The word you likely need to delete from your database of language is “selfish.”  If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone, especially a woman, say to me “I don’t want to be selfish” I would be free of financial stressors for the rest of my life!

Here are some common questions that arise in coaching conversations:

  • “If you know you need more sleep, let’s get you going to bed earlier…”
  • “If that situation requires you to drink alcohol while you are there, does it make sense to go?…”
  • “What kindness have you done for yourself today?…”

I consistently hear this word used to justify why the needs of others are more important than the needs of the person I am speaking with.  So let’s first look at the word itself.

Merriam Webster defines this word ‘sel-fish’ as:

  1. :concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.
  2. :arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others.

The word itself has two major components.  This first is an increased focus on self-concern and pleasure, and the second is that this self-concern is pursued as a priority even if we need to ignore those around us.  A person is selfish is if he or she is elevating his or her own needs such that it necessarily demotes the needs of others.  Notice the words “excessively…exclusively with oneself…without regard for others…” and “in disregard of others.”

Returning to the questions above, these conversations look something like:

  • Me: “If you need more sleep, start going to bed earlier.”
    • Other: “I don’t want to be selfish.”
  • Me: “If you have to be drunk to “get through” an event, don’t go.”
    • Other: I can’t say no.  It would be selfish.
  • Me: “What kind thing have you done for yourself today?”
    • I don’t do things for myself, I don’t want to be selfish.

Hopefully you are already getting as sick of reading this word as I am of hearing it!  But let’s drive the point home here:

Even if self-care includes some component of prioritizing one’s own needs above the needs of others, it shouldn’t be described as selfishness.  Self-preservation maybe.  But the idea that we should be last on our own lists is antiquated and is a guaranteed recipe for failure not to mention depression and anxiety.

There are endless ways to illustrate this point, but to keep it simple just think of the last time you flew on an airplane.  The instructions in case of emergency are always and ONLY every time, to secure our own masks before helping someone else.  So my first note on this word is that I don’t believe selfishness and self-preservation are the same.  If I put my oxygen mask on first, it is with the intention of making sure that I can respond to the needs of others, not just my own.  I can’t contribute if I am dead.

Alternatively though, I often hear this when oxygen is not even at stake.  If I am working with someone to improve sleep hygiene to get better and more rest, and their core belief is that sleep is a luxury not afforded to them, its hard to move the dial in the right direction.  So we have to challenge to word itself, by testing our beliefs against the definition of selfish.

Taking the sleep example:  When someone indicates that they can’t rest more because it is selfish, we break down the myth by asking questions.  Take the first example:

Me: “If you need more sleep, start going to bed earlier.”

Other:  “I don’t want to be selfish.”

Me:  “Is your need for sleep one that is excessively and exclusively prioritized above the needs of others?

Other:  “No.”

Me:  “Is your need for sleep something you pursue without regard for others?

Other:  “No.”

Me:  “Then you must be pursuing rest in complete disregard of others?

Other:  “No.”

Me:  Then in what way exactly, is fueling your body with the rest that it needs, selfish?  The definition doesn’t fit.

I could go through dozens of additional examples of these conversations, but for today, just take a deep breath.  As you inhale, feel the air going into your lungs, and be reminded that breathing is required for life.  As you exhale, create compassion for the part of you that believes you are less worthy of meeting your own basic needs, than you are of meeting the needs of others.  Then ask yourself if breathing is selfish?  (Check it against the definition if you aren’t sure.)

Eventually, and after as many questions are asked as necessary, the client I am coaching has to admit to the fact, that there is nothing selfish about breathing.  There is nothing selfish about aspiring to live as the best version of ourselves that we can.  It serves the world much more effectively for us to be present in our lives than to play small so we can make others big.  The way we best serve ourselves AND others is to pay attention to our own emotional, physical and mental needs and go about the business of meeting them.  In doing so we evolve to show up in all the places that matter to us, and even some places that don’t.  Nothing selfish about it.

In the next post we will discuss how this new ‘non-selfish status’ can be applied in our experience of grieving.  Until then please share your thoughts in the comments section.  I’d love to help more of us dump this word called “selfish” that we use to justify ignoring ourselves and putting ourselves last. The word, and the action, are both expired.

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