Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between self care and selfishness. When I work with people, I encourage them to take time for themselves - to find a consistent and effective self care practice. I’m usually met with resistance.
Most of the objections boil down to this myth: “If I take time for myself, I’m selfish.”
Selfish! The ever-avoided plague of a word (and a label).
Nobody wants to been seen or perceived as selfish. To be selfish means to care ONLY for oneself - to have no regard for the needs or experiences of others. A world full of selfish people, only serving themselves, is a miserable place.
So why I am advocating that people pay attention to their own needs first?
Because self-care and selfishness are not the same thing.
Selfishness is a parent feeding themselves, and neglecting to feed their child. Self care is a parent feeding themselves so that they have energy to feed and care for their child.
Selfishness is a business generating revenue, and neglecting to care for their employees, contractors, and customers. Self care is a business generating revenue to cover costs and earn a profit so that it can take care of its employees, contractors, and customers.
Selfishness is a tree who grows tall and fast, blocking out the sun for the rest of the forest. Self care is a tree who soaks up the sun, rain, and nutrients from the soil to grow as strong as it can for the health of the forest.
(I realize this last example of selfishness is a little ridiculous, because trees can’t be selfish. Selfishness doesn’t naturally occur in nature. It’s a human invention; one might argue, a Western invention… But that’s a tangent I won’t pursue today.)
When I encourage people to do things for themselves, to listen to their bodies, to stop ignoring their mental health, I’m not saying, only focus on these things. I’m saying, if you pay attention to and fulfill your own needs, everyone around you will be better off for it.
Because when we actually start paying attention to ourselves, and acknowledge all parts of ourselves - positive and negative - we start seeing ourselves in others. We start recognizing our interconnectedness. When we have compassion for ourselves, we can have compassion for each other. When we recognize and forgive our shadow parts, we can recognize and forgive the shadow parts of others.
Problems happen (see: racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, climate change denial, abuse, etc.) when we deny parts of ourselves. When we don’t take the time to get to know ourselves enough, we push those unwanted parts of ourselves out into the world.
Self care is the opposite of selfishness. It’s going to the doctor to maintain our health for the people we love. It’s feeding ourselves things that nourish us so that our bodies can function the way they were meant to. It’s replenishing our energy so that we can go out into the world to do the work we love. It’s healing ourselves on a deep level so that we do no harm.