Putting other people’s needs above your own is a noble deed, except when in compromises your needs. Learn when it’s good to be selfish and put yourself first.
If your parents are decent people, they probably put a significant amount of time and energy into teaching you that being selfish is bad, and being unselfish is good. Share the crayons with your brother. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated. Do what your teacher says, even if it’s not what you want to do. Give everyone on the team a chance to shoot the ball, even the girl with the big purple glasses and lack of hand-eye coordination (<— That was me. Thanks for the ball. Sorry I lost the game.). Don’t brag too much about your personal achievements. You can’t get your way all the time.
The goal is to raise a child who will grow up to be an adult that is caring, compassionate, and generous. This is a good thing. But is there a point when this focus on unselfishness can backfire? Is it a good thing to be selfish, at least some of the time?
Hear me out on this one. I started thinking about selfishness last week when a couple of my clients expressed a feeling of being overwhelmed, spending all their energy taking care of other people’s needs and having no time leftover for self care. When I asked if there were ways they could cut back on the time they spent on others, both expressed a fear of being selfish.
Then the other night, a friend of mine shared an article on facebook about being childless by choice and the perception that it’s a selfish decision. A few of us were discussing being cool aunts and the unfair assumptions made about people who don’t have kids, when my friend Madeline made the following comment:
“Why can’t it be unselfish to make the decision that best serves your own mental health and happiness, and as an off-shoot, the health and happiness of those around you?”
Generally speaking, selfishness is a negative trait and unselfishness is positive, but when you dig a little deeper, it isn’t so black and white. Is it selfish to put your needs first so you can be the best possible version of you, both for yourself and for the people you love? I certainly don’t think so. Is constantly putting other people’s needs ahead of your own until you’re a tightly wound, exhausted, and anxious hot mess, unselfish? I’m not so sure, especially if there’s an underlying goal of getting attention or a reward for your deeds.
I think it all comes down to understanding the difference between your wants and needs. Putting other peoples needs above your wants, is a truly unselfish deed and a quality that should be rewarded. But regularly putting another persons wants about your needs will leave you feeling empty, unfulfilled and generally miserable.
For example, I want new clothes. I don’t need new clothes. If I donate money a homeless shelter, it means I don’t have it to spend on new clothes. Since new clothes are not a need, but having a safe and warm place to sleep is, this is an unselfish act that I should do.
Now, I need to travel. For others, that might not be a need, but for me, it is. Travel makes me feel joyful, inspired and whole. I could live without it, but I couldn’t live without it. If I donated so much money that I couldn’t afford to travel, I might get praise and recognition, but at a major cost to my own happiness. In this case, I should be selfish.
That’s clearly an extreme example to demonstrate a point, but here’s some examples I see almost daily from friends, family and clients:
- Cooking innutritious meals you don’t necessarily like for the family, because that’s the food they prefer, compromising your need to feel healthy, happy and enjoy your food.
- Overbooking your schedule with activities for your children, compromising the time you have to enjoy your own hobbies or activities.
- Spending too much energy on a needy friend, compromising your need to have the support reciprocated.
- Taking on too much responsibility at work, compromising your need to have an appropriate work-life balance.
- Putting all your energy into building a romantic relationship, compromising your need to feel loved in return.
Your needs, whatever they may be, deserve to be met, because you yourself, are a worthy and deserving of health, happiness and love. Sure, you could wish and hope and pray for someone to recognize your needs aren’t being met and do something about it, but don’t hold your breath. Most people are too wrapped up in their own life to notice. If you don’t care for your needs, more than likely, no one else will.
Continue to be a kind, caring, and compassionate person. Give to others with joy, and you will feel that joy in return. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated. Give more than you take, but before your give, ask yourself what you’re really giving up.
Do you find yourself afraid to be selfish? What needs of your own do you regularly compromise for others?