Updated: Mar 25, 2019
Can being selfish ever be a good thing? Well, it depends on your definition of ‘selfish.’
The common understanding of what it means to be selfish seems to be the idea of someone looking out for his or her own interests and needs at the expense of others. It’s the last part of this definition – at the expense of others – that makes selfishness the pariah of personality traits that we try to aspire to. But aside from that, the rest of the definition seems pretty reasonable. What is so wrong with looking out for our own interests and needs? In fact being selfish – in the truest sense of the word – means self-awareness and self-care. We are all naturally motivated to be selfish by this definition, and yet so many of us adopt a different understanding of it or are taught to consistently put the needs of others before, and sometimes at the expense of, ourselves.
Being selfish is about having a solid understanding of your individual needs and personal boundaries, and of the importance in taking care of yourself by seeking to fulfill those needs and making decisions in life that enforce those boundaries. It is about being highly conscious of who you really are, and knowing that the most important person you need to look after – no matter who enters your life – is you. It does not mean that you are uncaring, self-obsessed, inconsiderate, or uncompromising.
A frequently used example is when flying in an airplane. Before taking off, the flight attendant (or video) will instruct you in what to do should the aircraft run into problems. Oxygen masks will automatically fall out of the compartments above you, with the specific instructions to put your own mask onto yourself before you try to help someone else. Because if you can’t breathe, how are you going to be of service or use to anyone else?
Similarly when I was training to be a lifeguard back as a teenager, we were strictly instructed and practiced in ‘rescue protocol’, which entailed a forward swim toward the drowning individual, with the dominant leg bent and out front. The reason for this was to allow the lifeguard to forcefully kick the drowning person far and away from them should the drowning person attempt to reach up and grab them. A small child of 8 years can have thrice the strength of an adult male lifeguard when drowning, and if the lifeguard doesn’t look after himself, there may very well be two drowning victims, not one.
People and loved ones around us will need us, want things, and be whoever they are in life. At times they may even find themselves ‘drowning.’ But we each have to exercise awareness and self-care in our level of interaction with them in order to make sure we do not lose ourselves and get pulled under.
When we are selfish by my definition – i.e. self-aware and self-caring – we gain more confidence, are more assertive, have more energy, are less resentful, make good decisions that are of benefit to us, and have an increased sense of security. When we look after our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing first, we automatically and positively add to the lives of those around us. This is because when we know and care for ourselves, we are happy. And when we are happy, we are better mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, friends, employees, employers, and so on.
So go ahead; be selfish! And put your oxygen mask on first.
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