Society tells us that we live in an individualised culture but that we shouldn’t be selfish. Indeed, the word ‘selfish’ holds negative connotations and is viewed as an undesirable trait. In some cultures this is taken to the other extreme, such that the needs and wants of the collective are placed above individuals, to what some might deem a damaging extent (because it harms the mental health of citizens).
...Is Necessary Sometimes
However there is logic in both ideas, but as with anything, there’s a need for balance. We will not feel very satisfied or get too far in life if we are too self-serving and individualistic. But on the other hand, the same is true if we aim to please others over our own individual needs, too much of the time. Indeed, there’s a reason we’re instructed to put on our own oxygen mask first, because if we don’t, we’re no good to anyone else.
The Benefits Of Being Selfish
I often have clients saying things like “I know it sounds selfish but….” And I usually think in my head (it absolutely does not). Being selfish is showing a lack of consideration for others. But what they describe is not this. What they’re usually actually talking about is being selfish enough that they aren’t taken advantage of. The problem is that people often put their own needs in relationships and situations at the bottom of the pile. Over the long term this is damaging so why do they do this? Well, it sometimes hints at an individual’s sense of self-worth and esteem.
The Cost Of Being Too Selfless
Essentially, when we do this, we are relating to ourselves in the same way others are possibly relating to us. That is, if the people in your life are going to take advantage, and hold unrequited expectations of you, then you will too. But this doesn’t just happen, they do this because you haven’t taught them otherwise. And in your attempts to prioritise others you begin to forget yourself and to feel burned out, frustrated, devalued, or angry. These are just some of the damaging long-term implications.
How Selflessness Relates To Self-Worth
What are we to do with these feelings? And how long can we carry on in these dynamics without it impacting self-worth? The answer is, we simply cannot, so we must learn to be selfish…to a reasonable extent. And when I say selfish, I use the term very loosely, because what I prescribe isn’t really selfish at all.
I say this with caution, and remember, balance. The aim is not to become a narcissist. It is to care for yourself first, and then for those around you. You do this by setting boundaries, to teach others what is, and isn’t acceptable. Love yourself enough to have your back and you will discover the benefits these actions bring about.
How Therapy Can Help
There are whole books on the art of saying ‘no’. Therapy can teach you about yourself, and the importance of this balance for your own wellbeing. You can learn that being selfish in the way described here is paradoxically not selfish. But for those who are accustomed to placing others’ needs above their own, it might feel like it is. A therapist can help you to see where you let yourself down, and facilitate change, such that you are able to give yourself permission to prioritise your own needs at times, which means learning to say no.
For example, I had a client called ‘Lucy’ whose mother would make her feel bad about herself. Unfortunately, according to Lucy, her mother was quite selfish, and critical, and took her for granted. And yet, Lucy could not do enough for her mother, and she would have happily carried on, in spite of herself.
Added to this, Lucy did not have much time for herself because she was a long-term single parent and was experiencing stress at work. And rather than having a mother who she could go to for support, Lucy was emotionally supporting her mother (who also leant on Lucy’s father). Again, there is nothing wrong with this in and of itself if it is appreciated and reciprocated.
Through exploration in therapy, Lucy gained insights into her relationships. She learned about things that concerned her, and made her angry – or rather, brought her anger to the surface. Lucy had breakthroughs, she was able to notice what her actions were implicitly telling her about how she viewed and related to herself. Therapy provided the space to consider and explore feelings of low self-worth. Lucy was able to notice the thoughts she held about herself and was projecting onto others. She was gaining awareness of things she was doing and feeling subconsciously.
By bringing these insights out into the light, we were able to unpack them and look at the detail. We were able to see where these voices came from, and whether they were fair judgements. Through the process that is therapy, I noticed subtle shifts and not-so-subtle changes in Lucy. She seemed to be using her anger to repair and reconstruct parts of herself, parts that had been harmed by others, and even by herself, over the years. A strength was emerging in her.
Lucy decided that she was no longer going to ignore her own needs and had a firm conversation with her mother. This was not an easy thing for either party, and it did not drastically change her mother. But what it did do was begin to establish boundaries that felt more acceptable to Lucy. Lucy was able to take her mother on her own terms. This felt good because Lucy was now valuing herself, even if her mother was unable to value and treat her fairly. Lucy was also teaching her mother what was acceptable.
Fill Your Own Cup First
Yes we must spend the time to fill our own cup, and only then do we have something to give to others, and ourselves. Think of a car engine, it needs fuel to move your car. Without fuel, not only is the engine unable to make the car move, but it is harmed in the process. If we subsist on an empty cup whilst being pulled, stretched, and contorted in all directions, what happens when there’s no slack left? We snap and break like a desiccated twig.
Therapy gave Lucy the confidence to practice the art of being selfish, and it is an art. And like art, it can be appreciated, reflected upon thoughtfully, and enrich lives.
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