The importance of “selfishness”

Have you ever felt guilty - like you weren’t doing enough for the people in your life? Are you the type to feel bad if you can’t attend a birthday party, or stay late to help a colleague, or return a phone call promptly? If this is you, it’s time to switch this up fast! What if I told you that this kind of self-inflicted culpability actually exacerbates stress and uncomfortable psychological symptoms? I make “reducing guilt” an important prescription in my office because you can’t possibly reduce problematic symptoms if you are constantly carrying around a feeling of guilt.  

If you break it down, guilt is essentially a feeling of anger towards yourself for not doing something you think you should do or should have done. The problem therefore lies with your belief system about what is “right” and what is “wrong.” We’ve all, essentially, created a set of standards, morals, responsibilities, and expectations (which can be considered critical for identity-formation). However, for some of us who might feel excessively guilty a lot of the time, it might be time for us to re-think our set of (rigid) rules of behaving in interpersonal relationships.

I like to screen all of my clients for what I like to call “excessive caregiving.” I ask if they are the type to go above-and-beyond their duties to relentlessly help people.  If they say “yes,” there is much we have to talk about. Now, I’m not saying that helping people is wrong, however, I can’t say this enough: YOU CANNOT CONSTANTLY HELP PEOPLE AT THE EXPENSE OF YOUR OWN WELL-BEING! The only thing you will potentially get out of self-sacrifice is a diagnosable psychological disorder.  

Now, when I try to sell this to my guilt-ridden clients, it is quite difficult. They often think that considering their own needs before the needs of others is selfish. I’m here to clarify something: IT MOST DEFINITELY IS NOT! If oxygen masks are necessary on an airplane, the instructions are to put the mask on yourself before helping others. The reason for this makes ultimate sense, doesn’t it? How can you expect to help other passengers if you are unconscious? How can you help anyone if your pockets are hollow or your gas tank is empty? How can you stay late at work, if you have other commitments?  How can you help your colleague during your lunch break when you haven’t eaten a thing since 6am? You really need to start thinking of yourself too! It’s time.  

Even with all of this ammunition, it’s still hard to convince my clients that they need to take care of themselves first. With a decision to change their caregiving ways, they can’t let go of the feeling of selfishness it could bring. So, let’s define selfishness, shall we? Good ol’ Merriam Webster maintains that selfishness “is being concerned excessively, or exclusively, for oneself or one’s own advantage, pleasure, or welfare, regardless of others.” So…being selfish is clearly a far cry from not attending your friend’s birthday party, do you feel me? Not being able to, help a colleague, or answer emails, or cook supper is not selfish! I’d actually like to call these types of behaviors, non-selfish behaviors. So, your inability to do your neighbor a favor is non-selfish. Coning your neighbor for money for your own personal welfare, on the other hand, is selfish. Make sense? Start your own list of selfish and non-selfish behaviors, especially if you are one of those people who often misjudges your own behavior as “selfish.” I can guarantee that you’ll start seeing things differently.    

Look, in order to take care of yourself and to have healthy interpersonal relationships, you need to make sure that YOU are well taken care of first. You must re-think your rigid rules and begin treating yourself with more compassion, respect, and priority. …and if you are a helper by nature, fine, but can you imagine the kind of altruistic force you would become if you jack yourself up first? This is a no-brainer, folks. Go for it. It’s your time.

Anna-Maria Tosco, or our Sassy Psychologist, has two masters degrees in the field of psychology and has studied and worked coast to coast. She has worked in both psychiatric and community settings in some of Montreal's most respected healthcare organizations and institutions, and has also given a variety of talks and workshops on neuroplasticity, meditation, and uncovering barriers to love.