Redefining ‘Selfish’: Why You Should Put Yourself First

envious boy watching another boy eatPsst. I have a little secret for you. Don’t let anyone know I told you this: Be selfish. I know that sounds like terrible advice. In fact, it’s the extreme opposite of what our mothers told us growing up. What we learned was: to be selfish was a terrible thing; a dirty name; a personality trait that no good girl or boy would ever want to be accused of owning. That word can also be a wonderful tool for inducing shame and getting people to behave the way you want them to. If it were an archaic word, growing dusty on the shelf of our childhood, rarely used, I wouldn’t write this article. Instead, that word is so commonly thrown about, tossed from husband to wife, mother to child, our self to our self, leaving guilt, shame, and self-doubt in its wake, that it demands investigation.

The Webster’s Dictionary definition of selfish is: “Devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others …” If we look at the definition closely, we can see what all those mothers were upset about: “caring only for oneself,” “concerned primarily with one’s own …” and “… regardless of others.” Those phrases do sound pretty heartless, bringing the image of Scrooge to mind. But the rest, “caring for oneself” and “concerned with one’s interests, benefits, welfare, etc.,” address a way of being that we all are, or should be, instinctually doing: taking care of ourselves. That makes it a little confusing; the word “selfish” contains both something integral to human safety, and a harsh censure against it.

This is not to say there aren’t people who act within the literal definition of “selfish,” and whoshould be made aware that their behavior is harmful to themselves and others. I’m concerned about the nonliteral, inappropriate use of the word “selfish.” I worry about the people, so wary of incurring condemnation for their actions and receiving the title of “selfish,” that they confuse healthy behavior with unhealthy, and become immobilized.

The phrase “self-care” is the argument for the necessity of taking care of our physical and emotional well-being, becoming much more popular and widely used in recent years, encouraging people to take better care of themselves: getting regular check-ups, eating healthy foods, getting adequate sleep, enjoying their favorite activities and so on. Even if people are aware of the necessity of self-care, especially in regards to emotional well-being, it may still be hard to do.

We need to take care of ourselves, but too many people don’t. The reasons are numerous; usually stemming from lessons learned in childhood, possibly suggesting a history of neglect, low self-esteem, poor role models, and more than we can consider here. Those deep personal reasons, in combination with society’s excessive concern about not being “selfish,” may stop many people from taking care of themselves in the ways they should.

The truth is, the way the word is misused, everything we do for ourselves could be considered selfish if there is another person who doesn’t want us to do it. But what if the action we are attempting to take is important, healthy, and necessary, and the desire of the other person to stop us from doing it is selfish? No, disregarding others is not an accurate measure to determine whether you are being selfish. Sometimes we must disregard others in order to take care of ourselves. That can be an extremely difficult thing to do.

I’m sure you’ve had numerous experiences of putting your needs ahead of someone else’s: disappointing the cook by resisting the cake, refusing your child to care for yourself, saying no to the friend and yes to you. On the other hand, how many of you have regretfully eaten that cake, given in to the child, or sacrificed your own wishes for your friend’s? And if these are the small choices, how well do we manage the major ones? People acquiesce to having children they don’t want, pursuing careers they didn’t choose, marrying partners they don’t love. This doesn’t lead to happiness for anyone involved.

If we become so afraid to take care of ourselves because we fear being judged, then who is supposed to take care of us? Having received harsh warnings about selfishness, many people become dependent on others for their happiness. They hope others will know what they need and will provide it. This can become a helpless position to be in, hindering the individual’s self-awareness and self-efficacy.

It seems both a heavy burden and a confusing task to ignore your wants and needs and to instead focus on guessing and fulfilling the wants and needs of others, all while expecting others to be doing the same for you. It’s like the adage, “You wash my back and I’ll wash yours,” except that in this case, they can’t wash their backs unless the other person does it for them. Wouldn’t it make more sense if we, who should know ourselves better than anyone else, were responsible for taking care of our own needs?

