A quick scan of Google quotes throws up: ‘Selfishness – a fantastic way to be miserable.’ ‘It is impossible to be both selfish and happy.’ ‘Selfish persons are incapable of loving others, but they are not capable of loving themselves either.’
The dictionary definition is pretty unequivocal too. Selfish: adjective – concerned mainly with your own needs and wishes, lacking consideration for other people; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.
And the 23 synonyms listed in the Thesaurus are all consistently negative. I’d hate to have any of them applied to me.
On the other hand, Mandarin Chinese, by far the world’s largest language, has two distinct words that both translate into ‘selfish’ in English. One means ‘doing something that benefits you at the expense of others’. (I think we’d all agree that’s no way to behave and won’t, in general, win you many brownie points.)
The other definition is ‘doing something that benefits you’. That’s it. Plain and simple. No one else gets hurt or trodden on or taken advantage of.
You see it IS possible to do wonderful and nourishing and creative and important things for yourself without harming or detracting from any other human being.
You benefit. No one else suffers. Yay.
Taking care of ourself is the BEST selfish thing we can do.
We’ve all heard the flight attendant tell us to put on our own oxygen mask first, before trying to help our child with theirs. That’s not selfish. It’s common sense, it saves lives. And every wise mother knows that when she falls ill because she hasn’t been looking after herself, or gets stressed because she hasn’t been attending to her own needs … well, it serves no one.
It is NOT selfish to love ourselves, to take care of ourselves, and to make our own happiness a priority. It’s a necessity. When our own battery is full, we can give more, do more, create more, live more fully, succeed more wildly, make a bigger difference all round and generally have a lot more fun.
‘To be successful, you have to be selfish, or else you never achieve,’ says Michael Jordan.
I see way too many people – and no they’re not all women – living perilously close to overwhelm and burnout, driven by the need to ‘succeed’, to get it right, to excel in their career and be a good parent/partner/carer as well. While neglecting to honour their own needs, physical, mental and spiritual, so that they are running on empty.
Women in particular tend to subscribe to the belief that self care and self love are selfish. So not only do we put everyone else’s needs before our own, but if we do do something ‘just for me’, we feel wracked with guilt. Been there, got the T shirt. Then we start to put the boot in. Being our own harshest critic may feel like an insurance policy against outside criticism (put the boot in before anyone else has the chance) but it really doesn’t serve us.
New research from Slimming World suggests that if people want to lose weight, then being kind to themselves when they falter and go off-track is going to be more helpful than beating themselves up.
Their survey found that most dieters (98%) experience a slip-up when trying to lose weight and they worry that it will scupper their weight loss. But it turns out that how people feel about themselves after a lapse is what’s crucial to long-term success. The majority (84%) said they gave themselves a hard time after a slip-up and called themselves “weak, stupid or a failure”. 78% of those who were self-critical after a lapse failed to lose weight. 47% put weight back on. But those who learned to be kinder to themselves were more successful – 81% of the most ‘self-reassuring’ group lost weight and kept it off.
Being kind to yourself, not punishing yourself, loving and forgiving yourself, treating yourself with the same gentleness and concern that you’d show to a good friend – it serves us well. And we need to practise it, and keep reminding ourselves of it, because it seems that it doesn’t come naturally.
So what might that look like day to day?
Well how about starting with identifying what makes you happy. And then doing more of it. Consistently, not occasionally. Spending time in nature, shopping, reading, dancing to great music, meeting a friend for coffee, working out, sleeping, learning something new, playing with paint, singing in the shower … it doesn’t need to take hours and hours – a five minute recharge is better than none. But it does need to be factored regularly into your day, your week, your life.
Equally important is ceasing to do things that drain you and don’t serve you. Identifying the things (and possibly the people) that you will no longer tolerate in your life – the ‘things that you are now too wise for’ (can I suggest that worrying and feeling guilty go at the top of your list!) – and taking action to release them, remove them and let them go, will free up precious time to do what you love and what loves you back.
It’s going to look different for each and every one of us, so it’s no good looking to other people for our own perfect recipe. We’ve got to look inside, find our own personal blend, mix it about a bit, improvise, experiment. Say ‘yes’ a bit more. And say ‘no’ a lot more. Protect our boundaries. Prioritise our pleasure. Plug ourselves into whatever fills us up.
In the words of Mother Theresa: ‘If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish intentions. Despite this, be kind.’
If you are kind to yourself, people may accuse you of selfish intentions. Despite this, be kind to yourself.