Self-Care 101: Challenging “Selfish”

I can’t count how many times I’ve had a conversation similar to this one:

Me: “So tell me a little bit about how you take care of yourself.”

Client: “Well . . . umm . . . there’s always so much that needs to be done for everyone else, it doesn’t feel important to take that time out for me.”

Did you see what happened there? I asked about self-care, but the response that I got was someone who was concerned about being selfish. This is not just a simple matter of semantics. Somewhere along the line, for many of us, we have confused “selfish” and “self-care,” come to equate them as the same thing. And that is a significant problem.

Why does it matter? We, especially we women, have been deeply socialized not to be selfish. Selfish is a word that carries all kinds of negative connotations. Calling someone selfish is a quick way to shut them down, discredit them, make their request seem less valuable. Being selfish is an identity that most of us work hard to avoid.

So, when we’re conflating “selfish” and “self-care”, that means that not only are we struggling to be assertive and healthy about scheduling our self-care, but we may be actively resisting it. Yikes.

We need self-care as part of a healthy foundation for our lives and our relationships. Self-care begins with recognizing that we have needs for emotional, physical, and spiritual nurturing. Once we recognize and validate the existence of those needs, self-care includes taking steps to meet those needs. That can mean that you carve out time to exercise, to read, to dance, to talk to friends, to meditate (or all of those things).

When I was struggling with this issue, I was trying to be all things to everyone, not succeeding at any of it, and wondering how I could try so hard and feel like such a failure. I pushed back against suggestions to take time for myself. Finally, a wise person gave me this metaphor: “Your time, energy, attention, and love are like water in a jar. You cannot keep pouring them out without taking time to refill yourself. You’ll end up dry.”

For me, that was the light-bulb moment I needed. I was able to begin the journey of realizing that selfish and self-care are very, very different realities. I took my first steps in recognizing that self-care actually prevents me from being selfish. That when I am meeting my own needs, it doesn’t feel so draining to meet the needs of others.

Have you had that light-bulb moment? Are you running dry? What is the most helpful thing you’ve heard in your efforts to support your own self-care?

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