So my suggestion next time the word “selfish” comes up, either with another person or with you, is that instead of shame and shutdown it leads to thought and exploration. “Selfish” can lead to greater insight into yourself or your relationships. “Selfish” should be examined on a case-by-case basis, examined to see if the accuser is attempting to get their own way, examined as a guide to what you really want, examined to see if you really are being inconsiderate of others, examined in order to generate solutions that could satisfy both parties, or, if that fails, examined to see if your personal need is important enough to you that you must proceed regardless of the other.

“Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.” —Oscar Wilde

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Rena Pollak, LMFT, CGP, therapist in Encino, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Dora

    Dora

    August 4th, 2014 at 3:59 PM

    There was atime when I would have thought that this was terrible, to put myself first and then let everything else fall where it may. So life can be a little more planned out than thatr, but I did come to realize that if I am not selfish enough to take care of myself first and foremost, then who else is going to? I am not saying that I should depend on someone else, but if I am doing the looking after me, then those other little things always seem to fall into place a little more easily.

  • Legan

    Legan

    August 4th, 2014 at 5:09 PM

    This kind of goes against the grain of what many women have always been told about being a good wife and mother.
    It was always stressed to me at home growing up that our mom took care of my dad and the kids first and then maybe if there was anything leftover then she could take that for herself.
    Of course as a kid and a teenager this was alright with me because I needed her way more than she needed space and time for herself, right?
    Now I am a mom and I realize how horribly selfish all of us were, especially my dad because she never had the time to take care of herself. She was too busy doing things for us and I don’t think that any of us ever appreciated that quite enough.

  • Sandiha

    Sandiha

    August 5th, 2014 at 10:29 AM

    Sometimes you have to make some sacrifices to make everyone happy and this includes you. It cannot always be about meeting your own desires and needs, because there are going to be times when you also have to take into account those of the others around you too.

  • Marty

    Marty

    August 7th, 2014 at 12:13 PM

    Even though it is practically the same thing I would choose to use another word. Selfish sounds so negative. How about self care instead?

  • Angela

    Angela

    August 7th, 2014 at 2:46 PM

    I’m practicing this right now! What I don’t like is when people become judgemental because you say “no” or don’t go along with everyone. I always say “just because you will do it don’t expect me to do it”! I have a mind of my own and I get tired of pleasing everybody else and then I’m left unhappy. It’s a process and it takes time if you’re not used to self- care. Some people say I’m mean and others say I’m very nice.

  • Bradley

    Bradley

    August 8th, 2014 at 2:08 PM

    There does come a point where you have to draw a line though. It can’t be all about you at the expense of someone else never getting to do the things that they want to do too.

    It sounds good enough but there has to be some time to share, so that everyone will feel like they are all getting their needs met.

  • beck q

    beck q

    August 11th, 2014 at 3:19 PM

    I kind of agree with Bradley in that there are times when you certainly wnat to take care of yourself, but not because you are being a narcissist, which is what it feels like when some people are being really selfish. They are doing it to only look after what is their and to protect their own interests. That’s not a good way to be.

  • Rusty

    Rusty

    May 18th, 2015 at 8:15 PM

    The easiest way to understand it or justify it, is even if you are a very generous person, or giving person just remember that you can not take care of others unless you can take care of yourself first. So if you have it to give in time, material, or finances then you probably have been basically selfish in order to be successful to the point of which you are in your life. But using the word selfish as I just did sounds too much for what I’m trying to get across, You made decisions in life in school, in jobs choices, concerning family etc, that were to your best interests in order to accomplish the goals you set for “yourself” in life this is what this article meaning relates to. Not telling people to &^%$ off, unless they’re obviously trying to keep you down because they are jealous or fearful of seeing you leave them behind because they have no life themselves, but to evaluate are you just being selfish for your own gain or is this a choice you must make that further extends your growth as a human being that will in turn allow you to be that generous and giving person that you are and wish to be.

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