The Fine Line Between Self-Care & Selfishness


If you spend a few hours around a baby or toddler, you will see that they act in accordance to their natural desire to survive and be looked after. They do not care if their parent is in the middle of an important conversation, they will cry for food when hungry. I remember when my baby cousin started crying at the sight of his mother holding another baby, even though he too was being held, simply because he wanted the love of his mother for himself. Even at such a young age, a baby knows that its mother is a haven and so it craves her attention and love. We see these things as natural for a baby, an innate desire to ensure its own well-being and health. Therefore, we wouldn’t dare call a 3-month-old baby selfish for simple self-preserving actions.

As we get older, we learn patience and tolerance of others. We also learn that we don’t have an automatic right to a plate of food just because we’re hungry. If a child was to continue portraying these characteristics into adulthood, they indeed would be called selfish, even if the same motive that a baby has is the foundation of their actions.

Exploring self-care without selfishness

So the question is, how does one explore self-care without being selfish? I’ve heard it said that we must be selfish at times to look after ourselves; every man for himself. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines selfish as ‘being concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for other.’

Even the dictionary itself mentions concentrating on one’s own well-being, which is what self-care is all about; but selfishness includes the addition of not having a regard for others. Now of course it is not necessary to have to disregard others to look after yourself, but it may be needed to a certain extent.

I don’t mean that you must stop showing compassion for others or stop caring for others just so you can care for yourself. However, it is important to recognise when your care for others is at the detriment of your own health and well-being.

My experiences with self(ish) boundaries

I remember when my boyfriend was going through a hard time, I tried my hardest to be there for him, but I found myself getting stressed, overwhelmed and disheartened at my lack of ability to help. In trying to meet his needs, I was overworking myself which left the two of us feeling defeated. I hadn’t provided space to ensure that I looked after myself. It sounds selfish to think that I would even think I had to look after myself when there wasn’t anything ‘wrong’ with me, and he was the one going through a difficult situation. However I learnt that once I took time out for myself, stepped away from his situation to ensure my mental and emotional health was stable, I could be of much greater help to him.

Does this mean that I disregarded his feelings to simply concentrate on my own? Of course not. However, I DID have to ‘concentrate one one’s own…well-being’. I did have to ensure that just like a baby longs for food when it is hungry despite the hunger of others around it, I did all I could to get what I needed. The difference here is that once I was fed, I made sure someone else was too.

For example, if a car is constantly being used without ever having an MOT it will get run down and weary after some time. It needs that time to get a check over and to reboot, and only then will it be even better to use than before. In the same way, you will find that you are of more use to someone else’s wellbeing once you have given yourself time to reboot. Whether it’s ten minutes a day in your room or a month abroad in the sun. However long or whatever location you choose to look after yourself, remember that is it vital and what is vital is never selfish.

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