From a young age, I feared being called selfish for not sharing my toys or eating the last cookie and feeling bad about it. I knew that it was not something I should be, and was certainly not going to get me the glittery certificate in the Character Counts program at my elementary school.
We live in an individualistic society, with a culture that rewards independence. And yet there is a lot of negative stigma associated with being selfish. I would like to reclaim some of the thinking behind the idea of selfishness and what we associate with it.
Let’s start with the general understanding or definition.
Merriam-Webster defines “selfish” as “concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.”
So yes, the word “excessive” strikes a cord, as many of us know or have heard that anything in excess is not good for you. But the latter part of that definition does not seem so bad, does it? “Concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.”
Don’t we all want to focus on what will advance us, pleasure us and enhance our well-being? I certainly want to be able to focus on those things. I have internally begun to take part of what selfishness means and turn it into a phrase or mantra (“prioritization of self”), which I convert into a question:
“How am I prioritizing myself and how will that ripple onto others?”
I also like to live by the idea of the “Ripple Effect”… being our best self can ripple into the lives of those around us. More on this later.
Prioritizing Self: Understanding Self-Needs and Executing Them
It is self-care, right? The millennial generation has given self-care a bad rap, or maybe it just sounds redundant and lost its intention. Millennials are often thought to be too “selfish” or “entitled” and spend too much time on various devices looking at the latest way to hygee. But let’s take a moment to really think about what is we need to take care of ourselves. What do we need to survive, to be successful, and to be happy? How do we know what we need?
I propose bringing it back to yourself. As the definition of selfish said, remember to “concentrate.” Concentrate on what your body needs to feel happy, secure, relaxed or supported (insert any current moment need).
Concentrate (be mindful) of the present moment need, which is likely contained within Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:
- Psychological – breathing, food, water, sleep, sex, homeostasis, excretion
- Safety – security of body, employment, mortality, health
- Love/Belonging – friendship, family, sexual intimacy
- Esteem – self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of/by others
- Self Actualization – realization of potential (creativity, spontaneity, problem-solving)
Pick one… one need at a time, until it becomes habitual. If it helps to focus on one of Maslow’s needs a week at a time, do that. The goal is to really integrate your own needs until it becomes baseline. And the idea is that once that baseline exists, it no longer appears to be “selfish.” Taking care of yourself is essential and has a positive impact on everyone around you.
The Ripple Effect: How Prioritization of Self Helps Everyone
Think about riding on an airplane and the safety instruction video or flight attendant says to “secure your own mask before assisting others.” They say this because it’s actually part of a life-saving procedure. When cabin pressure drops, your body has the potential to go into hypoxia, which significantly decreases mental awareness.
We must learn to pay attention to what we need, in order to be available to others. And to acknowledge that is difficult to do. We want to be able to help the child next to us and often do not know what we need in any given situation. But it is, as I call it, the Ripple Effect. It starts from an internal state (you being “selfish”) and continues outwards,to friends, family and then colleagues.
The potential to make yourself better has to come from that internal state of “being selfish,” then rippling outward towards others.
- Joanne Wellington
- New Yorker
About the Author
Patty Muray is an Associate Marriage & Family Therapist at Well Clinic in San Francisco.
According to Patty, “I enjoy supporting my clients’ curiosity to explore what contributes to who they are and how they connect with the people in their lives.”