It’s Not Selfish to Think of Yourself

March 4, 2018

A lot of times when you stop to think of yourself, people dismiss you as being selfish. But what does it really mean to be selfish? Perhaps we are using this adjective wrong and, most of all, unfairly. We’re going to reflect on this word, its implications, and how we can take time out for ourselves without feeling guilty.

“An egoist is someone who insists on talking about himself when you are dying to talk about you.”

-Jean Cocteau-

Being selfish means you think of yourself 100% of the time, but without taking others into account

First of all, to understand what it means to be a selfish person, let’s go to the dictionary. Selfishness is when a person has an excessively high view of themselves, and this makes them disproportionately pay attention to their own interests over others’.

A woman and thought bubble.

We all have our own values and beliefs that are somewhat fixed and allow us to interpret the world and make sense of it. This is where our ideas start. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for each person to apply the word “selfishness” based on their experiences and how they understand the world. In other words, each person has a different concept of what being selfish means.

For some, being selfish may mean never having done anything for others. Perhaps you think of someone who refused to do a favor for you because they “didn’t have time”, when you’d always been there for them.  In the first case, the definition may be correct. However, in our more specific second case, is it also true?

How do we feel when a person calls us selfish based on one interaction, without taking into account everything we’ve done for them? We feel confused and angry. We know it’s unfair. Before moving on in this article, let’s make this clear: if we didn’t do something for someone when they asked us, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re selfish.

“There is no true happiness in selfishness.”

-George Sand-

We cannot change the way others interpret the world

Here is a very common situation: a person asks us to do something for him and we can’t give him what he needs when he asks. Then, that person calls us selfish, or at least hints at it.

So we feel terrible, not only because they’ve just made a negative judgement about us, but also because we find ourselves at a crossroads of interests where our interests have proven to be the least important. Who’s acting selfishly then? Who’s thinking only of himself and not the rights we all have as people?

Here is one truth: we do not have enough resources to try to change another person’s mentality, let alone do it successfully. That is, if someone interprets our actions as selfish without making an effort to understand our circumstances, we must ask ourselves two questions:

  • Have we empathized with their problem?
  • Despite not being able to do what they wanted, when they wanted it, have we offered an alternative?

If both answers are yes, always remember this fundamental right: to reject a request without feeling guilty about it. In addition, it’s good to bear in mind that we make a big mistake when we judge others based on a behavior and not their personality. For example, someone can act petty and not be mean, or slip without being clumsy.

To think of yourself is not selfish.

An example of how you can think of yourself and not be selfish

To understand better, let’s give an example: imagine that you get up at the same time every day for weeks. You do everything you need to do. At the end of the day, you’ve met all your work obligations.

Now, imagine that one day you sleep in for fifteen minutes. Imagine that, for some reason, you weren’t able to do everything you needed to and at the end of the day you still have to-do’s left undone.

Are you an irresponsible person? Do you lack self-discipline? No, you just had a bad day and may have acted in an undisciplined or irresponsible way — that one day.

The fact that you acted like this does not make you a person with those characteristics. In fact, even if you acted this way often in the past, you may not be that type of person anymore. The past is not always a good predictor of the present or future.

We must distinguish between acting and being. It is not the same to be an unjust person and to act unfairly. Let’s analyze the behaviors and not the people. 

Take advantage of the winds that blow in your favor, but do not let the wind rule

An upset woman.

Do you feel like you don’t have time for yourself? Does things come up sometimes that take all of your attention and divert you from your goals? Do you give yourself over to other people too much? Do you feel like you’re a weather vane at the mercy of the wind? You must learn to reserve some space for yourself. To think of yourself.

To do this, we must learn two skills that go hand-in-hand and are fundamental to our health and happiness: learning to say no, and learning to do so without feeling guilty. 

It’s true that this is a complex, nuanced topic. That’s why we can’t give one-size-fits-all rules on how to do it. We must simply stress the importance of working on it. If you’re one of those people who has always been there for others and forgotten about yourself, you should know these things:

  • Change is a process. Changing habits takes time, patience, and effort. Normally, our habits are linked to each other and changing one implies modifying elements of the whole chain. For example, getting a more polite attitude will mean changes in how we converse and when we keep silent.
  • People around us may not understand the change. If those around us have gotten used to us always saying yes, the first time you reject a petition it may be met with surprise. Maybe they’ll even reproach you or say you’ve gotten selfish. At this point, you shouldn’t lose sight of the idea you want for yourself. There will always be resistance in the face of change, especially if this change affects someone else’s comfort.
  • Always analyze the situation objectively. If the request is not urgent or doesn’t necessarily require your presence. If you empathize with the problem and have given an alternative that’s more compatible with your goals but still helps the other person, you have no reason to feel guilty

In short, you can think about yourself and not be selfish if you know how to maintain balance. If you really work on this part of yourself, instead of just focusing on the way selfishness is talked about, you will find a balance between giving time and energy to others and giving it to yourself.

“Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life; define yourself.”

-Harvey Fierstein-