traditional GP many years ago, experiencing compassion-burnout once again, that I was told it was OK to be selfish: ‘One’s first duty is to oneself’, he told me. These words came as a revelation; this was the moment someone told me it was OK to look after me first and foremost, and that others’ health was, in fact, secondary to my own.  The idea that each of us (healthy and capable adults) is responsible for our own health and well-being was a new concept to me. Wow!  But what if they needed me? All of those friends and family members who leaned on me for support? But I was falling over and had no-one to catch me, with no support of my own. I hadn’t shored myself up with self-care and self-love and so the only way to go was down.

So how do you begin with self-care? Well, it’s the little things that mean a lot. Think of how you’d like to be taken care of – a delicious and nutritious meal you might make for a loved one? Make it for yourself. Running a nice bubble bath and encouraging them to relax? Do it for you… and add a candle, some relaxing music maybe and remember to put a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the bathroom door! 

Self-love? Well, that takes a little more time and a lot more effort, I’ve found. But starting with ‘I love you!’ when you look into the mirror can be very powerful – and excruciatingly embarrassing for some, leading to tears for many of us who have never said that to ourselves before. When we challenge those long-held beliefs out loud, the mind refuses to listen... at first.

So, if you still think it’s just plain wrong to be ‘selfish’ (and I’m using a narrow definition here of being ‘preoccupied with self’) – even for 10 minutes a day! And you’re worried that, if you give time for you, it means less time for others, consider this: You could offer so much more to those around you if you just gave yourself back some of the love you so freely give to others. 

Perhaps instead of ‘one’s first duty is to oneself’, you might want to reflect on ‘one’s first love is for oneself’…. compassion begins at home.

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