By Rebecca Hall
Overview: Embrace the new year by understanding the nuanced relationship between "self-care" and "selfishness." Let's delve into the importance of meeting basic needs and establishing clear boundaries for a healthier, more fulfilling life.
Have you ever said to yourself, “I’m going to be a little selfish today?” or maybe you’ve had a friend say it? I know I’ve thought it before and I have had many friends and clients say this, too. Most people seem to mean that they need to do something for themselves, so they will give themselves permission to be “selfish.” We are starting to find more encouragement to take care of ourselves in our culture, and yet, for many it still doesn’t feel OK to prioritize ourselves. Often, we feel that we need to put the needs of others or our jobs before ourselves.
When we put so many needs ahead of our own, it can lead us to feel exhausted, without margin, burned out, and unmotivated. It can also contribute to anxiety, guilt, and depression and other emotional struggles.
It could be helpful to think about what self-care means, versus the meaning of being selfish. Self-care essentially refers to taking care of oneself. It can include basic needs, but also some higher level needs. Being selfish generally refers to someone who is only focused on themselves, lacking any consideration or concern for others.
So, what are our basic needs?
Have you heard of Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs? He lists out various needs that must be met before we are able to continue to grow and meet our goals. He lists physiological needs (such as air, food, water, shelter, clothing, sleep) as the first level. Next is safety needs (health, and feeling secure personally, emotionally, financially). After safety is love and social needs which encompass the human need to feel we belong (these include: family, friendship, intimacy, trust, acceptance). The next level is esteem needs (such as dignity, respect, purpose, achievement). At the highest level is self-actualization or becoming the best one can be (including: creativity, problem solving, exploration, morality).
There is some debate about the validity of Maslow’s hierarchy but it makes a lot of practical sense, especially if the levels are viewed as overlapping sometimes. In general, the point is that, if we don’t have certain basic needs met it’s very hard to concentrate on other things.
Thinking of this hierarchy of needs, it’s important for each person to find ways to meet them. This can be impacted by how we grew up, our relationships, our education, and opportunities we have been given or taken. Feeling a sense of security and safety at these different levels of needs also helps us to concentrate on other aspects of our lives.
Factors that Impact our Focus:
Work Life: Achieve a harmonious work-life balance by setting boundaries and preventing burnout. Explore ways to maintain professional dedication without compromising personal well-being.
Work is a big deal in most of our lives. Whether we’re single or married we must find a way to have the money to pay for our lives. But it doesn’t need to take over our lives. Some people may be in their dream job, others may be working towards it, and then there are many who don’t really know what they want to do except pay their bills. It’s important to be professional and to do our jobs well, but it’s also important to have good boundaries between our work and personal lives. Having a good balance helps us to maintain better health all around, and can help to prevent burnout. Many jobs ask (or pressure) their employees to “go above and beyond.” Each person needs to know where their boundaries are and how far above or how often they are willing to go.
Community: Establishing boundaries in relationships is crucial for sustaining a healthy balance between giving and self-preservation. Learn to manage resources wisely and prioritize self-care without guilt.
For most of us, our community is important to us, and often this is made up of friends and family. No matter who makes up our community it’s important again for us to have clear boundaries for the time we give to others. There are certainly times when we may want to give sacrificially of our time or other resources, but like our work, we must consider where our boundaries come in.
I had a client once who was barely making ends meet, but if someone asked her for money she gave anything she had to them. While I applauded her kind and giving heart, because of the way she gave out her money she rarely had enough to pay her bills. She was unable to take care of herself and she feared that if she didn’t give money to others she would be considered selfish or uncaring. This may or not be a fear you experience, but I’m sure you have your own reasons for why it might feel hard to say no at times. We all need to consider our fears or anxieties as we think about how much (money, time, or other) we are able to give to others. Our resources are not infinite.
Parents: Parents must navigate the delicate balance of caring for themselves to provide the best for their families. Explore the importance of self-care in maintaining a strong foundation for parental responsibilities.
Parents often can struggle with the balance of self-care and selfishness. Children have so many needs and parents want to make sure their kids have all they could need and more. Whether a single parent or a couple – parents must consider their boundaries even in their care for their family. If the parent’s needs aren’t met they will not be able to continue to care in the best and healthiest ways for their kids.
This is well illustrated by the instructions we receive when we are about to fly. The flight attendants list out instructions in case of an emergency and it is always stated that if the oxygen masks are needed, adults should put their mask on before putting a mask on a child they are traveling with. Often, the first instinct of a parent is to make sure their child is OK. But, in this case, that instinct could put both the child and the parent into further danger. On land parents also need to take time to consider and plan for their own self-care in order to be able to be healthy and ready to care well for their beloved children.
Selfishness vs Selfless: Evaluate societal pressures and personal beliefs surrounding selflessness. Discover the significance of prioritizing individual well-being without sacrificing the ability to serve others. Try to learn that "No" is a complete sentence and self-care is not selfish.
Unless you are truly an incredibly self-centered individual, it’s likely that you put yourself and your own needs last. This can be true whether someone is single, married, has kids, or not.
Our society tells us to be selfless and to give and give. Being selfless and serving others can be good – but not at the cost of our own physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being.
That being the case, why do we so often prioritize other people and things before ourselves? There are lots of reasons for this – and each of us needs to take time to think through what factors influence us the most. Let's analyze the reasons behind prioritizing others over oneself. Recognize societal expectations and personal fears that may influence decision-making. Embrace self-reflection to understand and overcome these challenges.
We all need to take time to think through how we want to organize and prioritize our lives. Taking care of ourselves or saying no to someone is not selfish. Those people who don’t have good boundaries or who want us to help them will not like it if we say no, and they might even call us selfish. Does that mean they are correct? They don’t know all the ins and outs of why we might choose to say no or to do something that is meaningful for ourselves. And, we don’t have to tell them those reasons! As I’ve heard it said, “No is a complete sentence.”
Taking time for yourself is not unproductive or a waste of time. And each of us have different needs in this area! For some, self-care could look like sitting still, able to be alone in their own thoughts. For another, they might love being able to sit and talk with a friend for an hour or two. Another person might need to go for a walk or a hike. Someone else might need to lay on their couch and read a book. Another might love to sing or dance. All of these are great self-care options – and they are all “productive” in their own ways. Not only that, but they help to restore our emotional “batteries” or reserves.
As a Christian, there can sometimes feel like there’s an added spiritual pressure put on us by ourselves and others. Sometimes we can think – “I need to serve others,” or “I should give more time to help that person,” or “What would Jesus do?” (with the implication that he would do more than we are).
But we have an incredible example in Jesus of someone who actually had great boundaries and was willing to stop and rest. He took time to be on his own, and to pray. He spent time with his friends. He worked. He ate and slept. He didn’t heal 24/7. He was fully human and had limits, too.
This reassures me and I can remember that I’m only human and I can’t do everything!
You may think that things are going great for you and you’re fine. If that’s true – awesome!!! But, there are lots of people who don’t feel that way. They may seem to be functioning well and getting all their work done. But, they could be struggling in unseen ways.
I encourage you to do some self-evaluating to think through the ways you care well for yourself. Are you meeting your basic physical needs (taking care of your body) as well as your essential emotional or relational needs? Do you know what is most important in your life? Have you given thought to your boundaries and your work-life balance?
There are a lot of great resources out on these topics, and we are continuing to add to this blog throughout the month on these and other mental health subjects. We would also love to meet with you and help you to process through how you can continue to grow in wellbeing.
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:41-42
“Jesus wept.” John 11:35
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