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When Selfish Can Be Selfless

Updated: Feb 15, 2022

What does the word selfish mean to you? If someone calls you selfish how does it feel? When you suspect you’re being selfish, what does your gut tell you to do? The idea of “selfish” has recently come up in multiple coaching conversations in a way where clients are referring to themselves as selfish. As an observer, I am befuddled at how compassionate people who would give you the actual shirt off of their backs and literally drop everything to help another person, often at personal sacrifice, can view themselves as selfish. Selfish is pretty harsh, right? I don’t think it’s usually meant as a compliment, or meant to point out your best feature if you’re referring to yourself. This particular word…SELFISH…. has been on my mind all week, and prompted me to unpack some thoughts here.

Let’s first discuss the difference between being selfish and being selfless. A selfish person is defined as one who seeks to gain only for themselves without regard for another person. Selfish people are takers, and close the door on service to others, and often refuse to let others serve them. They often make life harder for others, while the words greedy and inconsiderate are often heaped onto “selfish.” A selfless person is a giver, and puts the needs of others before their own. They are interested in enriching the lives of others, making life easier for others, often with sacrifice to their own happiness. The selfless person is often thought of as caring, kind and down to earth. Then there is the idea that being selfless is actually selfish, because selfless acts make you feel good, and bring about inner peace and happiness. All this to say, the connotation around the word selfish is mostly negative.

The reason the word selfish came about, was because clients were taking time for self-care, self-preservation, boundary setting and even (gasp!) putting their own wants before others. Doing these things for themselves made them feel selfish. The romanticized ultimate act of selfless love is giving up something want for someone else. This leads to believing that the opposite is also true: that having something you want, means that you DON’T love and that doing what you want is selfish. Somehow, over the course of history, we’ve been conditioned to believe that sacrificing your own happiness is the way to show ultimate love. People, especially woman who are often the main household “managers” of their children, family schedules, shopping, cooking, cleaning and more, have been taught to believe that the moment you take minute to invest in yourself; the moment you decide to do something YOU want to do and make the choice not to have to consider everyone else’s opinion…you are (drumroll)….selfish!

In the world we live in, especially pre-COVID, and perhaps a little now as our country begins to get vaccinated and loosen up restrictions, it’s go go go 24/7. It’s a world where there are a minimum of 3 balls in the air at all times. I know personally, when COVID forced a hard stop for me and my family, I was smacked into a slower pace. I now shudder to think how I did all that did within the course of a day. Just talking about it makes me tired. If you are like me, maybe you are a really good juggler who thinks that the multi-tasking, split focus, jumping from project to project without taking a breath is normal. Is that healthy though?

Here is my big question: how can a person show up for their family, their friends, their job, or their co-workers if exhaustion, both mental and physical, are a part of the daily norm? This makes me think about how on a flight, the attendant cautions that if the airplane needs to use the oxygen masks, put one on yourself first and then the child. I mean if you can't breathe and feel woozy and try to put the mask on the child, then you’re likely fumbling about, poking the child in the face, and failing miserably to put the mask on the child properly. So now the child is also woozy and at this point you’re passed out between the seats, and no one has oxygen. Sad scene, am I right? The point is, you can’t care for anyone else, much less yourself, if you’re woozy.

Taking time for self-care and self-preservation is actually selfless. It means you care enough about your loved ones, and anyone else who counts on you, to make sure you are eating well, sleeping well, taking time to do enjoyable things that are restorative and rejuvenating. It means that by setting boundaries and not taking on too many things, by not allowing yourself to go into stressful, emotionally taxing situations that will deplete you of energy and mental acuity leaves more energy and brain power for the people who need you most. Let’s face it, when you’re alert, well-rested, un-stressed, calm and self-aware you’re getting through your day in a much more efficient, connected and enjoyable way than the alternative tired, stressed, distracted and grumpy way.

To further the idea that putting yourself first can be selfless, these people are also investing in themselves by hiring a coach (or a therapist, counselor, psychiatrist or any other professional that can help you be your best self). They want to achieve their goals and have enlisted a coach to help them. I’m not a rocket scientist, just a coach, but when people achieve goals, even ones that only pertain to themselves, they feel pretty darn good. They are proud, excited, motivated and ready for more goals. They are self-aware and often more in touch with their own wants and needs. A person who feels so incredible after accomplishing goals is going to show up for their people in a way that is positive and forward-thinking and likely more compassionate and energized. As they say, it all rolls downhill…the good (and the bad) and we will just focus on the effects of the good. Positivity is contagious and has the capacity to affect the culture of any household or workplace.

So, let’s get back to the start of all this…generous people who think that putting themselves first every once in a while, makes them selfish. I say putting your wants and needs first is a step towards the sweetest kind of altruism, because achieving your wants and needs makes you happy. When you’re happy, it oozes onto everyone else (not in a gross way). Hiring a coach to help stop the spin, and to find that way forward with accountability and compassion and partnering makes you an unstoppable hero! It means you’re shoving that oxygen mask on your own face first: making sure you’re breathing, clear headed, focused and capable to get the mask on the child second. You are the only you your people have. So, taking care of you is the most precious gift you can give to them.

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