Be Selfish – It’s The Responsible Thing To Do
“In the event of a change in cabin pressure, be sure to place the oxygen mask over your own face first before assisting others.”
This is the consistent direction that you always hear from flight attendants relaying safety instructions before a plane flight takes off. And it makes sense – if you expend too much oxygen while trying to help someone else and can no longer function, you’ll not only risk your own safety, but you’ll be unable to actually help that person, and so you’ll also be risking theirs.
In this case, being “selfish” is actually the responsible thing to do.
And, the instances of selfishness as a responsibility are not limited to emergency airplane situations. In this article, we aim to reframe the concept of “being selfish” as a good thing because, if you’re not taking care of yourself, it won’t be long before you’re unable to take care of everyone else.
The word “selfish” often conjures up negative connotations, and historically, we (women, in particular) have been told that being selfish is a negative trait that should be avoided at all costs. While it is important to strive for a balance between self-interest and general consideration for those around you, it turns out that being selfish isn’t always a bad thing. According to research published by Scott Kaufman (Department of Psychology at Columbia University) and Emanual Jack (Department of Psychology at the University of Graz, Austria),“healthy selfishness” can be related to higher levels of psychological well being, while also contributing to adaptive functioning and positive prosocial behavior. So, what does “healthy selfishness” actually look like?
What is “healthy selfishness”?
Healthy selfishness refers to having a healthy respect for your own health, growth, joy, feelings, and happiness. Having this respect for yourself can look different for everyone, and can include setting healthy boundaries, balancing your needs, wants and desires with those of others, and not allowing others to take advantage of you. You may already be practicing healthy selfishness without even realizing it; if you have a strong sense of self-worth, are proud of your accomplishments, feel competent, have a good overall sense of wellbeing, and feel satisfied with life, it can be a sign that you are prioritizing your needs.
When is it ok to be selfish?
Even though it may feel instinctively wrong, there are numerous instances that call for us to look inward and prioritize ourselves above those around us:
In cases of prioritizing your own health and wellbeing.
Illness or injury: it’s important to rest and recover when your body has taken a hit.
If you don’t, you risk prolonging your ailment. If you’re run down, sick, tired or injured, don’t be afraid to take that sick day or skip your friend’s birthday party in order to focus on healing yourself.
Physical or mental health: say no to requests or invitations that may compromise your well-being. If these types of commitments are draining you, you won’t be able to show up to/for the ones you really care about.
If you’re already exhausted just thinking about dropping your oldest off at soccer practice, picking up your youngest from school, making dinner every night and volunteering at the community bake sale, it’s probably best to practice healthy selfishness by turning down that last-minute invitation to dinner with your in-laws.
Self-care maintenance: make sure you’re consistently focused on how to keep your mind, body and overall health strong, especially when you’re in a relatively calm time. This will arm you with valuable tools that you can use to avoid illness and instability when things in life get turbulent.
Carve out some time every day (literally, put it in your calendar!) to exercise, practice a relaxation method, or do something that brings you peace. This can be deep breathing, meditation, running, journaling, doing a low impact workout, taking a warm bath, reading, cooking your favorite meal… the list goes on!
When you are pursuing personal growth or development.
Investing time and resources to advance your career or personal goals.
One way to practice healthy selfishness is by investing in yourself and your future. If there’s a class you’ve been dying to take or a new skill you want to learn, do it!
Pursuing hobbies or interests that bring you fulfillment and joy.
In the age of “hustle culture”, doing something simply because it makes you happy or fulfilled (with no potential financial or status gain) isn’t always viewed as a valuable use of time. But research shows that having hobbies can greatly improve your mental health and wellbeing, and people who spend time on activities that they enjoy are less likely to suffer from stress, low mood, and depression.
While making decisions that align with your values and beliefs.
Saying no to requests or opportunities that conflict with your moral or ethical principles.
Nobody knows your values, morals and limits better than you do. If you are asked to participate in something that violates your values or morals, it’s perfectly ok to set those boundaries by saying no.
Standing up for yourself or others in situations that violate your boundaries and values.
Putting your needs aside to accommodate others or remaining silent in hurtful situations to maintain peace can make you feel stressed and resentful. While it isn’t always easy to stand up for yourself, doing so can help you feel more content and at peace in your life and relationships, and can help you engage in healthy, constructive conversations.
Choosing to prioritize causes or issues that are important to you.
In order to feel self-assured and have a strong sense of your own identity, it’s important to prioritize the things that matter most to you, even if these things may not be the most popular among others.
When navigating difficult or uncertain circumstances.
Making choices that prioritize your safety and well-being in situations of danger or risk.
This is where that airplane analogy comes into play in a more literal way – you can’t be of service or assistance to others if you’re putting yourself at risk! Put your own oxygen mask on before helping someone else, and don’t feel guilty for putting yourself first by avoiding unsafe or risky situations.
Seeking support or assistance when you need it.
We all need help from time to time, but it’s not always easy to say so for fear of seeming incompetent, weak, or annoying. Asking for help can be hard, but it is often necessary, and the ability to do so is a valuable life skill. Over time, carrying a heavy load without support can lead to burnout and emotional distress, so go ahead and text that friend to take them up on their babysitting offer, or speak to your supervisor at work regarding that big project that’s been stressing you out – others want to help more often than we give them credit for!
Prioritizing yourself in instances of major life changes.
We all go through times in life that are challenging and stressful, whether that be from changing jobs, moving cities, getting married, having children, losing a loved one, or going through family or relationship difficulties. Give yourself grace during these times, and make space for yourself to adjust to new changes.
Healthy selfishness is crucial to protecting your overall well being. You can’t be there for others if you aren’t there for yourself first. If you’re accustomed to constantly putting the needs of others before your own, begin by practicing more compassion and self-love – what YOU need may actually be the best thing for everyone around you.