The Virtues of Being Selfish (Sometimes)

Whenever I meet with someone for the first time, I do my best to avoid anything remotely close to a broad generalization. I don’t want to treat anyone like they’re just a diagnosis coming in, nor do I want to engender the feeling that I’m going to try and push them into a one-size fits all approach to personal difficulties. After all, even though they might not be the only person in the world who has ever felt depressed, anxious, or uncertain, they are the only them that has ever felt depressed, anxious, or uncertain.

Having said that, there are some things that do tend to be fairly universal in terms of importance. For example, I try to get as full a picture as possible of their family culture, including familial traditions and approaches to emotional expression. I try to find out what their personal goals are, both in a micro (what they hope to get out of treatment) and macro (life goals) sense. I also try to sense how they take care of themselves, what they do in their free time to reconnect with who they are. I rarely get the same answer to those first two sets of questions, but the answer to the third question is almost always the same: “I don’t really take a lot of time for myself”.

Most people seem to be genuinely surprised when I advocate setting aside time every day in which they can be selfish with what they want and how they want it, and I can understand why. Selfishness is one of those things we try to root out of people in childhood, and for a lot of good reasons. In the real world, selfishness isn’t conducive to working well with others. In our own private worlds, however, selfishness doesn’t quite mean the same thing as it does in relation to other people.

Selfishly guarding a small amount of time throughout the day to do things for yourself doesn’t mean that you don’t have other obligations, nor does it mean that you don’t care for the other people in your world. What it does mean is that your wants and needs are as important as the wants and needs of other people. It means that you recognize yourself as a person with interests existing in a world of cares. It means that you recognize you are worth taking care of so that you can take care of other people. In other words, to practice self-care is to be selfish with your time in important and rejuvenating ways.

I have noticed that the invitation to self-care is a difficult one to accept. But a lot of the malaise that can crop up in our own sense of self comes as a side-effect of pushing too hard and too fast for too long. Even just a little bit of time set aside for ourselves every day can slow us down and put everything in perspective. It can be helpful to stop and enjoy the fruits of our labors to remind us why we’re working to bring forth fruit in the first place. Further, it can help us feel more satisfied with our lives as we invest time and energy into things that we feel passionately about.

The flip side of this is in what happens when we don’t take care of ourselves, or burn-out. Burn-out is that feeling of exhaustion that can sit on your chest like a weight. Burn-out keeps us from our best selves, as it slows us down and makes us feel like our efforts are, at best, lackluster and, at worst, pointless. Burn-out grows like a fungus in the darkness of personal stagnation, and, like the dark-side, leads to suffering.

So how do we practice self-care and fight against burn-out? For the sake of this article, I’ve broken it down into four steps.

  1. Set aside a little bit of time every day to be selfish with your time and activities. The amount of time you set aside doesn’t have to be long, nor does it have to be the same every day.
  2. Discover what you need. For some, ten or fifteen minutes of guilt-free reading or browsing your favorite websites every day can be enough to refocus and reinvigorate us to accomplish the work we need to get done. For others, having an hour or two set aside once or twice a week for a creative endeavor coupled with five or ten minutes a day of recreational reading is enough to right the ship. Different people have different needs, and there is fortunately no single right way to take care of yourself.
  3. This one might be the hardest: let yourself be okay with taking care of yourself. Taking time to take care of yourself doesn’t make you a bad person, but rather increases your ability to be the kind of person you want to be.
  4. Be consistent in your efforts to take care of yourself. Make self-care a part of your daily schedule. Stick with it and you may be shocked to find your energy levels and ability to focus increasing.

Realistically, practicing self-care isn’t going to make the problems of the world disappear, but it also won’t make them worse. If anything, practicing self-care is a way we can fortify ourselves against the difficulties we all face in daily living. So get out there and find some time to be selfish! Start writing and painting again, relearn why you love cooking so much, sign up for a martial arts class, or pick up your dusty instruments and create a space where you can exist because you want to.