Imagine my surprise
I was recently called selfish for leaving my job, by my husband of all people. This label he used one night during a conversation really stung me. This decision I, wait, we had made was not made in isolation, nor was it taken lightly. We had weighed the pros and cons, both financially and emotionally on us individually and as a family. We both agreed that it was the right thing to do and that he fully supported me.
However, a few weeks later, when money was not flowing like it used to, and I wasn’t as happy has I had expected, I asked him if I had been really selfish. Should I have just sucked it up and continued at my job, bringing home good money although I was miserable and my values where being compromised? In a very simple and honest statement, he said YES. I was stunned.
Is selfish a negative word?
I have always grown up with the notion of the word, “selfish” being a very negative adjective which would immediately prompt me to change my ways. When he saw my face, the shame and disappointment written all over it, he was quick to argue that it was not a negative thing. He continued on to explain that I needed to take care of myself first so that I would be in a position to take care of others around me, like him, my family, my friends who are so important to me.
It prompted further discussion of whether the word selfish was purely negative, or if that was simply my upbringing. A quick google of the definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and found the following answer to my question: selfish means concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others. So, there you have it, it is a negative definition.
Put your oxygen mask on first before helping others
But wait, aren’t you instructed on an airplane to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you can help others. One could argue that you are concentrating on your own well-being before someone else’s. A person who strives for selflessness would argue that you should put that mask on the other person first. So as I see it, there is a fine line and it comes down to intent.
As Jerry Lewis once said, “I am probably the most selfish man you will ever meet in your life. No one gets the satisfaction or the joy that I get out of seeing kids realize there is hope.” No one in their right mind would consider Jerry Lewis selfish for his work with the telethons for Muscular Dystrophy, however, by definition if he is doing it to please himself, does that change his work from selfless to selfish?
This was getting interesting. By nature, you could argue that nearly every action that is not selfless is selfish. As John Johnson, PHD in Pyschology Today discusses Good, Neutral and Bad Selfishness in his article, if I take 20 minutes to meditate every day, am I actually taking away time that I could be giving back to the community? This is where the intent and the beneficiary needs to be considered. As long as your intent is good or even neutral you should not beat yourself up over your choices.
In fact, as I talked to others and read more, selfishness can be very beneficial to you and those around you. If you keep giving and giving without taking care of yourself, you end up in a situation where you do not sleep, are unhappy, make mistakes, ruin relationships, have a break-down and/or put your health at risk. It is all about finding the right balance. Everyone needs a vacation, they need time alone to rejuvenate; to ensure they get themselves healthy. It is important to know this for ourselves, but it is also important as a leader, a friend or family member to recognize this need in others, and call out when you see the signs that a break is needed. People need the encouragement to be told that they need to take care of themselves and that being selfish is OK!
Yes, it is ok
So finally, after much dialogue and research, my husband and I agreed, being selfish, is a good thing to be, when we are prioritizing our own physical, health and psychological well-being so that we will be in a good position to take care of others. We further promised to use the word self-centered: concerned solely with one’s own desires, needs, or interests; when we felt the other was not taking into consideration the other person’s best interest as well.
May this inspire and enable you to know your limits and when you need to be selfish and take care of yourself.
“It’s not selfish to love yourself, take care of yourself, and make your happiness a priority. It’s necessary.” ― Mandy Hale