Is Self-Care Selfish?
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
You most definitely hear a lot about self-care nowadays. It is really becoming a hype. But what is self-care, actually? Is it selfish to practice self-care?
What Self-Care Isn’t… and What It Actually Is
I give credit to social media for making self-care a trend and bringing it to the foreground for many people that previously hadn’t heard of the term.
At the same time, lots of confusion has been created around self-care, what it actually is and what it is not.
Hashtags evolving around it such as #metime, #selflove and #selfcare may point to various luxurious, expensive things that aim to exhibit to the world how well you are doing, or that you can afford and mainly deserve small guilty pleasures to express love to yourself.
But you actually don’t have to get fancy smoothies with strange names, nor enjoy a whole day at some spa or tropical beach to practice self-care. It’s really in much smaller things and actions, and a lot has to do with your motivation behind it when you show it off to the world.
So many of the Instagram posts around self-care are about receiving external validation in the form of likes and comments or provoking jealousy and admiration from friends and strangers about all those things that you can give yourself, while they cannot.
In my view, the latter is not self-care at all; because self-care is about providing yourself with internal validation.
Thus the motivation behind real self-care should be authenticity. You do something good for yourself to nurture yourself. If you communicate this to the outside world, a pure motivation is to inspire and encourage others to also be kind towards themselves- not make them jealous of all the awesome things you do.
Self-care means taking care of your physical, emotional and mental well-being, and celebrating your self-worth.
It can be expressed by all sorts of ways that you take care of yourself as an adult:
Taking time for yourself and having "me-time"
Spending time alone at home or outside e.g. going to the movies by yourself, going for a solo hike in nature
Getting involved with your hobbies, interests and other recreational activities
Nurturing yourself with a special activity e.g. a good meal, a visit to the hairdresser, a biketrip to a place you have never been
Taking adequate rest
Setting boundaries in your relationships
Assertively expressing your needs
Surrounding yourself with people who inspire you, lift you up and make you feel good about yourself
...and the list may go on infinitely...!
How are you practicing self-care?
Self-Care and your Inner Child
Self-care means mindfully attending to your Inner Child and your needs.
“Inner Child? But I’m an adult! What nonsense!”, you may mumble.
Yet we all have Child Parts within ourselves, and it really is to our benefit to recognize and embrace them.
The easiness with which one can practice self-care as an adult has a lot to do with how they were raised and nurtured as a child.
Were your emotional needs met as a child?
Were you receiving Attention, Affection, Appreciation, Acceptance and Allowing (the Five A’s) in your family?
If you were, it is very likely that it comes naturally to you to practice self-care as well.
But maybe self-care is less familiar to you, and this may have a lot to do with your past.
Many people haven’t been adequately nurtured and cared for as children, due to various reasons:
Parentification: having to look after parents or siblings from an early age instead of receiving the love and attention they deserved as children
Narcissistic or self-absorbed parents that neglected their children's needs
Physical / emotional / sexual abuse within the family
Overprotective parenting that "suffocated" them with too much attention and subsequent high expectations
Often parents make mistakes with negative consequences for their children, because they are imperfect humans - just like all of us.
Such wounds from childhood result in people struggling to put themselves first and express self-care as adults.
Lack of sufficient love during childhood may lead to:
Constantly turning to others to fill this void
Expecting external validation in order to feel fulfilled
Having a need to please others and a subsequent difficulty to say no
Becoming a perfectionistic high achiever that finds it hard to take a step back, respecting their boundaries and expressing self-care, perhaps because of core beliefs that it is not acceptable to take a break
Does any of the above resonate with you?
If the concept of self-care sounds a bit foreign to you, you can try visualizing your Inner Child, and wondering what would he or she mostly need from you, in order to feel happier and healthier?
You can strive to be your own nurturing parent as an adult, even if you haven't received this kind of care when you were small. That's the whole objective of self-care.
Self-care and Selfishness
So if self-care means attending to your own needs and nurturing yourself, why are there misconceptions about it, even a negative connotation that self-care equals selfishness?
I regard social media partially responsible for this misconception, because the self-care trend tends to greatly support quotes such as “Always put yourself first” and “It’s all about You”, thereby encouraging self-centeredness.
Indeed, it is true that You are the protagonist of your life, and the most important person in your life. Each of us are. But this idea actually creates a philosophical paradox: if everyone always puts themselves first, all others would be considered insignificant.
This creates a false sense of entitlement ; we all deserve to have our needs met and put ourselves first. You may be the center of your own world, but not of the whole world!
In fact, self-care is not the same with self-absorption and selfishness.
Selfishness is defined as “lacking consideration for other people; concerned chiefly with one's own personal profit or pleasure”.
Indeed, there seems to be a fine line between self-care and selfishness, and this is determined by perspective. The defining factor between self-care and selfishness is whether you harm others in the process of looking after yourself.
Therefore self-care becomes toxic, when you regularly tend to undermine, disregard and dismiss significant others’ needs and feelings because you are putting yourself first.
For example, while it is perfectly ok to claim “me-time” and decline a friend’s invitation to go out, because you want to respect your own boundaries and relax by yourself at home, it is not ok anymore if you decline this friend’s invitation every time they ask you out, because you have to put yourself first. If you do that, sooner or later you will hurt your friend and damage your relationship with them.
Alternatively, a mother that disregards and neglects her children because she always puts herself and her well-being first will inevitably traumatize her children. On the other extreme is a mother that never does anything just for herself, because she regards her children’s needs as the priority in her life.
All human characteristics exist on a continuum. On the continuum of self-care:
Self-sacrifice is the low extreme, basically implying a lack of Self, and priority to serve others and sacrificing yourself and your own needs
Self-absorption is the high extreme, which means the exact opposite: serving yourself always first, at the expense of others.
Walking the middle path means finding the balance in between. The golden balance lies in respecting your own boundaries, while maintaining relationships that matter to you, too.
Keeping the Balance of Self-Care
Self-Care is a serious business. It is essential that you are mindful, conscious and self-reflective.
Yes, self-care requires a lot of self-evaluation.It is useful to ask yourself questions, such as:
Are my actions hurting anyone?
How can I stay authentic and accountable towards myself and others?
If others are indeed negatively affected by my self-care choices, how can I compensate and recover the balance of the relationship when I am available again?
Although you don’t need permission to practice self-care, taking your significant others into consideration is beneficial, for the simple reason that you show them they matter to you, instead of the rigid attitude that it’s always You first.
Communication with the other is also very important. It is completely ok and actually essential to need time for yourself to recharge and relax. This does not justify completely disappearing from the face of the earth and expecting others to read your mind and understand that’s your own way of needing “me-time”. It is courteous and considerate to inform others who are important to you about your needs in a clear, concrete and assertive manner.
With regards to self-care, probably the most valuable question to ask yourself is:
Is this self-care practice making me a better Me,
a better person?
Does it help me grow?
At the end of the day, the ultimate goal of self-care is to keep you sane, happy and healthy, in order to be in the capacity of dealing with, relating to, and serving others too.
Humans are social beings. We are wired for attachment and connection. Yet you have to take care of yourself first, in order to be able to take care of others too.
It is absolutely true that “You can’t spill from an empty cup”. There’s a very solid reason for the requirement to put your own oxygen mask first in case of a flight emergency, before assisting others.
Yet your self-care should absolutely not come at the expense of another either.
Harmony lies in the balance between managing your relationship with the people that matter in your life
and with yourself,
without compromising either.
Make yourself a priority, but stay accountable and reliable to others too.