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Selfish isn’t a dirty word. Here’s why.

Many of us have learned from a young age that selfishness is something negative. 

It is important we learn that the needs, wants and desires of others are equally as important as our own – I am certainly not saying otherwise. Transitioning away from an ego-centric view of the world is an important aspect of the maturation process and one of the ways we develop traits such as compassion, empathy and generosity, all of which make the world a better place. 

Yet I wonder if, in our plight to eradicate selfishness, we have gone too far? 

As humans, we perceive polarities and judgements where they don’t need to exist. When we are taught by well-meaning adults – who want us to grow up and become contributing members of society – that selfishness is “bad” and selflessness is “good”, we equate this with who we are at our very core. Many women in particular, have made selfishness so wrong, that their daily lives demonstrate a damaging abnegation of the self, a fear of being a frustration to others, and as philosopher Alain de Botton so eloquently puts it: “a modesty that borders on self-erasure.”  

When we take selflessness too far, it hurts us. Just as it would if we took selfishness too far. Yet, so far down the list do too many women place their own needs that it impacts their health and happiness in small and sometimes significant ways. 

Everything else – and I truly do mean everything – comes before their own health and wellbeing. They feel guilty about taking the tiniest amount of time for themselves, struggle to say no, to set boundaries and to ask for help, even as they feel overwhelmed with all the things on their plates. Sometimes they stay in jobs or relationships that dull their shine for many years without examining what the job/other person is asking of them and also their side of it – why they do this to themselves. They might stay for practical reasons (such as money) or reasons related to their beliefs – that they must be self-sacrificing to be a “good” human, for example. Is that really service or is it servitude?

One of the problems with living this way is that we cannot continue to give on an empty tank. There’s a reason why in an airplane we are instructed to fit our own oxygen mask first – we simply cannot be of service to others if we don’t meet even our most basic of needs first. Plus, we are only really hurting ourselves in the long run. Living in a way that does not light us up, bring us joy or contribute to a long and healthful life.

It is time to move away from a black and white view of being either entirely selfish or wholly selfless. I encourage you to maintain a modicum of selfishness in order to protect your health. Not the type of selfishness that exploits others, but a version that allows us to be more forthright with what matters to us and manage our time and resources accordingly. Don’t let it take a health crisis – or perhaps it will be an identity crisis – to wake you up to the fact that your needs matter just as much as anyone else’s. 

Living a life where your needs are honoured and valued is your birthright. And we teach other people to make space for our needs by doing so for ourselves. 

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